Teaching Historical: Texts

In teaching historical geology at the intro/nonmajor level for many years, GG has run up against a number of problems that he has tried to work around.  Felt like a good time to review some of these and see if there are better solutions. For starters, let’s talk texts.

Amazingly in many ways, many (most?) students prefer to have a textbook. And of course there are a number of them out there. They all tend to have the same basic structure: introductory chapters on how to do historical geology followed by a series of chapters starting in the Precambrian and moving forward to the present. You’d think that this was ideal given how common that structure is.

However, in teaching the class, several of us noted that students often failed to connect the intro chapter material to the applications seen in the “march through time”: ask students how some event in the Precambrian was dated and you might hear about carbon dating. Many times GG collected the page of notes students were allowed for exams and found them filled with trivia.  The reason? The text had the names of nearly every orogeny and numerous detailed descriptions of minor evolutionary milestones.  Which might be important? The student couldn’t tell and so tried to write it all down.

Look, no non-major (and a fair number of majors) are not going to need to separate the Alleghenian orogeny from the Appalachian later in life. Why the strong focus on all the details? Is this really what matters?  Frankly, most historical texts are like bad history texts, a litany of names and dates with no real rhyme or reason. It seems this is motivated by a desire to have all the pieces that any instructor might need with the added history of how these courses have been taught over the years.

So textbooks often are an anchor around an instructor’s neck. GG actually has dropped a required text but still provides readings in an optional text simply because many students are so dependent on them. And, interestingly, assigning readings on a website has the curious result that reading isn’t done.

Next up: What might be the best march through time?

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