Genealogy or History?

My ‘Religion in the United States’ class has been an interesting experiment. It’s in its second year now. The first year went splendidly, in part, because I have some upperclassmen who were (1) very invested in the topics we studied; (2) opinionated and ready to talk. In addition, one was a senior who was taking or had taken my colleagues class on government.

This year’s off to a bit of a slower start. The class is larger but the engagement hasn’t been as strong (which might correlate). It’s not been bad, just not as lively. In part, I wonder how much this has to do with my students sense of familiarity with the context of the class. Last year I had underclassmen—freshmen and sophomores—who wouldn’t have taken many classes exploring United States history, so I might be wrong about this.

In short, I created this course to be a genealogy and not a history. What do I mean by this? It’s an idea I got somewhere else but I’m struggling to remember the source. In short, a history is an overarching narrative constructed to make sense of events that appear to be related. A genealogy is a series of related snapshots where a similar topic is examined but not necessarily in a way that organizes them around an extended narrative. Both tend to be held together by a common theme or themes but a genealogy connects one point to the other much more loosely than a history.

To teach a genealogy, you have to assume that students can place the snapshots in relation to a history—or, at least this seems to help. Last year, a senior, whom I’ll refer to by his initials, W.G., was like a teacher’s aide. He contributed a ton of knowledge. He filled in the blanks with his observations. I think this helped other students. This year I don’t have someone like W.G.

So, what to do? Well, I’ll have sometime to think about this before teaching it again in spring 2021. Presently, I’m considering:

  1. Eventually, requiring that students who take this class be juniors or seniors. That way they’ve received the necessary knowledge to make more sense of the class.
  2. Replacing my current textbook and homework readings with readings that supplement my student’s knowledge of broader United States history.

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