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Pedagogy Workshop

"Bottom Lines": Suggestions for Historians and other Social Science and Humanities Scholars

Prof. D. Herzog, Graduate Center, September 25, 2007


Syllabus Preparation
Lecture Preparation
Leading Discussions On Secondary Scholarship
Leading Discussions On Primary Documents
Small-Group Work
Exam Preparation
Using Technology In The Classroom
Writing Assignments And How To Give Students Feedback On Their Writing
Guiding Students' Research
General Issues Of Classroom Atmosphere And Attitude


Syllabus Preparation

  • Choose several textbooks which you will not assign, but from which you can get your lectures. Ask other teachers for advice on which textbooks they like best; order exam copies from publishers and look at a broad variety.
  • If textbooks are required by the school, choose a (different!) textbook that the students will read. If textbooks are not required, consider not using one.
  • Instead: Choose short, interesting, and "discussable" secondary scholarship and primary documents to be debated and referred to in class.
  • In addition, if you or the students feel it's necessary, you can supplement your lectures with hand-outs in class (or links available on-line) that give students orientation in dates or key terms.
  • Organize your syllabus by choosing topics that interest you; do not feel that you have to be comprehensive in a mindless way. If a topic bores--or intimidates--you, then choose something else.
  • Solicit sample syllabi from your department and follow local practice in putting all the basic info about plagiarism, late papers, missed classes, lack of participation, cellphone use, and grade distribution on the syllabus. Write on the syllabus that you encourage students to come to office hours or email you if they have any concerns with how the class is going.
  • There is a great history "Syllabus Finder" at

Lecture Preparation

  • Put an outline on the board (or overhead or power point).
  • Prepare bullet-point-style lectures rather than narrative lectures. It is fine to include in the lecture and read aloud to the students some illustrative quotes, either from secondary sources or from primary documents, or an illustrative incident or other story. But they will have a much easier time taking notes--and comprehending more generally what you are telling them--if you present information in bullet-point form. In general, also for your own sake--for prelim exam preparation, for job interviews, for general capacity to think on your feet as an academic and as a citizen for the rest of your life--getting in the habit of breaking larger issues down into 4 or 5 crucial subpoints is a good habit to get into. You are training your own brain, and you are training their brains, when you prepare and present in this way.
  • Do not cram in too much; make sure there is enough time so that you are not racing and so that they can feel free to interrupt you with follow-up questions.
  • On the other hand, make sure it is clear to them that they are learning. That means: Do definitively have arguments to make as well as factual information to give.
  • Present things in a way that involves the students in thinking along with you. It is especially helpful to begin lectures with an overview of interpretive debates on a particular subject, so that then, when you turn to giving them information on that subject, they'll already be able to slot in why that information matters and to be considering which interpretive stance a particular piece of information supports. But excellent lectures can also begin with an outline of the basics of what happened, and then move on to different theories scholars have offered, and then conclude with what the ongoing puzzles are.
  • Mix and match topics to keep things interesting: make some topics be interpretive, others more empirical, and yet others should zoom in on particular illuminating incidents. For instance, for a lecture on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, your five topic headings on the outline might be: the history of controversies about resistance; obstacles to resistance in ghettos and camps; forms of resistance; three key rebellions (Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Auschwitz); ongoing scholarly debates. Within each topic, you could have anywhere from 3 to 10 issues to cover and/or points to make.
  • Break things up with visuals. It's okay to use visuals just for illustration (or--for example with maps--for basic orientation), but it's better to choose visuals which will stimulate student brainstorming and debate. As in: what's going on in this picture? How might we interpret x? How else might we interpret it? In view of what I just told you in the lecture, does this image support or contradict what I said? Etc.
  • Depending on how the course is organized (i.e. whether there are separate sessions for discussion), consider also breaking things up with short discussions of primary documents or secondary scholarship. The goal, after all, no matter what the subject, is to help students become intellectually involved critical thinkers in their own right.
  • If students ask you questions you can't answer: Either say: that's a great question and I'll look it up and get back to you, or: that's a great question, and why don't you research that for next time and tell us all about it. Or, if it's really weird, have the student explain why he or she thinks the question is important. Or say: that's interesting, but it'll take us too far off track now; I'll be happy to talk with you about it after class. However, the best way to avoid this happening too often is to lecture on topics that interest you and that you are knowledgeable about. Prepare your lectures in a focused way, but also cram and read more widely on every subject, so that you do have additional info and perspectives at your fingertips if you were to get asked.

