Graduate Students Forum

Teaching in High-Intensity Mode

Rudolph M. Bell, October 2004

Once upon a time there were semesters lasting 15 weeks and courses that met three times per week for about 50 minutes each session. For those of you who like big bundles and/or small particles, that adds up to 2,250 minutes per course. Then a few decades ago, the West Coast went to trimesters, cutting the weeks to 10. Summer school as a moneymaking enterprise blossomed after the 1960s and the number of weeks declined to six, with classes meeting more often and for longer sessions. Most recently, we have winter sessions of just three weeks, with classes meeting four days for four hours each day.

This may be a great way to structure a language immersion program or to teach web design programming but whether it works well for the introductory survey of American or European history is another matter. Profit motives may have trumped pedagogical concerns in fostering the proliferation of such compact courses in the humanities, including history. Whatever the reasons, high-intensity instruction now abounds, and the people doing most of the teaching in these courses are often the least experienced graduate students and part-time lecturers willing to take on grueling tasks shunned by regular faculty.

How shall the aspiring graduate student teach gladly, and effectively, when offered the possibility of teaching Western Civilization from the Greeks to the Enlightenment, or the United States survey since 1877 in a mere 12 sessions, compressed into only three or six weeks, and running over three hours each? Is "coverage" possible? Can there be equivalency of any kind between this course and its leisurely, semester-long, cousin? What follows is crudely non-theoretical, a mere laundry list of do's and don'ts that may help you cope with such a daunting task.

First, the don'ts. Do not give in and show too many feature-length films. Do not throw away the first class with a quick handing out of the syllabus and see you tomorrow. Allow stretch/bathroom time after the first and second hours but no going on long trips to get coffee. Avoid endurance exams lasting many hours. Do not assign Uncle Tom's Cabin or War and Peace.

And then some do's. Pile up the reading and written assignments over the weekend, even if it ruins students' leisure plans but go lightly for the mid-week intervals. Divide the material into weekly units that end sharply and move right along, since the intra-week sessions will become a blur. For our Western Civilization survey example, this might mean one week for each of six standard chronological divides:

  1. Ancient World
  2. Heirs of the Roman Empire
  3. High Middle Ages
  4. Renaissance and Reformation
  5. Expansion of Europe
  6. State Building, Science, and the Early Enlightenment

Huge chunks, to be sure, but you do whatever it takes to get from here to there in the allotted time.

Go ahead and give an hour of straight lecture at the beginning of each session, following the recipe provided by Peter Filene, but do not repeat the textbook. Here is the place for historiographical presentation, for sharing with students your view of what is really important, for themes to develop and tie one class to another.

Devote the next hour to discussion. Provide questions in advance and require written answers; a few paragraphs is fine, and sometimes longer—whatever it takes to get to a total of about 20–25 pages of written work over the six weeks.

Controversial, short, even complex primary sources seem to work much better than historiography as the basis for discussion. In summer or winter, no less than during the regular academic year, students can be intimidated by historians but have much more to say in response to original evidence. Division into subgroups with reporting back to the whole group works well, especially if class size pushes beyond 30 or so. Use brief but frequent written assignments and return them super promptly, preferably at the very next class.

The third hour is the toughest. Most teachers do best by holding out to the very last minute and making it clear that that is how it will be, every class. But even though students know they cannot get out early, during the last hour they become even more brain-dead than the teacher, and discussion may flounder. A lively lecture with lots of visual and audio material works better. Use the Internet to get great images, lots of them, and also video clips. Prep everything with great care and an abundance of extra material. Use PowerPoint or the equivalent presentation software. The survey is something you will do many times in the years ahead; well-chosen images and clips, saved on several hard drives or CDs, will repay many times over. Make sure everything you do is yours for future use, not locked away in some departmental cabinet and unavailable when you get a real job thousands of miles away.

The last day can be the easiest. Use a rigorous test, some identification questions and an essay, selected from a list of 50 or so identification questions and 5 essay questions given out at the end of the prior class. Make the whole test worth no more than half the total grade, and let them out early when they finish. Handle any grading questions by e-mail and get back to a normal life.

This approach to teaching effectively in difficult circumstances has been tested again and again by our graduate students at Rutgers. They do appear to survive the ordeal and even find apparently that the experience steels them for better performance levels in less pedagogically unsound settings.

—Rudolph M. Bell teaches history at Rutgers University.