Teaching Column: Introductory Essay and Biographical Note
Annette Atkins, November 1999
Editor's Note: We are delighted to welcome Annette Atkins (College of St. Benedict–St. John's) as contributing editor for the Teaching column of Perspectives. She succeeds David Trask, whose valedictory column appears in this issue.
Among my undergraduate professors were several excellent scholars (quite remarkable in itself since they taught 9 to 12 courses per year), but I knew them primarily as teachers or, more accurately, as changers of my life. In big ways and little, mostly in ways that they could not know, they changed me.
Wyatt Wyatt opened my first college course by listing on the blackboard various terms for sexual intercourse (this was 1968 not 1999), some of which had barely been whispered at O'Gorman High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was teaching about diction, but I learned instead about the power of words. Deb Wilder taught me not to believe every one I heard or read. What do you mean Ernest Hemingway probably didn't kill that many rabbits in one day, it's in his autobiography! Hugh Curtler taught me to take things—and myself—seriously. Then Stephen Dunn showed me that everything serious was funny and no less serious for being funny.
Ted Radzialowski, Warren Gardner, and Maynard Brass unveiled medieval Europe, Nazi Germany, the American South, intellectual history, and other "alien" territories and showed me how, from the inside, each of these worlds made sense and made sense of the world. They all taught me to look for meaning everywhere and to be curious about everything. Joe Amato's plea for "more density" has urged me on for 30 years.
I went to graduate school to be a teacher, to do what they had done. Their work made my life better—more interesting, more thoughtful—and me more searching, wondering, and happy. I decided to be a teacher so that I could do that for others. Scholarship was the wonderful discovery of graduate school and it has been a joy of my life as a professional historian. My first book, Harvest of Grief—on rural poverty—was published by the Minnesota Historical Society and my second, We Grew Up Together: Brothers and Sisters in 19th-Century America, will be published by the University of Illinois Press in fall 2000.
But it was teaching that drew me into the profession and it's teaching that occupies most of my professional time and attention. I've been teaching now for 20 years in a small, private, liberal arts college in Minnesota. The standard load is seven courses per year, including at least two sections of the U.S. survey. My research interest is 19th-century American social history, but beyond the survey I most commonly teach colonial and Minnesota history. I've also regularly taught various other interdisciplinary university requirements: a two-semester, writing-based course to first-year students; an upper-division humanities course; and a senior-level ethics-based course. My students are virtually all of traditional college age, white, middle class, Midwestern, Catholic. Saint John's University is a men's college. Fortunately, however, because we collaborate with the College of St. Benedict, a women's college a few miles away, my classes are also mixed male and female.
Many of us in the historical profession are also history teachers and whatever our differences in pedagogical philosophies and resources, most of the historians I've met are passionate and dedicated teachers. We most often talk about our research at professional meetings, but in this column we can examine the teaching that is our common work.
I'm delighted to have been appointed to edit this teaching column for the AHA Perspectives and I'm actively seeking submissions from you. When you're thinking about your teaching, consider writing about it for the rest of us. In addition, I'm looking for pieces that explore large issues in our teaching—how do we teach politics (whether it is the Roman Empire or Tony Blair)? What should a survey course include, anyway? What's the nature of intellectual history? How is a course in global history possible? David Trask, the previous editor of this column, included several excellent essays that conceptualized a field for teaching. I aim to follow his lead here.
In addition, I want to put together columns of "Good Ideas." I would welcome a paragraph or two on any of the following topics: First Day of Class; Last Day of Class; Grading; Essay Questions; Syllabus Construction; Things I Always Do; Things I'll Never Do Again. On each topic I'd like to have your ideas, vignettes, examples. I'll then pull together what many of you have sent and make them into a column.
I also want to know about your teaching lives. Who do you teach and what do you teach them, in what settings, under what conditions? Our experiences are so different that I'd like to raise the awareness of all of us about how varied are our teaching lives and responsibilities. I need some volunteers or some nominations for short biographies that can help me show the diversity of our teaching lives.
Finally, as in the past, I'll be happy to receive submissions of your own design for the teaching column.
Practicalities: Long pieces shouldn't run more than about 2,000 words and short pieces can run, hmm, shorter (100 to 1,000 words). Please send submissions to me in the following ways: E-mail: email@example.com. Fax: (612) 204-1956. Mail: Annette Atkins, History Department, Saint John's University, Collegeville, MN 55403.
If you send by e-mail, please also send a hard copy by fax or by regular mail.
I'll look forward to hearing from one and all, though, in any of these formats!