Thanks to enrollment-related course-schedule-shuffling, this fall I will be teaching a section of one of our world history surveys, “The Medieval World.” The rub: I am trained as a historian of 18th and 19th century US and Latin America. Welcome to the world of small-college teaching!
Being an Americanist was not always the plan, however; when I became a History major as an undergrad, I intended to pursue Medieval History, and most of my coursework through my first senior year (there was a sequel) was in ancient, medieval, and early modern history. So what happened? Languages. I failed Intermediate Latin my freshman year–not just your average F, but a spectacular implosion of scholarly negligence. I moved to Italian (I needed two years of a language for my degree), muddled through enough to get C’s, and promptly forgot everything. I realize now that I’m not bad at languages (which is good, because I needed to pass two translation exams in my Ph.D. program), but as a party-obsessed, lazy-ass, undisciplined student for my first 3-ish years in college, I wasn’t willing to put in the daily work necessary to really master one. And after I finally got serious about college and potentially grad school, I took some wonderful seminars in US History, and that altered my academic trajectory from medieval studies to where I am now.
I don’t regret the shift. I love my area of the discipline, and am equally enamored of keeping intellectual house in the 18th and 19th century. But the reality of being at a small (four-member department) institution and having a 4:4 load is that I teach outside my “specialty” field often. Sure, I teach the US survey, and seminars in Revolutionary America, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Mexican history, like my Ph.D. fields prepared me to do. But I also teach a historiography course, a research methods seminar, and contemporary global history. And pedagogy and methods. And Freshman Seminar. And interdisciplinary honors courses.
And now, The Medieval World.
I was fortunate to be a part of a wonderful Ph.D. program, and I think it prepared me well for the classroom (my mentors–and the department as a whole–emphasized teaching experience and preparedness for Ph.D. students, for which I am eternally grateful). But nothing really prepares you fully for the reality of small-college teaching loads, or their breadth.
But despite the learning curve, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t be the teacher or the scholar I am today without the environment I’m in. Teaching in a small liberal-arts institution-and all the prep work that goes with it-has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me, intellectually. I had a solid foundation in historiography, but designing the Historiography seminar opened up entirely new vistas; now I have a couple research projects informed by some of the theory I delved into. I used state formation theory in my dissertation, but the literature on medieval and early modern state formation (not just Europe, but globally) has deepened my understanding of it immeasurably (and further affirmed my conviction that it’s one of the best theoretical lenses through which to view historical change). Some of the literature I taught in my honors seminar has made it into my History offerings. The list goes on and on–and I haven’t even mentioned the collaboration with colleagues outside my discipline that’s really been the most rewarding part of the whole process!
As I have immersed myself in medieval world history this summer, giving thanks for that undergraduate coursework which was not as hazy as I feared (student pro tip: keep your courses’ books. ALL OF THEM.), I relish the opportunity to stretch my intellectual wings again. My discipline’s heart transcends specific content: Thinking historically, critical analysis, and a deep and informed engagement with the past can happen in any subfield. My job is to be a knowledgeable enough guide to help my students reach these places. And I know that many of you in similar institutional environments are doing the same thing. It makes us better teachers, and better scholars–of this I have no doubt. There’s research to back that claim up! See Therese Huston’s fabulous book Teaching What You Don’t Know if you’re not familiar with it.
Becoming the Director of our school’s Center for teaching and Learning this summer has really given me an opportunity to reflect on the much-more-crooked-than-anticipated academic path I’ve taken. What really stands out are the opportunities I’ve had that came not from specific graduate training in my discipline, but from a willingness (and/or imperative) to jump into new areas of work and teaching. We want our students to be versatile and intellectually nimble. We talk about how we’re preparing students for jobs that may not even exist yet. What better way to really understand what that really means than to try and do it oneself?
So to all those who’ve made the leap outside their academic comfort zone, huzzah! And for those who haven’t, consider giving it a try. I haven’t felt this intellectually re-charged for years. I hope that the energy translates into a medieval history course that–to use a technical pedagogical term–kicks serious academic ass.
image credit: Flickr user Dean Nelson. https://www.flickr.com/photos/deannelson/317144649/