Leading Discussions On Secondary Scholarship

  • Choose texts that you are impressed with and passionate about.
  • It is not necessary, but it can be helpful, to choose opposing viewpoints on a particular issue. But do not pick oppositions for the sake of oppositions; some positions are simply ridiculous and do not deserve attention. Instead, whether you've chosen complementary or competing texts, as you're having the conversation with the students, help them think about source use, method, and interpretive argument.
  • Think about what your opening gambit question should be; think about what further questions you can ask them that build on that first one, in what order to put them and how to pace them; think about background info you might need to give them at various moments in order to help them answer further questions; think about what insights you want them to come away with by the end of the discussion.
  • Make sure they actually come away with those insights, either because you have led them there with your questions and they got there themselves (and then all you have to do at the end is restate those insights back at them), or because you actually at the end of class provide them with those insights.
  • Mix and match. In view of the possibility that not all students have done the reading, or that not all students have understood the reading even if they have done it, be sure you a) include at least one or two questions related to the subject that any student could and should have an opinion on--then lead them back to the text(s). (e.g. if you're talking about the American revolution and they haven't done the reading, ask them: what is a revolution?) b) choose passages to read aloud in class (make one of them read) and then have students explain what's going on in each of those passages and how it relates to the overall text and overall subject. c) ask some questions that are about recapitulating basic information, some that are about recapitulating the main arguments, and some that will provoke differences of opinion within the classroom
  • Don't hesitate to call on people.
  • Show interest in what each student has to say. Build on what they say and also make connections between students' comments. Reflect what they say back at them: Ingrid said x and Ahmed said y, so, Susie, what do you think? But 10 minutes ago, Igor said z. Can y and z be reconciled? Maria, what do you think? Etc. However, if a student is saying something wrongheaded or nonsensical, don't hesitate to disagree with them and/or request that they clarify or defend their point. As long as you don't act disdainful, disagreement is also a way of showing respect.
  • Sometimes it's helpful to use the board and write down things they say; that slows down the pacing and also helps them keep track of what they're learning and stimulates their further responses
  • Sometimes it's helpful to start class by having them take out a sheet of paper and write down their names and one or two comments or questions about the reading. Then have them hand those in, and use those as a basis for discussion. This is also a way to encourage them to do the reading, since it allows you to keep track of whether they are writing nonsense or sense.
  • If you are worried about getting students motivated to participate in discussion, be sure to include some texts that have some kind of powerful contemporary resonance. Issues of gender, of religion, of violence, for instance, tend to provide good bases for serious discussions. Historical texts are especially helpful here because they can highlight how profoundly our assumptions about human nature and the nature of reality have changed over time. They help to denaturalize the present.

Leading Discussions On Primary Documents

  • Most of the bottom lines with respect to secondary scholarship hold for primary documents as well. The difference is that you don't have to love these texts. They could be upsetting or offensive or hugely contradictory, and they would still be worth discussing.
  • Choose texts that illuminate the historical moment and phenomenon you are trying to get them to understand.
  • Ideally choose texts that are rich and complicated--either texts that can be read in conflicting ways and used as evidence to support divergent interpretations, and/or texts that through their own internal conflictedness reveal the changes going on at a particular moment in history.

Small-Group Work

  • This is especially helpful for creating bonding and a sense of community among students, helping quiet students locate their voice, and for giving you a sense of what the quiet ones are thinking-and giving you an opportunity to give them a bit of written and not just verbal feedback.
  • You can do this with secondary scholarship, but it works especially well for discussion of one or more lengthier primary documents. Warn the students ahead of time that small groups will be happening, and thus they will be causing problems for their fellow students if they don't do the reading.
  • A workable approach is to break them into groups of 4 or 5 each (make those who haven't done the reading--just ask them directly and get them to fess up--to sit in the corner and read; they can then answer the questions individually at home by email and mail them to you), hand out a xeroxed list of between 5 and 10 questions, ask them to take out notebook paper and write all their names on each page and rotate the writing responsibilities, and write out the group's answers to each question. Tell them that whenever there is a difference of opinion within the group, they should describe those differences.
  • At the end of class, have them hand in their group responses; you read and either check off what's correct or praise them for especially insightful points and also call attention to and correct mistakes. Then xerox the sheets, with your markings, the requisite number of times so that each group member gets a copy of his or her group's report with your response. Then they have that to study with for the exams.

