“With any luck at all, the best teachers . . . are the ones who aren’t done learning how to teach.”Elizabeth Lehfeldt, “What’s in a Name?,” Tales Told out of School, February 13, 2017.
I am excited to have the opportunity to lead this year’s summer archival seminar in Germany, which will bring me to Speyer, Cologne, Coblenz, and Munich. Here’s a report from the 2012 seminar, which was led by the same colleague who organized the 2013 version. And here’s a description of the program and application process.
The main assignment for my graduate survey of modern Europe this summer was to write an essay that incorporated all of the assigned books and most of the assigned articles. I conceived of this assignment because of a similar one that I had had to do as a graduate student that I found especially productive, if difficult. (See “Learning to Synthesize History.”)
The essays my students wrote fulfilled or exceeded my expectations in some cases, but there were others that did not go as well as they could have. In part, this was due to the compressed nature of the summer term, but more than anything else, I think building a deliberate approach to teaching the process of synthesis into the course syllabus would have helped. Yes, these students were in an M.A. program and had taken many history courses in their lives, but few had ever had to do such an assignment.
Of course, we spoke about process both in class and in individual meetings, but the current senior research seminar I am teaching, which includes explicit work on process, suggests to me that I should formalize such efforts in graduate courses too, if I am going to require an unfamiliar writing task. That’s not how I learned as a graduate student, but so what?
One of those questions came up in class tonight with a group of MA students discussing Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA, 2008), a question where I grow perhaps too animated, maybe conveying impatience, even arrogance, or, if I’m lucky, simply passion. What was the difference between communism under Stalin and nazism under Hitler?
The differences are stark, but there’s that pesky word “socialism” and the collectivist rhetoric that is so easily conflated or confused with “collectivization,” never mind the existence of economic plans, mass murder, and a host of apparently shared phenomena commonly subsumed under the heading of “totalitarianism.” So why does this question sometimes cause me to push back instead of letting students gradually begin to understand, taking as many intermediary steps as they need to get there?
I would like to blame the heat and my tiredness after a forty-eight-hour power loss at home, and there’s something to that. But this is also one of those topics that can get my goat under better conditions, unless I am prepared for it. I am ready these days when teaching History 100 (“Western Civilization”), but the question took me by surprise in the context of a graduate survey of modern Europe. I am beginning to think it should not have.
Perhaps it’s time to choose some primary sources for the students to analyze in at least a portion of our next class.
Something about this question can elude or confound even well-informed graduate students like those in my current class. Something is getting lost in translation from a past that grows more distant, more remote. The words “nazi” and “socialist” and “communist” are on many lips in these United States, but they’re employed in our own contemporary struggles over ideology, identity, and politics. They help us to create meaning in our own world, but this circumstance complicates the already difficult task of understanding the Germany and Soviet Union that existed in the 1930s and 1940s.
While talking in class tonight about forthcoming papers, I heard from several students that many of their professors haven’t cared which system they used, as long as it was clear and they could retrace the student’s steps if necessary. That’s also long been my implicit attitude, even though I ask students to follow Chicago or Turabian and I correct their papers accordingly. Lately, however, I have come to think that teaching a specific style is actually important, even if I have done little more than point students in the right directions for style guidelines, much as I was told to use a given style manual back in the day.
But why does it matter if they use Chicago or whatever else? The historian in me says that they should learn the trade as I learned it. On the other hand, I am dealing with MA students, few of whom plan to go the PhD route, so I should not necessarily treat such classes as mini-apprenticeships for future historians. If most are studying for other reasons, why does enforcing a specific style matter?
First, all educated people need to know how to use the scholarly apparatus (footnotes or endnotes, bibliography) of any text they read, because information crucial to the author’s argument is there: evidence, intellectual debts to other scholars, and so on. I learned some of this by reading a great deal of history, but writing it helped me even more. And to do this work, I needed to follow a specific system that my professors understood, just like I had to write in English and follow a bunch of rules and customs associated with that. With that experience in mind, it seems to me that students can grow intellectually by acquiring more practice in such citation habits, even if they are not in my class as apprentice historians.
Second, my work as an editor has shown how far too many professionals ignore style sheets when they submit their written work for publication. For me, that merely creates a hassle and consumes time, but I can imagine much worse consequences in other writing contexts. Submit a job or grant application without following the directions? Forget it. Get an article through peer review that ignores the basic conventions of the discipline? Never. And so many other writing tasks—whether internal to a profession or organization or for the wider public—require one to follow specific guidelines and conventions. Indeed, it seems to me that we educated professionals should be able to learn and adapt to the specific style and formatting requirements of whatever writing task comes our way, even if that requires decoding seemingly arcane directions. From this point of view, too, mandating specific citation styles for graduate students can make sense.
I’m sure there are other good reasons, but it’s past midnight. Maybe readers have some ideas, whether for or against?