Adventures in Teaching Fellowship: Chronological v. Thematic


When I first began to teach history, I had a very clear view on survey (first-year) modules; they should be taught chronologically. Of the three modules I taught at the University of Glasgow, two on European History and one on American history, only the latter was taught through a direct chronology. In the end, despite having an arguably weaker background on the subject, those on the American history module were better able to evaluate the themes we were discussing than those on the thematically-organised European history modules.

I would agree (with some qualification) that a straight names-and-dates pedagogy is not ideal. However, when approaching a topic for the first time, a firm and comprehensive understanding of chronology, cause-and-effect and correlation, is crucial to drawing informed conclusions. I have, sadly, denied this to the students on my Atlantic World module.

I did so with the best intentions. When originally proposed, the module was meant to be a second or final year option for American Studies students. These students would have already completed first-year required surveys on US and Latin American history and therefore have had a basic understanding of the relevant chronology. I could therefore dispense somewhat with the traditional, linear discussion of kings and wars (and even imperial histories) and focus on my personal passion, networks. The module would instead touch upon a variety of themes–political, demographic, economic and cultural–and show the thematic links across time and space. Most importantly, the core aim of the module would be to teach my students how to use case studies to address wider themes.

For example, rather than discuss the settlement of English North America one week and Portuguese Brazil another, we would discuss explorers one week, sojourners another, and subsistence settlers another. This way, I had hoped, they could grapple with notions of national character and geographic determinism. Did the New Spain develop as it did because of the Spaniards, the Mexica or the gold and silver they found there? Moreover, students wouldn’t be limited to what I thought were ‘the important people’ and could explore smaller settlements and more esoteric explorers and merchants, so long as they could connect them to the wider themes at hand.

Although this thematic look at the Atlantic was noble in intention, what actually occurred was quite different. Owing to my late appointment (another peril of teaching fellowship) the majority of spaces on the module were not taken up by honours-level American Studies students, but by first-year history students who were taking the US or European history surveys at the same time as the Atlantic World.

This, of course, was not apparent until week two of the term, far too late to rewrite the first-term lecture series or alter the core textbook. I have tried to reincorporate a firm chronology in certain lectures, but the feedback (formal and informal) has shown this to be ultimately insufficient. Even those second and final year students on the module are finding the sharp shift to thematic, case-study based teaching quite jarring.

As my teaching fellowship at Warwick concludes in June, I will not have the opportunity to fine tune this particular module. Nonetheless, I have found the experience to be a thought-provoking one.

Traditionally, undergraduate American history modules have been taught chronologically while European and Global history modules are often taught thematically. This juxtaposition, it appears, has come from the realisation that, although you can fit a 300-year national history into a semester or year, you simply cannot do this for thousands of years or dozens of countries. Thus, the Atlantic World is a module with a sharply divided historiography and without a stable traditional of undergraduate instruction. Indeed, the first ‘Atlantic World’ undergraduate textbook was released only 5 years ago!

So, what will I do in the future? I will almost certainly keep my thematic methodology. The ocean is too vast, and my repulsion to narrow national histories too strong to revert to a classic ‘British Atlantic, French Atlantic, African Atlantic’ structure.  Yet, I think a few more lectures at the start of the year on the ‘Chronology of the Atlantic World’ would not go amiss.

*Image by Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff

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