Exam Preparation

  • Hand out study guides which cue students to everything they will need to know. Take time out from lecturing to go over the guides with them and respond to any and all questions they have.
  • Encourage them to make friends and study together.
  • Explain to them that you hate exams also, and you certainly don't like grading, but that their study process for the exams is the best way for them to realize how much they've learned, and to integrate what they've learned, thus far.
  • Depending on the practice at the school where you work, you may not have too many choices for format. Formats can vary tremendously; there are different ways to do this well. But they usually get the most out of the process if you do a combination of short identifications or explanations (two-sentence answers) and one or two longer essay questions where they really have to synthesize information and perspectives and offer an original analysis of their own.

Using Technology In The Classroom

  • Technology is only as good as the thoughtfulness and passion of the person who put it together. There are teachers who can hold students' rapt attention for an entire semester without any technology whatsoever. And you should aim for that kind of personal style even if you do use technology.
  • On the other hand, students are clearly becoming more comfortable with and even dependent on technology--and simultaneously the opportunities for using it productively are expanding greatly.
  • Visuals: see above, under lecture preparation. Clearly, one of the great benefits of technology, whether you are using old overhead projectors or VHS or DVD, or building static visuals and/or film clips into power point presentations, there is no question that these materials involve students and help them understand things that words alone can not convey.
  • Web-based resources: Especially for the purposes of teaching students critical skills and for helping students do research papers, walking students through effective web research (e.g. on google) is a great thing to do. You could for instance break up a lecture by modeling how you would go about looking up information on two or three key terms or topics that are coming up in that lecture. Or, if you are assigning research projects, you could walk students through the process of using databases for locating both secondary scholarship and primary materials on a particular topic.
  • Message boards: These can turn into silly lowest-common-denominator forums, or they can be very productive, especially if you pose serious questions and give feedback and make connections between comments, almost as though you were having a group discussion in person.
  • Email: Tell students that you want to feel like their teacher, not their parents' servant, so email is not a place to get you to repeat what you said in lecture or discussion just because they happened to miss a class. They should ask a classmate to take notes for them if they are going to miss something. And office hours, or right after class, is the best time for them to ask you to explain again something they did not understand during class. But email is a great way for quiet students, or for students who missed a class, to tell you what they thought about a particular reading or issue.
  • Links to course info: Certainly students find it useful to have lecture outlines, and lists of key terms they should know for the exams, available on-line. Additionally, it's great to have links to databases you recommend for pursuing independent research on course-related topics.

Writing Assignments And How To Give Students Feedback On Their Writing

  • Design assignments that you will not be bored to read. Ask questions which will provoke originality in the students.
  • For assignments involving critical analyses of texts, work with them ahead of time in class to help them learn to identify, articulate in their own words, and evaluate arguments as well as supporting evidence.
  • For research papers, provide students with guidelines that will help them structure their papers. (E.g.: This paper is about a; other scholars have argued b, c, d; however, I have analyzed primary sources e, f, g, h; and on this basis I argue i. The themes I will explore in greater depth are j, k, l, m. [That all should take up no more than 1 or 2 pages]. Then have them elaborate on that central original argument "i" via extended discussion of j, k, l,m. [that can take 5 or 10 pages, depending on the length of the assignment].
  • Certainly mark typos and grammar problems and alert students who need help with their writing to get that help.
  • Above all, however, find something positive to say about what's good about a paper.
  • When you give a lower grade, explain clearly what the student could have done better or differently.
  • When confronted with whiners complaining about their grade, either (if you think you might really have made a mistake) agree to read the paper again, or: tell them to put into writing their reasons for believing they deserve a better grade, or say you would have loved to have given them a better grade--you were as disappointed in the work as they were in the grade, or say that you were being generous-in fact they deserved a lower grade than you gave them. But also: In case this is truly a misunderstanding, be sure that you are able to explain precisely and calmly and caringly why and how they could have done better. Say that if they want help with the next assignment, so that their overall grade can improve, you'll be happy to meet with them in office hours before it's due.

