The last couple of days I’ve been in knots because my new graduate history seminar on Sexuality, Gender, and Health in Modern U.S. has only seven students in it — I need a minimum of nine for it to run. I’ve sent out appeals to colleagues to encourage students to sign up for the course. The reactions have been so far have been: our students aren’t interested in gender history; our students are uncomfortable about taking courses with “sexuality” in the title; most of our students are public school teachers who want stuff that’s “relevant”to what they do in their jobs — i.e. teach about presidents, war, and other “traditional” stuff. They don’t want to learn about gender and sexuality because they don’t teach it in their classrooms. (actually I have a student who teaches at a local high school who is developing a women’s studies course — and he’s a natural born guy.) This led to a protracted email exchange about what we should be offering for our graduate students. One of my female colleagues said it best — we shouldn’t just give students what they want or expect. We should challenge them to take something that is unfamiliar and perhaps even uncomfortable. [last semester she taught a seminar on the history of religion in colonial New England — which also made students uncomfortable although one would think that this is about as traditional as one could get!]
Historiann brings up some similar issues in her blog entry, “A Manifesto against ‘coverage.'” I agree with her entirely that “coverage” is an “unimaginative” way to organize a history course. This is why we did away with chronological surveys in our upper-level U.S. history courses. It seems some of my colleagues are still hung-up on “coverage” in the graduate level courses, though. Teach a course on the Great Depression/New Deal, Heather. That will get the students to register! Maybe I will do it, again. I actually inherited such a course from a retired faculty member, taught it several times, then let it fall off the books so I could teach something closer to my research interests.
Ph.D. granting institutions are also wrestling with the purpose of graduate history course work. Some are requiring students to take courses on how to teach college-level history courses. Others are trying to find new ways to get students to do more than just tear apart books in class. What we’re aiming to do is to get students to think and write like professional historians. I think Lisa Lindsay’s suggestions about how to teach students to read and assimilate material quickly will be especially useful this semester. I also agree with George Trumbull that broad, thematic courses are a good way to get students to think about how they can make contributions to the field.