Publication Date

December 1, 1988

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


Teaching Methods

A good professor should be a good teacher and a good scholar, yet scholarship and teaching are often in competition. Academic prestige is based on publishing and as a result, the delicate balance between good scholarship and good teaching often easily shifts in favor of scholarship. However, scholarship should not detract from teaching—scholarship should enhance the classroom experience.

This is not a problem in upper-level and graduate history courses where the professor is a specialist and can justify drawing upon his/her own research areas. This is a problem, however, in freshman and sophomore surveys, where the professor must be a generalist and cover broad historical time periods. In such courses it is always difficult to cover all the important material in one term. Those of us teaching Western civilization continually groan about the impossibility of doing justice in one term to the significant events, developments, and people from the ancient world through the age of Louis XIV. If historians do not have class time to cover Charlemagne adequately, what justification is there for attempting to include our own obscure research?

The effective incorporation of scholarly research into the classroom can give valuable understanding to the course material, illustrate the methodology of historical writing, and create interest in history. Freshmen and sophomore students usually only read textbooks and assigned readings and have little experience of actually doing history. They do not seem to understand what historians do, besides lecturing, grading papers, and holding office hours. By sharing research with students, we teach them that history is not static, but dynamic. We may appear to be only chroniclers of the past, but we are, in fact, interpreters of the past. Most students never will pursue the study of history beyond the freshman or sophomore year. Yet, among these freshmen and sophomore students are our future historians, if the history bug bites. Utilizing discussion of scholarly research in the classroom can give all students a window into the wider world of historical scholarship.

A good way to incorporate research in the classroom is to use it as an illustration of more general material. For example, each term I discuss feudalism and spend most of a class explaining various aspects of it. At the end, I take about ten minutes and discuss Ermengarde of Narbonne. She was an obscure, but fascinating, feudal noble woman of the twelfth century on whom I have written a short article. I use her to show how feudalism worked and how, at the same time, she was an exception to it. Her career brings to life abstract concepts like vassalage, liege homage, and feudal obligations. After class, invariably some student or students will ask to read my article. Students have a clearer understanding of a difficult subject through this concrete illustration. At the same time, they begin to understand a bit more about the use of historical research.

In a like manner, after I have discussed the various meanings of the Renaissance, I include a short description of Symphorien Champier, a sixteenth-century French Humanist and an intimate acquaintance as a result of editing one of his works for my doctoral dissertation. It is one thing to explain that the Renaissance meant a revival of classical literature and another to show them how Champier plagiarized word for word from Plato, Quintilian, and other classical authors.

It is good pedagogy to take a specific example from one’s research to illustrate a teaching point. Yet, some professors end up teaching courses, especially surveys, that are unrelated to their particular specialization in research. For example, an American historian might teach the Western European survey. Therefore, the American historian might think that his/her research is not applicable to Western civilization.

I am not so sure. Most introductory courses demand term papers at some time or another. Professors are faced with repeating again and again the method of writing historical papers. We describe such things as research, differing historical opinions, thesis statement, analysis, and the purpose of the paper. Most students have heard all this, we hope, somewhere before, but many of them still cannot write an effective paper. I used to review a detailed list of instructions. Then I remembered the orientation program for my first college teaching job. For three days, college officials read to us from the Faculty Handbook. What could be more deadly than lists of instructions?

Last year in the class where I discuss term papers, I departed from my usual routine. Again, I took only a few minutes of valuable class time and discussed a research project I had recently completed. My research happened to be in American history, but I used it in a Western civilization class to explain how research is conducted and how a paper is written from that research.

The research was on the British ship Appam captured in 1916 by the German sea raider Moewe and then taken by a prize crew to the neutral port of Hampton Roads. I described how I found all the data relating to this incident, and then how I dealt with British, German, and American opinions on the incident. Finally, I described how I worked out what the incident meant. Not only was the Appam incident fascinating in itself, but it also made my usually dull recitation of “how to” a lot more interesting and more effective.

As a valuable as it may be to illustrate paper-writing methodology from one’s own scholarship, not all college teachers are engaged in research. Some academics have such heavy teaching loads or administrative duties that their scholarship stalls or is shelved. Other professors opt not to publish and focus on teaching. This does not rule out the use of research in the survey course. If you think students could profit from exposure to working historians, why not ask a colleague who is working on something related to your subject to come by for a few minutes and discuss his/her research in your class?

Recently, a colleague of mine, Dale Hoak, a specialist in Tudor-Stuart England, made an exciting discovery. He found a lost record of the private finances of Henry VIII. When we got to the Tudor period in my European survey course Professor Hoak came to my class and in twenty minutes described the financial problems of Henry VIII; how he found the document; and why his discovery is important. His brief presentation was so enthusiastically received, that in one class, I had to cut off further discussion because of time limitations.

Although discoveries like Hoak’s only rarely occur, a brief discussion of some of our colleagues’ research can stimulate student interest in the course material and in the other courses offered in the department. Most scholar-teachers, struggling away on a project or finally completing one, are glad to spend a few minutes telling students about their trials and triumphs.

A few minutes spent a couple of times each term talking about historical research can add an important dimension to the classroom experience. As a freshman, at the State University of New York, Binghamton, I had Professor Robin Oggins, whose specialty was medieval falconry. He was so enthused about his topic that his research kept spilling over into class. I’ve never had the occasion to use any of the little tidbits I gleaned about medieval falconry from his class even though I have taught medieval history. And yet, his example—instead of putting me off history forever—fostered my interest in a career of teaching, research, and writing. His enthusiasm gave me my first glimpse of the thrill and excitement that accompanies historical inquiry. Using research in survey courses gives us a rare opportunity to share some of this excitement with students.

Phyllis Hall, teaches history at the College of William and Mary and specializes in Europe and the French Renaissance period.

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