Guiding Students' Research

  • Our aim in life is to help students become critical and compassionate and articulate citizens, and ideally also to become historians-or intellectuals of some other discipline-in their own right, people who groove on the process of research and writing and rewriting and understand themselves as contributing to the world's knowledge, and not just absorbing knowledge. In other words: You want them to feel empowered to become knowledge-producers, not just knowledge-consumers. And you want them to understand that knowledge is also about interpretation and meaningfulness, not just accumulation of factoids.
  • Of course they have to choose subjects related to the course's topic, but within that it's ideal for them to choose a topic they wish they understood more deeply, a question they don't yet have the answer to, a problem they are not sure how to feel about. The point is to make the research process itself a journey of discovery.
  • Be prepared to help each student individually locate a topic they're going to care about. If they are bored, you will be bored reading the paper. Be prepared to redirect students who choose inappropriate or unwieldy topics. Get them to tell you what they care about. Then help them refine the topic into something manageable. Help them locate interesting and reliable scholarship on the subject, as well as primary material.
  • Avoid the possibility of plagiarism by doing the research in stages. Have them hand in outlines, with tentative arguments and subthemes, two weeks before the papers are due. Give them feedback on those outlines. Make them show you their primary sources, even if it means they are handing you stacks of print-outs from the web, with their highlighter marks on them. Ask them what they are noticing in the sources that other scholars seem not to have noticed. Cancel one or two lectures and turn them into impromptu office hours in which you field individual problems students are having (held in the main classroom, so they can just stream in and out as needed--some problems can be solved in two minutes, others take fifteen, and it's often also helpful for them to watch how you are mentoring their classmates' projects). Shape their investigations in such a way that you make it clear that only their own original take on the material will be of interest to you. Tell them that the last thing you want is a regurgitated summary of things you already know or could look up on your own.
  • For students who are utterly lost and directionless, think of things you wish you understood more deeply, that you wish someone would take the time to research and analyze. The ideal scenario is that, by accompanying the students through the whole process and then reading their papers, you learn a huge amount as well.
  • To this day, the old actual volumes (not the online version) of the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, as well as the Index Medicus, remain amazing reference works for locating rich primary documents

General Issues Of Classroom Atmosphere And Attitude

  • In cases where students are passive, break things up in the ways described above, by interrupting your lectures to ask them questions, by calling on people, by having people read aloud a passage from an assigned text and then discussing it, by doing small group work etc.
  • In cases where one or two students are sabotaging class dynamics, either by dominating class discussion in a problematic way, or by chattering amongst themselves, speak with students individually after class (cut class short five minutes early if you have to), and ask them to tell you what you could do differently to get them more involved in a productive way. This might mean that you are asking them to give you criticism on your own lecturing or discussion-leading style, but even if they say something unpleasant, it's better to know, and it's better to establish a dialogue.
  • If things are getting out of hand, speak with your chair or other senior scholars about it. Some problem students are causing trouble in other classes as well; at other times it is you who is going to have to change your style.
  • Above all, in general: In too many college classrooms, students do not experience getting taken seriously, so they have little practice taking themselves seriously. You may be the first person they have encountered in a long time who thinks they have the capacity to be intellectuals. So convey that you want to learn from them. In part, this means you should take an ethnographic attitude toward the whole teaching enterprise. In other words, see this as an opportunity for you to learn how your students make sense of the world. But in part, this also means that you can see yourself as their equal and their collaborator. See the arc of a semester as a chance for you to give them enough basic information and enough conceptual tools for making sense of a particular subject so that, by the end of the semester, they are also teaching you. Convey that history is open-ended. This means that as the present evolves, we see new things about the past and have new questions about the past. This also means that while many intelligent and thoughtful people have offered insights into various phenomena in the past, there is always still more to be understood. And what you would like most is to have them join you in figuring that out.