Dear Student Part 3: Know Your Subject

As I noted in an earlier post, I was very excited to hear from a former student who is concentrating in history and wanted advice on the teaching profession. This student gave me the greatest compliment when she stated “I was inspirational in her career choice.” She will finish graduate school this spring and is open to any geographical region of the country as she seeks a teaching post at an independent school.

My first advice to anyone looking to teach is the most obvious: Know your subject and know it well. Knowledge of subject is the birth of effective teaching. I understand and do realize that courses in educational techniques are important, however, a command for what one teaches supplants all other things. Those of us that have been teaching for years realize the complexities of subject mastery. I am often asked how do I prepare for my classes? Simply — I read. And I read a great deal. I expect my students to read. The reality of course, is that there is always more to be learned. For me, I came to this realization during my very first semester of teaching; I never took courses in the study of world history; I took what might be amply referred to as regional studies. Hence, a course in African history, Western history, and Asian history. But never a course in “world history.” By the end of my first semester, I was way off my course outline and had made it only as far as the end of the classical period (collapse of Rome) by January term

It was at that point that I attended a seminar on “Defining World History” at Northeastern University. If you are like me, your teachers approached this discipline in a very regional way. Thus, by attending this seminar and reading Patrick Manning’s Navigating World History, I concluded that I knew Western history and regional histories, but not global history. Manning defines world history this way:

…is the story of connections within the global human community. The world historian’s work is to portray the crossings of boundaries and the linking of systems in the human past. The source material ranges in scale from individual family tales to migrations of peoples to narratives encompassing all humanity. World history is far less than the sum total of all history. Nevertheless, it adds to our accumulated knowledge of the past through its focus on connections among historical localities, time periods, and themes of study.

Keep in mind, the study of history and any particular field is a life-long journey; I am at times amazed at what I know and how much I still do not know. It is here that a new teacher should seek to engage in professional development that will allow he/she to grow as a knowledgable person. Keep a working curriculum vitae, noting your growth and contributions to your field. Do not just become a clerk, but look to be an active academic: write and submit papers for publication or to share with your colleagues at an association meeting/conference; join an organization such as the World History Association or the American Historical Association. Being a part of such societies will prevent burnout that can occur without the stimulation needed to grow as a teacher. Find a peer to work on a project with, perhaps presenting such work at a conference. Being active serves as an important position for any young teacher looking to expand his or her content knowledge.

The review of Manning’s book states:

Most new history teachers are prepared to teach an upper-level class in their field of research, but are most likely to be asked to do the opposite–to teach a survey of Western Civ or even more startling World Civilization. As a new colleague said in tones of whispered panic, “That’s everywhere, all the time.” Compounding the problem is the institutional disconnect in which surveys of World History are popular.

Being a member of various societies will permit…

  1. you  to receive quarterly academic journals that contain a host of articles, book reviews, and field updates. At times I feel guilty for bypassing the articles and reading the reviews; it is impossible to read every book published. And seeing that on some university campuses people must publish a book to earn tenure, and another to be promoted — there is a lot of bad stuff out there. Thus, I read what I can but I never shy from book reviews; next time you are on campus, I must show you the sad fate of making annotations in the review of books section, which is half of the American Historical Review journal published by the American Historical Association.
  2. you with conference discounts and updated emails on the field are great.
  3. a feeling of belonging to something much larger than my campus. This is very important to me seeing that teaching can be the most isolated field on the planet. I have worked to avoid this.
  4. a sense of excitement as you go towards your campus box to find the most recent copy of a journal there. I get four: American Historical Review, Journal of American History, The History Teacher, and Perspectives. I have yet to renew my subscription to Foreign Affairs — one I need to read that addresses more recent events. I also receive a copy of Independent School and get the Chronicle of Higher Education via my campus library.
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2 thoughts on “Dear Student Part 3: Know Your Subject

  1. You are right. My first year I found myself consumed with having to study material I was not as versed in. US history is not my thing. That connection chart you sent me has been very helpful in explaining to students why trends occur.

  2. I am always – and I mean ALWAYS – looking for classes or workshops that help me deepen my facility with my subject matter. As of this moment, I’m most competent in writing instruction, literary criticism, and social justice in lit., but I know I have GAPING holes in world literature and creative writing.

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