The first year teaching at any school is all about acclimation to the culture. For someone who grew up Jewish, was Bar Mitvahed, but then lost all interest it’s been quite an adventure this past year teaching at a Jewish academy. The emphasis on Judaic Studies and the celebration of holidays feels both foreign and familiar to me. My students have been incredibly helpful and patient as I try to figure out my comfort zone at school events and with my own questions about the meaning that they find in Judaism. My colleagues in the History Department have also been incredibly supportive. It’s a very talented department. Our meetings are filled with discussions about historiography, pedagogy, current events, etc. I’ve thought more about what I do in the classroom this year alone than throughout my entire teaching career.
The biggest challenge by far has been working within the constraints of the calendar. Each class meets three days a week instead of the usual four. On top of that we have off for every Jewish holiday. Some of you know what that means for the months of September and October. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the down time, but it raises a number of questions about how I go forward in structuring my classes next year, which in addition to my American history survey will also include a course in Modern Europe as well as my Civil War Memory/Holocaust course.
This hasn’t been easy given that the last course I taught before moving to Boston was AP US History. The issue here is not even about where to cut back as much as it is trying to figure out what exactly is essential to an American history survey course that has so little time. The good thing is that there is no pressure from the department to be comprehensive. The emphasis is placed on imparting critical reading and writing skills. But I do have to think long and hard about what content I want to cover in this class.
I really need to think out of the box. I’ve thought about a thematic approach, but I tend to worry about those broad perspectives on history that seem to have so little grounding in the proper context. My preference is to pick a couple of case studies and have students dig down in the time allotted. Perhaps each one can represent a different approach to the study of history. For instance, we can examine the role of biography, social history, gender, etc.
As you can see things are pretty much up in the air. I am open to any suggestions