At the beginning of the spring semester, I wrote that my courses will be more focused around themes and theoretical models. One of my friends responded on facebook:
Love this! Can’t wait to hear how your semester goes. I’ve also struggled with getting theory into my classes (particularly my archaeology classes). I have a bad habit of talking about it at the beginning and then failing to connect it to the rest of the semester. It sounds like you are avoiding that well so far.
To some extent, I fell into the same trap she had: focusing on theory too much at the beginning of the semester and less at the end. Yet I also learned more about theory, Rome, history, and teaching in the process.
First, it is important to share theoretical concepts with our students. In articles and books, scholars use theory both to transparently explain their perspectives and interpretations and to simplify complex, unwieldy material. Both of these tasks are important for educators so that our students can best understand the ancient world, as well as possibly have a tool to understand the modern world.
Second, “theory” is a word with a variety of meanings for people, so we should be clear about what we mean by the word “theory.” To do this, I use the slide to the right. In part, this comment seeks to reinforce and help clarify the work in, and efforts of communicating that work, the hard sciences (e.g. chemistry, biology, and physics).
As I had mentioned above, at the beginning of the semester or units, we focused on and explained larger theoretically concepts. In the Roman history course, we looked at various models about empires, as explained by Terrence D’Altroy’s introduction to Provincial Power in the Inca Empire. In class, groups of students presented about each model. This day did not go as well as a more interactive conversation about empires in my Ancient History course—this lesson was later in the semester. Students read the introduction to Michael Doyle’s Empires. As we discussed the definitions of empire and other types of interactions among states (see images below), students classified relationships among modern states and justified their classifications. This guided discussion and active engagement seemed much more effective at clarifying the theory under discussion. Importantly, the vocabulary level and complexity of Doyle’s introduction was lower than D’Altroy’s introduction–this also helped make the lesson more effective.
After this introductory lesson, more reference was made to theories of empire in the Ancient History course rather than in the Roman history course. In part, this was because the introductory lesson was more effective, and because Doyle’s theories were more helpful for the Ancient History course than some of D’Altroy’s theories for the Roman history course. In part, it was because the right slide, above, was a more helpful slide to copy into a future PowerPoint.
In the Roman history course, though, I did not completely abandon discussion of theories. For many lessons, we introduced specific theories that would be more helpful for understanding those lessons, or part of that lesson. The best illustration of this actually comes from my modern world history course. In a lesson regarding the economics and globalization of the 20th century and early 21st century, I referred to Immanuel Wallerstein’s ideas about an empire’s core, periphery, and trade. The picture on the left is the summary from my Roman History course’s overview of empires’ theories, and the picture on the right is from the world history course. I purposefully created the world history graphic so that I did not need to explain the entire theory or what theory is, but so that I could communicate the ideas as clearly and as quickly as possible. I think it worked really well as a good, two minute discussion of economics of empires and underdevelopment of the periphery.
Some takeaway points from this overview of my use of theory this semester:
- Theory is helpful for everyone, students and scholars, to understand the past and present.
- If you call it theory, explain what you mean by “theory.”
- If you introduce a model for a lesson, an entire unit, and/or the course, ensure that the models are relevant and useful for the lesson, unit, and/or course.
- Make sure the reading about a theoretical paradigm is at an appropriate, accessible vocabulary and complexity level for your students.
- On the introductory day, guiding students may be a more effective active learning strategy than asking them to present on them.
- Create a clear, powerpoint slide that helps digest the theory even more so that you can easily refer back to this slide in latter lessons.
- After the introductory lesson, return to the theoretical concepts often and connect lessons to them, and/or use theoretical concepts in class.
- You do not need to explicitly refer to it as theory or explain the theory, but you can still use the conceptual models to simplify the material for students.
- Incorporate theory into your classes, acknowledge that it won’t always go well, and keep trying new methods to achieve this goal.