Home > Teaching > Teaching Thursday: The Challenge of Midlevel Courses

Teaching Thursday: The Challenge of Midlevel Courses

There are few places where the transitional or transformative aspect of university life is more visible than in the midlevel courses.  At the University of North Dakota, these courses often receive the 200 or 300 level designation and represent the lowest level course required for the degree.  Mediating between introductory classes that are often  pitched to a general undergraduate audience and upper level classes where we work to develop discipline (or major) specific skills, these courses lay the foundation for later coursework while shepherding students into the major and, ideally, the culture of a particular discipline.

In the Department of History, I teach the midlevel course which is one of only two specific classes required for all majors.  We call it History 240: The Historians' Craft.  The course introduces historical methodology and research techniques, the history of the discipline, and the style of historical writing and argument.  In the best of all worlds, the class prepares students for the experience of upper level courses which, in turn, reinforce and expand the skills developed in History 240.  By History 440, the capstone course in our major, the students should be prepared to write a major term paper with sustained faculty guidance.  This doesn't work quite as well as we'd like as a department, and as a consequence our History 240 class is under constant revision.  In the process of the several revisions that this class has undergone, I've tried to think generally about what the class is supposed to do in our department's curriculum and what these midlevel courses are supposed to in the more general scheme at the university.

The main challenge of such a course, particularly in a discipline like history, is to position the class in such a way to allow the student to be successful in a wide range of upper level courses which embrace a wide range of general approaches to the field of history.  Our upper level courses in history represent a diverse assortment of methods and methodologies from fairly traditional narrative based approaches to the past, to those rooted in archaeology, oral history, quantitative analysis, and various theoretical approaches.  In fact, from my perspective one of the strengths of our department is the diversity of approaches both in terms of scholarship and pedagogy. 

So, the midlevel course is designed to prepare students for a very diverse experience in upper level courses and to an environment where disagreements of basic aspects of theory, epistemology, and pedagogy make it hard to imagine any single set of skills being reinforced consistently.   In a world where "one-size-fits-all" solutions in any field (much less academia) have become unfashionable, the midlevel course is asked to provide just that: a foundation upon which any number of discipline based assumptions and expectations can rest.  On the other hand, if the course become too generic and focus on such neutral (if important) skills as "critical thinking" or "writing" or "reasoning", we run the risk of eroding the key features of the discipline.  In a discipline like history which adopts methods from outside the field with consistency, it is dangerous to push too far (explicitly) into the realm of the generic foundations of "humanistic inquiry".  It is easy to agree that critical thinking is important for our majors, but if that is all we offer in the discipline of history, then there is little that justifies its existence as an independent discipline — and this is certainly not the road any self respecting department wishes to pursue.  Moreover,

To return to the problem of the midlevel course and add a small twist, we have traditionally taught the midlevel course almost exclusively to majors in a small seminar style environment.  The class has capped at 15 and is offered in at least three sections of the year. This not only limits our enrolment figures per semester or per year, but also may limit our number of majors as well.  As we look ahead to declining enrolments in the humanities (a seemingly inevitable consequence of economic instability) and at our university specifically, there must be good reason to create a mid level class limited to so few students over the course of a year.  While most of us can agree that smaller classes have definite advantages over larger courses, in times of stagnating enrolments these advantages must be clearly articulated.  As we revisit our midlevel courses this year, we have also revisited the size of these classes and consider whether it is possible to teach the foundations of the discipline to a larger group of students without significantly eroding the quality of the experience or learning. 

With this in mind, we can return to the difficult task of structuring a course to feed into a diverse array of expectations, outcomes, and pedagogies at the upper level. As our department considers expanding the number seats available in midlevel courses and radically revising the assignments, content, and goals, I've become interested in hearing how other people bridge the gap between the expectations and goals of the lowest level courses and the demands and methods of upper level courses.  If you have any ideas to share either specifically or generally, check out the blog at www.teachingthursday.org where I've cross-posted this post and hope to get some though-provoking responses.  It's a joint venture between Anne Kelsch of the Office of Instructional Development and me.

Categories: Teaching
  1. March 5, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    I checked IPEDS and saw that UND granted 26 history BAs in 2006 and 22 in 2007. These are small numbers and the trend is downward, as you noted. Maybe one way to continue justifying the course to your dean is to run it as a combination of lecture and discussion sections. The lecture could happen once or twice per week and the discussion sections would meet once or twice per week as well. This would have the advantage of aggregating sections so that the total enrollment of the course stayed at higher levels, which would likely satisfy your administrators. Lastly, I would point out that the national average is that about 2.2 percent of all bachelors degrees awarded are in history. At your institution, only 1.4 percent are in history. So I would say that your undergraduate program probably has some unrealized growth potential, notwithstanding the recession.

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