Thursday, June 03, 2010

Reflections on Teaching Church History

I’ve just finished up teach a 14-hour evening course on Church History, covering the whole gamut of 2000-odd years. It’s really the first, sustained experience of lecturing/teaching that I’ve had, and so here are a few things I’d do differently.

• More primary documents: I provided a few in the first 2 weeks, in which we covered early church history, but (a) I should have worked a little harder to identify and provide some classic primary documents for the other periods, (b) I should have made a better use of primary documents in terms of reading and engaging my students with them.

• More biographical anecdotes (good ones!): History can get a bit tedious when it’s a list of dates and peoples and places. One of the things that livens it up a bit, and provides a personal engagement, is to bring out some of the stories of significant figures. I should have done this more to exemplify what certain historical persons were like as people.

• More theologising: One of the freedoms of doing history within the church and not the academy is that one can draw lessons from history within a theological paradigm. I think this needs to be done sensitively and carefully, but I do think it can and should be done.

• Less Euro-centrism: Partly this was a flaw of the syllabus I inherited and the time-constraints I had, but given the chance to teach this course again, I would work to expand awareness of Christian churches outside Europe, and trace some of their development more extensively.

• Greater contextualisation and inter-relation: While historiographically I’m committed to doing history as more than isolated events and great men, in terms of teaching I don’t think I did a fantastic job on bringing out causality and interrelations between things. I’d want to work a bit harder on showing how persons and movements relate to each other, and also try and integrate church history more with world-history, since we often have a poor grasp of history-at-large.

• Formal writing of notes into coherent prose suitable for students. I wrote up almost 50 pages of 10-pt lecturing notes. I suspect that if I had more time and more inclination, I could have written these up into a more accessible prose style, which may also have formed a good set of hand-outs for students. That would give them more freedom from notetaking, and thus to engage with the lecture and discussion. Obviously teaching the same or a similar course again would place me in a far better position for that.

• Work out a better way of integrating and comprehending post-Reformation history. This goes back a little to Euro-centrism and Greater contextualisation. The period from the late 16th century onwards is so dense with history, and so fragmented, that there needs to be a better way of systematising and schematising that material, to cover a broader range of topics in a more integrated fashion.

• Do all the above without necessarily adding more content! 14 hours wasn’t really enough for 2000 years of history, and doing all the above would expand some sections. I’d have to figure out some ways to expand without expanding...

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