Why Teaching a Humanities Course Is Harder Than It Looks

I’m teaching three humanities courses this semester and so far it’s been an interesting journey. There have been no major hiccups in the lessons I’ve given and the results of the quizzes and writing assignments I’ve assigned have been mostly positive.

However, there’s something about teaching a general humanities course that bothers me just a little bit. My field is the humanities… in a general sense. I don’t have a degree with “Humanities” printed on it, but I do have several degrees in the related areas of philosophy and literature, which counts as being qualified to teach a humanities survey course. The problem I see with offering a broad course in the humanities is that you will never be able to find an instructor who is fully qualified to teach it.

Don’t get me wrong… you might find someone who has expertise in one or two fields, like myself. However, no one qualified for this position has graduate-level expertise in all of these fields (i.e., art, history, literature, philosophy, law, and religion) — a necessity if one was going to teach effectively using a traditional lecture format.

“So what?” I can hear you asking. Notwithstanding the trend towards learner-centered pedagogy, there’s this sense in me that I’m not really doing my job if I don’t have that large base of knowledge that I can then impart to my students. I find myself more often than not in the same boat as them, learning about the humanities as we make our way through the textbook, chapter by chapter.

I suppose what this all means is that I am uncomfortable with being a facilitator rather than an instructor. Facilitators assist students with their learning, but they don’t cause it to happen. Facilitators struggle to make classroom interactions reflect learners’ interpretations of the world–mediated by readings and writing assignments–and strive to show how those interpretations fit into a larger context. Instructors, on the other hand, are transmitting a body of knowledge to the next generation, which leads them to put emphasis on the lecture format so as to transmit said knowledge.

I realize that I will never be an expert in all of the fields under study in the humanities, but I do wish I could learn more about those broad areas in which I feel most ignorant (art history, to name one example), just so I could rely on my lecturing skills to carry my teaching every once in a while.

I suppose it’s time to bite the bullet and develop some learner-centered practices for my classroom. Discussion questions, anyone?

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