Saturday, September 19, 2009

No prior knowledge assumed?

This week I was talking to an international student about my 100-level history class. The class is a pretty broad survey of European history between c. 1300 and 1700. In theory, the class requires no prerequisites. But in talking to this student, I realized that isn't quite true. 

I do assume, when teaching an introductory class, that my students have had some history in high school. I assume that they've gotten a basic narrative of western history, that they've heard of feudalism, the Renaissance, and Martin Luther. My class is usually designed to take apart paradigms that I believe to be familiar, and to interrogate assumptions about what, for example, "the Renaissance" means.

This student, however, is Asian, and has had very little exposure to European history. It's kind of startling to me to think about how to teach in a way that genuinely did not assume any prior knowledge of the period being taught. How would I teach a whole class full of such students? I would really need to rethink the way I introduce all kinds of topics. With only one student in this situation, I'm less inclined to make major changes, but it's worthwhile to keep the lack of familiarity with the topic in mind. Perhaps I should even make fewer assumptions about what my American students may know.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

This is an interesting dilemma. I think I'd be inclined to recommend a *brief* western civ text, and perhaps provide a list of key people, places, and concepts that that student should read up on if s/he doesn't have time to read the whole thing. That's all extra work for you, I know. But I suppose that once you did it once, you'd have it all prepped. Heck, you could make that list available to all your students, with an "I'm sure most of you won't find these dozen things unfamiliar, but if you do, go read up on them a bit, so you won't be lost."

At least your students (unlike mine) probably know how to spell.

clio's disciple said...

We are using a short textbook, so I think that may provide a sufficient basic introduction. I'll check in with the student next week to see how things are going.

They do spell, though many of them are unfamiliar with appropriate uses of commas, alas.

Anonymous said...

I have this problem in my introduction to christian theology course. It supposed to assume no prior knowledge but b/c most of my students are christian, I assume they have, you know, heard of Jesus or whatever. And yet if you throw a non-Christian into the mix, it changes things considerably. I really lost a jewish student last year and it make me realize I assume kind of a lot. It does make me think I assume too much, even for my Christian students.

Dr. Rural said...

I've learned through sad experience that my American-born students may have heard terms like "Martin Luther," "Roman Empire," or "Renaissance," but it doesn't mean they know anything at all about them.

BarbS said...

International students often raise this kind of challenge. I had two Nepalese students in a Reformation history class a few years ago. They had no academic OR cultural knowledge of Christianity at all! Fortunately, they spoke to me about this the first week of class, and we were able to arrange a time for the three of us to meet for a little crash course on the topic. I considered the short intro book idea, but it's one thing when students familiar with Western culture don't have a background in say, medieval history, but it is a completely different thing when the student knows as little about the culture as they do the history - then I think they really need (and deserve) one-on-one time with the prof to get the basics. Especially when the topic is religion - Christianity has a lot of concepts that are really difficult for students from non-monotheistic cultures to understand. Without extra help on these issues, the student is pretty much doomed to poor performance in the course.

Bavardess said...

That would be a challenge, especially with students from non-western countries (where, lets face it, why *should* they have been given a grounding in 16thC Christian Europe?). I can see it being a problem where I am, too, as high school history tends to centre on the recent colonial past and 20thC. I hope your student manages okay - it sounds like the textbook plus maybe a little extra basic reading should cover the ground.