Friday, May 21, 2010

On the advantage of background

Most of the classes I have taught or TA'd for have been courses that are known as "surveys." These classes are introductions to general, broad topics in history. For example, the American History survey, part I, provides a broad overview of U.S. history from colonization through Reconstruction; the American History survey, part II, provides a broad overview of U.S. history from 1877 to the present day. (In other words, the Civil War and Reconstruction always get lost in the shuffle. But that's not my point now.)

It is easy, in teaching these classes, to despair of their worth for students. Most of the students who take these classes are non-history majors and are merely trying to fulfill a graduation requirement. Some of the students are, oddly enough, getting their masters in teaching history, but they are required to take the class. Some, a few, students are bona fide undergraduate history majors, many, maybe most?, of whom probably have a background in US history and probably don't necessarily need the class.

Another cause of near despair is that in covering such a broad swath of history (it's gets worse in "Western Civ" or "World History" classes, where the geographical scope and span of years are usually even broader), it is possible only to skirt over the basics. Teaching the class in anything resembling an accurate manner paradoxically requires the teacher to overgeneralize to the point of being inaccurate. The history majors who take the class, if they really need it, will probably spend the rest of their academic careers unlearning or learning the exceptions to the overgeneralizations.

But, as usual in a blog about this, this post isn't about them, it's about me. The dissertation I'm working on right now is, in some respects, a comparison between US and Canadian history. My knowledge of US history is very good: broad-ranging and deep, if I may be immodest. I have, in some respects, been studying studying history with avidity since at least 7th grade or so. There is much that I don't know, but I feel as if I have more than a good command on US history.

But Canadian history? There, I am very, very ignorant. I know the broad outlines that most Americans (i.e., Unitedstatesians) know: the origins in French Canada, the imperial wars of the 1700, the Quebec Act of 1774, the War of 1812, the British North American Act of 1867, the Louis Riel Rebellion (I know that it happened, but I don't know the details or the years) and the Patriation Act of 1982. Additionally, I know a few tidbits relevant to my topic of antitrust: Canada past its first antitrust law in 1889, amended it in 1899 (and again, I think, in 1901, but I'm unclear on that point), 1910, 1923, and in the 1930s.

But the point is, I know precious little about the basics of Canadian history or even Canadian government. And my ignorance is conspicuous. At a conference a couple years ago, I flubbed a very basic fact about Canada and was corrected (and I'm glad I was....I learned from the experience and the one doing the correcting did so nicely, after my presentation was over). Further, as much as I like history and even, sometimes, reading textbooks, I learn new historical subjects best when I have to take a class in them. If my university offered a survey course in Canadian history, I'd probably take it.

6 comments:

James Hanley said...

Oh, lord, do I empathize with this. I teach American Government each term. Not only is it hard to cover just that adequately in a term (and that's not nearly as broad as half of U.S. history, much less Western Civ, so I have great sympathy for you historians), but I increasingly have Canadian students in my class, because my college is situated close to Canada and added hockey and lacrosse in recent years. And I know almost nothing about Canadian government, except that it's a federal republic with a parliamentary system (but what kind of parliamentary system, I don't know). If I knew more about their government, I think I could relate our government better to those students.

I went so far as to buy a used textbook on Canadian government this year, but it turned out to be a weird comparative politics book with special sections on Canada. It doesn't really explain Canadian government. I, too, would learn it much better if I could take a class in it, but at best I'd have to commute two hours to Windsor, and with a full-time job and three kids, I'm just not sure how I'd make that work.

theolderepublicke said...

Mr. Hanley,

Thanks for the comment.

For what it's worth, I found an interesting book that I've only given cursory attention to is Robert J. Jackson and Doreen Jackson, Politics in Canada; the 6th edition came out in 2006. It seems good, especially if you can get it without paying full price (a publisher gave me my copy for free, even after I told that I was only interested in Canada and would probably never teach Canadian history or government.)

James Hanley said...

Thank you for the tip. I'll have to look for that one.

And best wishes on a good research trip. Be polite at the border, especially coming back into the U.S.! (I don't know why, but our border guards seem to be much more antagonistic toward U.S. citizens wanting to come home than theirs do to U.S. citizens trying to leave home.)

theolderepublicke said...

Mr. Hanley,

Thanks for the pointers. I usually don't have much of a problem (it might be different since I'm flying and not driving), but it's almost always better to be polite than not.

By the way, would you happen to know if positiveliberty has been taken over again by a blog-pirate? It'd be a shame to see that blog disappear for good.

James Hanley said...

I am not tech-savvy enough to understand what's going on with PL, but it seems to be some kind of code-problem that repeatedly causes the site to become unavailable. Jason K's brother-in-law, who is a techie, has been trying to figure it out for us, but is stumped. So at the moment we are discussing a new name, and planning to shift to typepad. So PL will be gone, but will be resurrected under a new name. If you have a hard time finding us, look for me at uncommonliberty.blogspot.com, and I'll have a link.

theolderepublicke said...

Mr. Hanley,

Thanks for the update. Best wishes for a new blog. Even though I disagreed a lot with the posters for Positiveliberty, their posts were always thought provoking and challenging.