09/18/2012 05:02 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

Teaching a New Course

Here is an experience almost all faculty have periodically: taking on a class assignment for a topic they haven't taught before, and that possibly falls outside their area of expertise.

I am having that experience right now, having agreed to teach a colleague's course on the history of the American Civil Rights movement this fall while he enjoys a research sabbatical. The course is a topic of great interest to me, but I'm a philosopher rather than a historian. So I have had to do a lot of thinking and learning in order to be prepared for this class.

I'm thinking quite a bit about what I hope the students will get out of the course. Of course I want them to become better acquainted with the main events and causes of the African-American struggle for equal rights in the 1950s and 1960s. I want them to gain greater ability to read and assess the importance of a variety of texts about historical events and periods -- to be more critical readers and thinkers about the past. I hope they will improve their skills at presentation and discussion of complex ideas. Beyond these typical pedagogical goals for a history course, I would like for them to feel some of the emotional importance of these events -- what the events meant to the participants, what human qualities were challenged and tested through the Freedom Rides, what the lived experience of segregation was for children and adults.

One thing that I feel I've learned already is how important it is to use materials that can really give students an experiential awareness of the events they read about. The American Civil Rights movement took place within living memory of many of us. But it is distilled down to a relatively selective set of events and people, presented in language that is descriptive and intellectualized. So a standard narrative of the movement doesn't capture much of the lived experience of the times. Video, photography, and contemporary documents can really change that experience for the student. The wonderful footage that is collected in the PBS American Experience documentary Eyes on the Prize is a great example. It is one thing to read the story of the murder of Emmett Till. It is quite another to see interviews with his great-uncle Moses Wright, the scenes of mourning in the Chicago church, and the celebrations of the white perpetrators. These contemporary film clips give the student a very personal understanding of what happened and what it meant.

An advantage I have that professors 20 years ago did not is access to a mature and well-developed course management system on the web. My students receive their syllabus and assignments through the web-based system. I prepare quizzes and exams on the system, which students then take through the same system; and they will submit their papers to me through the same system. They will follow links on the system to some of the course readings and videos that will be the work of the course, and I expect that some students will use Kindle editions of some of the books I have assigned. In other words, even though this is a traditional course that meets in a bricks-and-mortar classroom, it makes very extensive use of Internet tools and digital resources.

I am a novice in teaching this topic. But I'm pretty sure that my students will get a few perspectives that they wouldn't find in other versions of a similar course, due to my own intellectual background in the philosophy of social science and philosophy of history. We will look at some key problems in historical writing -- the problem of bias and selectivity, the nature of historical narratives, the relative weights of contingency and social forces in the unfolding of events. And I suspect that the experience of looking at historical events with these background questions will lead students to think somewhat more critically about what they read and discuss.

This is worth sharing, perhaps, because it gives a sort of snapshot into some of the ways faculty think about their pedagogy and the learning outcomes they hope their students will achieve. There is nothing routine about teaching college courses to undergraduates. It requires effort and thought to connect with students in ways that genuinely engage them. And faculty almost uniformly give the effort needed to creating learning experiences for their students that will help to transform them through the process.