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The second time is no easier

28 December, 2009

The Second Time is No Easier

I start teaching a prep for the second time next term, i.e., in TWO WEEKS(!!!!!), and I have no effing idea what I’m doing. This is in part due to where I teach, in part due to the outcomes I’ve been driving for my department, which are more skills- than content-based, and in part from the resulting attempts to try to balance content and skills when I am the only damned medievalist in the department, and I am not sure what content is all that important anymore. No, seriously. This is the problem with not being able to teach one’s own field very often. I seem to have lost a survey-level grasp of it and what my colleagues would consider important. (Hmmm… I have just realized I can search for syllabi online, and have done so, and haven’t found a lot, but thank goodness for Jacqui Long and for Steve Muhlberger, who put up lots of sources at ORB). It doesn’t help that I’m using the Innes textbook (which I like in many ways) and the newest James, so I’m sort of heading into uncharted territory. On the other hand, this means that I’m sort of caught up in the question of letting the texts dictate the shape of the course, or the ideas of what I want to teach dictate the ways I assign reading.

In my ideal world, I would have a list of topics, and then assign the readings as appropriate (and yes, I’m using primary sources — the Rosenwein reader, possibly Tacitus, Beowulf (the dread Heaney translation, because it’s in a Norton edition with good essays), Two Lives of Charlemagne, and probably some selections from the Tierney and Geary readers, as well as some stuff from the Fordham site. But my students do not have the narrative. We teach World Civ here, so there isn’t a lot of time for Rome and the MA. Moreover, my students are not particularly likely to go find simple narratives for themselves, and they are also very likely to need to rely on the textbook for a narrative crutch. So somehow, I have to figure out how to balance narrative (possibly podcasts?), topical approaches, and the heavy discussion of primary sources that most of my courses rely on.

Now, this might be easy-ish if the course had worked last time, but in some ways it didn’t. This was in part the composition of the class — only two students really accepted the ideas that they were responsible for learning the narrative and that, for us pre-modern folks, a working knowledge of some basic primary sources and of types of primary sources is fundamental. Most of the people in the class saw the primary sources as being no more than those little boxes in big survey textbooks — things that illustrate what the authors tell us, rather than the information the authors work from. I think this time, that will be less of a problem, if only because the students are all used to me and many have taken courses with me from the very beginning of their uni careers.

Still, I’m trying to work the balance, and also they sorts of assessments I’ll be using. There will be a review essay, and I think a presentation each (how I’ll fit those in, I’m not sure, but the topics will be biographical, I think — Augustine, Gregory (of Tours, but maybe the Great), Bede, Boniface…suggestions?

Well, hell. I just got sidetracked by responding to some ideas about our thesis seminar syllabus, which a colleague and I have entirely re-written… what was I saying?

Oh, right. So does anybody have any brilliant ideas about this balancing act? I’m really thinking of sticking to Innes for a chronological (mostly) narrative, but taking in a break for James and then, within that chronology, pulling out some topics that I think need highlighting, and just forcing the students to work the topics into the larger narrative. Like wot I had to do.

Oh. And then there is geography. gotta work that in, too. bleargh.

This post brought to you by thinking online and blegging.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 December, 2009 8:30 pm

    Wasn't there a time when Western Civ was Rome, Leonardo, the French Rev and the two World Wars?Consider having some geography picture and map assignments — could they put together a links list or an online powerpoint?

  2. 28 December, 2009 10:41 pm

    I'm not sure if I'd call it a 'brilliant' idea, but I faced a similar dilemma in my Early Japan course: rich primary sources, but weak general knowledge. The way I handled it this time was to break the semester up into two units: in the first, we went through the textbook and political/economic source reader, covering the basic narrative, political and economic and religious history in a fairly traditional fashion; in the second half of the course, I went back over the same history through the primary sources — Genji, Heike, etc. — with a big secondary work on mentalite at the end. The goal, obviously, was to give the students the context first, along with some basic skill-building, then to delve deeper into the material that they were now more comfortable with, without all the "you don't know it yet, but this is important because…" stuff that drove me crazy. The class size wasn't big enough for a definitive result, but I think it worked pretty well. Our second-half discussions, in particular, were much better informed than I'd gotten in the past.

  3. 28 December, 2009 10:43 pm

    As a side benefit, by the way, we'd gone through the entire history before students got into their end-of-semester research projects, so they actually could pick topics they were interested in with some level of informed judgement and without a bias towards the early stuff (or pop culture-privileged topics in the later stuff).

  4. 28 December, 2009 11:05 pm

    eep! That sounds difficult, but really good, John. I think it might work, except that they won't do the reading to keep up — but if I just give overview lectures for the first two weeks …

  5. 29 December, 2009 11:06 am

    Yeah, I think if I had the liberty I'd consider that kind of structure, though it makes it harder to find content for discussion in the first semester. How far forward does this course go? Are you just doing early Middle Ages or are we also thinking High? Other biographical contendors that spring to mind: Einhard, because it's important that someone groks that he wasn't a churchman; Regino, maybe, because you will wind up quoting his 888 annal anyway for sure (and if not, try it, it's at the link, though that is behind a paywall); Gerbert of Aurillac (because he's just fascinating, and his letters are in translation); and Abélard, if you're going that far forward (or, more interestingly perhaps, Héloïse). I don't have much of a suggestion about the structure, though, other than that if you have them two sessions a week then maybe one for narrative and events and one for sources. Not sure how the assessments would fit but there you have more experience than I do.I hadn't noticed the new James book, by the way, so thanks for that; good to see him weighing in on the subject, as if anyone can take on Peter Heather… And I don't think that Peter should be allowed to have the field to himself. (Guy Halsall's book in the same line hasn't really made the dent I think it should have, though.)

  6. 29 December, 2009 4:13 pm

    I am only going to the end of the Carolingians with this class, so yay for that! And the James book is typically good, although I've only read it in draft. But it's his usual elegant and accessible synthesis — perfect for specialists who want a quick review and non-specialists who want an introduction alike.

  7. 31 December, 2009 3:21 pm

    I never know either – and for me they need the narrative and culture part as background for the real content of art/architecture.I've tried powering them through a quick survey of period – and am thinking of doing that again in Greek Art & Arch this spring.What I did this year in my early Medieval course was spend 2 weeks on scripture with very little art until they had done a bunch of homework assignments. That way they DID at least know what the stories were behind the pictures. That helped.

  8. 7 February, 2010 7:00 pm

    I faced the same situation in my class of history. My students had enough primary sources but below par general knowledge. I dare say you have a good blog running. Keep it up. This is Diana Livingstone from Israeli Uncensored News

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