Skills vs. Content: How best to teach a “Humanities” Class

In my current position, I teach a large-lecture humanities class every semester. I’ve blogged about it before, so it is no surprise (if you’ve been following the blog) to hear that I have continuously tinkered with this class. Recently, I received a grant (exciting!) to overhaul the class (exciting?). I’ve decided that I am going to redo the entire class from scratch if need be. I want a clean slate to build the class from the ground up without feeling that I have to recycle materials just because I have them or have taught them. Time consuming? Yes. Worth it? I sure hope so.


The freedom to reinvent a class is overwhelming, and I find it all the more so now that I have to decide how to structure it. I have been finding it challenging to design the class backwards (using backwards design) when I can’t even decide what the ultimate goals of the class should be. I realized this past week it is because I still, after all these years, don’t really know what a humanities class is. Is it really just a history class that incorporates the discussion of music, art, and philosophy along with important events (like battles)? Should it introduce students to the basic methods of humanistic disciplines such as art history, literary studies, history? How is it different than a history class focused on the same topic? For the record, the class is the first part of a three-semester survey on western culture (30,000 BC to AD 1300). As someone whose research is not firmly entrenched in western culture, how can I push back on a survey focused on western culture? Do I add in different material? Do I shift the narrative by complicating what we mean by west? If I focus on skills that students should learn, do I sacrifice chronology? Do they need the chronology? And how can I do something meaningful with 200–250 students? Do I flip the classroom, lecture, or something else? I think I could write an entire book filled solely with the questions I ask on a daily basis. I do think however that if I could just figure out what I want a humanities class to be then I could answer most, if not all, of these other questions.


So what is it? Is a humanities class about skills or content? Is it really just to introduce students to some of the “classics,” as I’ve heard? Or should I be very intentionally framing the class as an introduction to some of the approaches that humanities fields offer, with the content being secondary? In the past, I’ve largely taught it as the former, as a fast-paced epic sweep of history. Granted, I had students doing lots of activities in class. Still, here I am, faced with the same dilemma as always.


In the spirit of change, I am going to structure this new class, this reinvention, as one focused first and foremost on developing skills and approaches, and secondarily on the ancient and medieval world. As an art historian, I’ve no doubt that many of these skills and approaches will draw from my own field. Luckily, there is some overlap with other humanities disciplines because I am in no way equipped to teach about the finer points of other methodological approaches in history, english, philosophy, music, or theater.


So what skills and methods do I center at the core of the class? This is now the question.



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