For the purpose of discussion, I separate learning objectives for the students into two categories--skills and knowledge. I recognize and accept at the outset that my objectives for student learning in this course are probably not ones well synchronized with my students objectives when they arrive on the first day of class. However, because Western Civilization at Texas Tech University is primarily intended to be a freshman/sophomore course, my disscussions with students around this question have convinced me that their objectives are so unformed (and generally instrumental--learn some history, pass the class, see if I might want to be a history major, etc.) that any dissonance between our respective agendas is largely one way. I simply need to commincate mine to them in a clear and concise fashion and they are generally willing to sit back and see what I can do. And so, what follows is a brief discussion of what my objectives are for the course.
Skills: By the end of the semester there are several fairly specific skills I hope my students have acquired, in whole or in part. Without these skills they have no where to go when they begin to try to make sense of the welter of content that their readings throw at them. All of the skills listed below can loosely be organized under the general heading of "how historians think":
1. I want them to be able to distinguish between a primary and a secondary source.
2. I want them to be able to analyze a primary source within its appropriate historical context.
3. I want them to be able to locate the thesis or argument in a secondary source they are reading and to be able to offer an informed evaluation of that argument. To do that, they also need to be able to read a secondary source within its particular context as part of a larger discussion of the facts, individuals, events, etc., that are its main concern.
4. I want them to be able to construct a thesis/argument of their own, whether in writing or in class discussions, that is informed by what they find in whatever they are reading for the course--a very different skill than repeating back to me what theyve read and memorized.
5. Finally, I want them to develop the habit of returning to source materials again and again, to see whether what they learn in week five or week twelve somehow relates to what they learned in weeks two or eight.
Knowledge: Out of all the possible material that I might include in a course intended to introduce students to more than 350 years of European history, I have narrowed my list down to just five things--large topics to be sure, but just five nonetheless (plus a bloc of time devoted to historical methods). I am quite certain that if you assembled a group of historians in a room and instructed them to come up with the best possible content for such a course, they would never come out, being unable to agree on what should or should not be included. Anyone familiar with the debate over national history standards knows just how contentious such a discussion can become, so I will simply stipulate at this point that what I have chosen to include in the course are those topics that I think are important, are worth considering in more depth than they typically receive in survey courses like this one, and are interesting enough to students to keep them engaged (and maybe even excited).
Each topic I chose forces students to consider change over time, to view the evidence in front of them in a comparative framework, and offers at least some opportunity to establish a link between the dim and distant past (everything pre-1980) and the present. Because presentism among our students is something historians battle against every day, we often shy away from making links between the past and the present. But, if we cannot establish for our students how it is that what happened in Italy in the late 16th century has at least some relevance in the present, many of them are going to stop paying attention fairly quickly. As you will see in the narrative of what happened in the course, I spend a good bit of time working with my students on avoiding presentism--something altogether different from making connections between the past and the present.
The six two-week blocs in my course are:
Investigations -- A consideration of what can be loosely termed historical methods.
Inheriting the Wind? -- A consideration of the place of science in European society
The Rights of Man -- A comparative investigation of the establishment of constitutional governments
Criminals and Children? -- A consideration of the changing status of women in Europe
Total War -- A consideration of the impact of total war on 20th century Europe
Right vs. Left -- A comparative investigation of political ideologies