Today is the first day of classes. It’s a bit frightening to think that I’ve been having first day of classes at Wofford since before our freshmen were born! But every semester I try to think of some way to use this first day (which I keep lecture-free because they are stressed out enough already) to gain some insight into the mental world of my students. I’m curious as to their attitudes about history. Is it their favorite subject? Their least favorite subject? Have they generally had good instructors or wretched ones? Do they think history is a subject for “old people” or something with relevance to their daily lives? Would they even be in my class if not for the need to meet a general education requirement?
To try to learn the answers to these questions, I passed out three by five note cards and asked each student to write a short paragraph about his or her ‘historical’ experience. The students did this anonymously, and I will throw the cards away so that I won’t recognize anyone’s handwriting later. I asked for honesty and I think I got it! Some students clearly enjoy history. A few wrote about meaningful experiences touring museums and battlefields with their parents. (Fathers tend to be more likely to be ‘history buffs’) There was much praise for AP teachers, and even some good words for the inevitable ‘Coach’ who also teaches history. That made me happy.
But of course there were plenty of students who were frank is their distain for history. Several students bemoaned having to learn “facts,” “dates,” and “names.” (I’d like to know how one could study history without encountering any of those!) My favorite reaction was this one—“I think I have a condition that keeps me from learning history.”
While I’ll confess to a bit of sighing and head shaking, I’m glad that my students trust me enough to tell me that they’re not happy to have my class. I’d be the most naive professor on the planet if I really expected everyone in a western civilization course to love (or even like) history. It is more of a challenge to reach out to the skeptical, to try to find ways to engage students who are dubious of history’s merit. Teaching HIS 100/101/102 is the hardest part of our job, but it can be the most rewarding as well.
And who knows, maybe if I’m really dedicated and really, really, REALLY lucky, I can help a young person be “cured” of the “I hate history” disease.