Teaching World Civ I

Teaching is hard, I’m not gonna pretend otherwise. Teaching the number of kids I have now (about 125, spread over 3 sections of World Civ I and 1 section of the United States to 1865 survey) is even harder. And teaching something like World Civ I, which goes from the moment the earth cooled up until the medieval period — in other words, an unthinkably huge swath of history about which I know hardly anything — is ridiculously hard. I’m using the state-of the-art, Princeton-developed textbook, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, which Dan Crofts at TCNJ suggested, and some sort of textbook was obviously necessary to give me some structure, a lifeline, to guide me through this. But I don’t think I’ll use WTWA again — it’s too dense, too written-by-committee, too immersed in the sorts of analytic concepts and arguments that are the bread and butter of professional research historians, but are way over the heads of students who barely know who Alexander the Great was.

I’m learning a lot by doing this — a lot about teaching, and a lot, frankly, about early world history. I’ve learned about the evolutionary paths of early hominids, about the ancient Persian Empire, about the spread of Buddhism, about the Silk Road. Six years of studying history at Princeton — but of course I was not required to know any of this stuff. You’re concentrated on a narrow field from the moment you start your Ph. D. Zooming out and looking at the big, big, picture is something you have to do on your own, if at all.

And the idea that you’re going to teach students about Global History up until 1450 C. E. is laughable, really. There’s so much to know, and most of them start knowing so little. Not to mention that this is a required Core Curriculum course so for most students it’s the least interesting part of their whole college life, something they tolerate at best, resent at worst. The challenges are formidable. Really the only goal is to get them to open their eyes to what history has to offer, to be curious, to learn to love asking questions. (None of this is encouraged by the text, incidentally.) Am I succeeding with this? To be brutally honest with myself, no, not mostly, just a little bit here and there. But I’m learning a lot about how to do it, about how the students’ minds work, about how the classroom works. And I have enough little victories to keep me interested. Not to mention, I love my students (most of them). It’s a very special thing to get to play this little part in their lives, and I understand very well now the psychological dynamic of how so many college teachers, even resentful adjuncts working for pennies, pour so much of their heart and soul into their teaching — because you feel you owe it to the kids, and the sense of being a part of their lives imposes a very strong sense of responsibility that goes way beyond your contractual obligation to your institution or department.