Edward Cook, Professor in History and the CollegeBy William Harms
"In order to receive their degree, we require that History concentrators write a senior essay," said Cook, Associate Professor in History and the College. "It's very satisfying to follow individual students from the time they are beginning in the College until they are preparing to graduate and see how much they've learned. When they're done, they're able to produce a significant piece of scholarship based on primary sources."
Cook, a specialist on early American history, teaches the first quarter of the three-quarter America in Western Civilization Core sequence, which brings students up to the Civil War. He also teaches Early American history and Early Modern British history to students in the College.
Writing is an important part of his teaching, and Cook varies the assignments depending upon the class. The assignments are intended to stimulate student interest and challenge students at an appropriate level of learning.
"In the Early America survey course, I have them write book reviews, but I also encourage them to look at the published book reviews before they write theirs to see what others have thought about the books. In other classes, I ask them to write papers on secondary sources so they can evaluate what a variety of scholars have said about a topic," he said.
"Some of the reviews are of books that are common reading in the course, like The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop by Edmund Morgan or Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of American by Joyce Appleby."
Other reviews come from the students' free choice of scholarly books, Cook said. "So students choose books on women in the 19th-century South, the Great Awakening or political parties in the early national period."
Cook also asks students to write what he calls "position papers" before a class meets. These short essays offer students a way to identify subjects they would like to see discussed in the class.
Discussion forms an important part of Cook's classes, as well. "One of the things I like about teaching at Chicago is that we have an informal style." Cook looks to his graduate mentor at Johns Hopkins University, history professor Jack Greene, for inspiration in teaching. Greene's teaching style, said Cook, "is as much questioning of the categories used in the scholarship under discussion as reporting what we know about a topic. I have tried to carry a lot of that informality and recasting of categories into my own teaching.
"I use a mix of lectures and discussions. We like to say we learn from our students," he said, explaining that students often provide new perspectives to the topics under discussion in class–perspectives that professors might otherwise have missed.
Cook encourages students to present a wide range of views. "I try to let the conversation go in the direction that students are taking it, to follow their interests.
"In my Civ course, for example, we frequently have interesting discussions surrounding the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, a minister's wife held hostage by Indians over a winter during King Philip's War," Cook said. "At that point in the course, we are balancing themes of 17th-century religiosity, the influence of social hierarchies and gender hierarchies, and the difficulty of English and Native Americans in understanding the inner workings of each other's societies."
Cook, who has been teaching at Chicago since 1971, has found that students are especially interested in early American social history.
"The students are very interested in the life experiences of the people who lived in the early era of the nation's history. In particular, they want to know about the people who were learning to make a living, becoming adults, starting families–people in their own age group," he said.