Monday, August 14, 2006

Teaching History?

I'm teaching a class on early modern drama and politics this semester at the MA level. Most of our MA students are bright and good at working with modern texts, but have relatively little experience with early modern texts, and pretty much no sense of early modern history.

So, I want them to get enough of a sense of early modern history to work well with the plays, but I don't want to have to focus much of my own energies on teaching history per se.

What I'm looking for are suggestions for helping students learn and teach each other history.

One thing I'm thinking of is working on a class timeline, starting with a couple that are out there, and then having them expand and develop it. I'm thinking of giving students in groups a year and asking them to look up on EEBO and find what they can about laws, especially regarding theater and such, or political theory. That might get overwhelming, though, since there's a lot of stuff published in any given year.

Or I might ask them to work in groups to talk about the plays performed professionally in a given year or two.

One of the very best assignments I've ever heard of asked students in a late 19th/early 20th century Brit course to read a full year of one or another specific magazines, and then to work up a short presentation. Students weren't only looking at articles, but advertizing and such, and it was so cool!

But in my period, no one had thought of publishing magazines quite yet. They did have some rocking broadsides and ballads, though!

What helps you learn to put together historical contexts?

What have you found works to help your students put together historical contexts?

Thanks in advance for the help!


  1. Interesting question! This is probably a wildly unrealistic suggestion, but I'm brainstorming: wouldn't it be fun to link up with someone doing an early modern history class, and find a way for the students in both classes to make simple presentations to each other? One does learn best by teaching... in the history class you could have one group of students responsible for giving the lit group an overview of politics, and another of social structure, etc... and your students could give similar presentations on kinds of literature, particular plays, etc. Ideally they could be very helpful to each other. Online connections could facilitate this, so that you could even do it outside your institution. (I'd volunteer to be your history partner, but I'm not teaching early modern this semester! I'm doing an MA course in early modern history next semester, I think; feel free to email me if you want to kick ideas around.)

  2. This is TOTALLY off the top of my head, since I've never done such an assignment (although if it works for you, I'm definitely going to steal it for the appropriate class!), but it seems to me that your plan for EEBO is great. You could also use the English Short Title Catalogue, which has the advantage of being searchable by LOC subjects (which would be a useful lesson in itself for your MA students--how the heck to figure out what the LOC considers a subject, and how those overlap with their own interests).

    You might consider having each group responsible for a big time span, but just one category: one group does plays, one group does catechisms, one group does political pamphlets, etc.

    Part One of the assignment might just be a kind of tabulation/bibliographic exercise: which years have more of these things than others? Are they original works or reprints? When do certain reprinted works get new legs? And then Part Two might involve the groups looking at just a *couple* of representative works in their category, taking careful notes, going off to the relevant sources (DNB, history textbook, whatever) to fill in the gaps/help them puzzle through the works--and then present that info to the class.

    To me, this would be so useful as a way of learning not just about history, but also about databases and library resources--and possibly also an introduction to some book-history issues, if you wanted to direct your students to pay attention to such things as font size, typeface, whether or not the author is named on the first page, how the information is organized, and so on.