Fostering Historical Thinking with Brecht’s Galileo

Spring is almost here, which means its time to order books for the summer term. Summer in DC gets hot, and the summer terms are short, so I usually try to assign things that are both reasonably entertaining and not too long for the general audience I get in my introductory survey courses that are mandatory requirements for all majors. Besides covering a variety of themes and genres, I often try to pick one book that will jump-start historical thinking. I want a book that will make students more aware of how much “the past is like a foreign country” that we will not understand, if we do not try to fathom the conditions and assumptions of the time without letting our contemporary worldview get in our way.

Last year I tried Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, which I had first experienced as a TA for Sandra Horvath-Peterson at Georgetown University back in the 1990s. Of course, Brecht adapts Galileo’s story to his own purposes, but it provides a useful point of departure for a discussion about the Scientific Revolution. It also forces students to come to terms with the limits of historical fiction.
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Spring Break and Teaching

It’s spring break at George Mason University (GMU), and, starting tomorrow, I will have the apartment to myself during the day. Of course, there is a mountain of student work to correct and classes to prepare, but I think I will be able to resume blogging here again. For starters, I do not have to spend three hours a day in busses and trains between Northwest DC and Fairfax, VA. Excuses aside, I sure do admire those of you who are able to teach and blog at the same time, and I hope to begin doing the same again myself. And, hey, I even have a TA this semester, though I don’t really have an office, unless having a place available for office hours that three other people use counts.

I’m teaching three sections of History 100 again, that is, GMU’s one-semester survey in Western Civilization. I’m doing it differently this semester than in previous semesters. I’ve thrown out the chronological approach in favor of a thematic one. I would have done this earlier, but I never got around to planning it out. This time I did not let a minor detail like that get in my way. Better to name six major themes ahead of time and then work my way through them during the semester. The chronological alternative was simply too frustrating for both me and my students.
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