During my first year as a Teaching Fellow, I’ve done a number of pedagogy-related posts, covering student preparation, undergraduate writing, and lecturing. Having finished that first year, I have found myself thinking about different approaches I’ve witnessed to assigning readings. The question I have is: What is the best approach to assigning undergraduate reading?
It seems to me there are two aspects related to that question. First, what is the right split between primary and secondary sources? And, second, what is an ideal number of pages? Of course, the answers to these questions will vary according to the type of course. So, I will address them for a mid-level history lecture course (think: 200 or 300) with a corresponding discussion section.
So, what is the right split between primary and secondary sources? As historians, I think it is our natural instinct to want to expose students to as many primary sources as possible. Indeed, I have seen syllabuses that are almost all primary sources. I am, of course, not going to play the contrarian here. Primary sources are (or should be) integral to any undergraduate history course. But, in discussion sections, I have found myself with two primary goals: introduce students to the concept of historiography and the practice of history. And what I have found—in my admittedly limited experience—is that each is integral to the other.
After students have been introduced to the concept of historiography, i.e., that historians continually develop alternative interpretations of the same events and sources, and that that is totally valid, they seem much more willing and open to thinking creatively about primary sources. Once they know that they’re not looking at this document or image for the “right” answer because no such answer exists, they seem to become more willing to take what otherwise might have seemed to be an intellectual risk. Similarly, once students have looked at the same primary source and come up with different ideas about it, they become much more sympathetic in dealing with opposing historiographical interpretations.
From my own experience and syllabuses I have seen online, there does seem to be less of a propensity for foregrounding historiographical debates among the assigned reading. Of course, that may simply be a false impression, but I took a number of American Revolution courses as an undergraduate and none tried to engage the students with the historiography. Having taught the American Revolution last semester, I found that introducing students to the alternative interpretations within the historiography not only taught them the concept but also found them becoming more invested in their own positions on the course’s big questions.
The second question, again, is: what is the right amount of reading to assign? It is probably natural for junior faculty and graduate students to want to assign a large amount of reading. Or, perhaps, assign the largest amount of reading that you might plausibly expect the students would actually do, whether it be primary or secondary sources. That was my initial inclination when designing my own course syllabus back in the fall. Doing anything less might be seen as being soft or going too easy on undergraduates or, worse yet, underestimating their abilities or potential.
However, there is no denying that attention spans are contracting (and not just for students). We’ve all experienced the frustration of the post-question silence. Rather than fighting windmills because we have expectations of students that were formed from our own experience as students, I have found myself becoming more willing to think alternatively about this. Would I rather my students read a primary source of a few pages that they can definitely engage with and benefit from or would I rather assign them an entire 60-page 18th-century pamphlet because it makes me feel like a “better” teacher?
Now, of course, this is—in most real-world instances—a false dichotomy. Students should read Common Sense in its entirety. But I use this dichotomy to make a broader point about assigning reading. I think it’s worth asking ourselves when we’re creating a syllabus who the reading assignment we’ve chosen is primarily designed to benefit. I would argue that most contemporary students seem to benefit more (due to the increased likelihood of greater engagement both individually and collectively) from shorter, more targeted readings (in both primary and secondary sources).
As I said, my experience compared to many of our readers is limited. Hence, I trust you will let me know if that limited experience has led me to any suppositions, suggestions, or conclusions here that are wrong. And, as always, I am always interested to know how our readers approach these two questions.