Teaching Notes: Synthesis and Process

The main assignment for my graduate survey of modern Europe this summer was to write an essay that incorporated all of the assigned books and most of the assigned articles. I conceived of this assignment because of a similar one that I had had to do as a graduate student that I found especially productive, if difficult. (See “Learning to Synthesize History” on my old blog.)

The essays my students wrote fulfilled or exceeded my expectations in some cases, but there were others that did not go as well as they could have. In part, this was due to the compressed nature of the summer term, but more than anything else, I think building a deliberate approach to teaching the process of synthesis into the course syllabus would have helped. Yes, these students were in an M.A. program and had taken many history courses in their lives, but few had ever had to do such an assignment.

Of course, we spoke about process both in class and in individual meetings, but the current senior research seminar I am teaching, which includes explicit work on process, suggests to me that I should formalize such efforts in graduate courses too, if I am going to require an unfamiliar writing task. That’s not how I learned as a graduate student, but so what?

Reflections after Class

One of those questions came up in class tonight with a group of MA students discussing Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA, 2008), a question where I grow perhaps too animated, maybe conveying impatience, even arrogance, or, if I’m lucky, simply passion. What was the difference between communism under Stalin and nazism under Hitler?

The differences are stark, but there’s that pesky word “socialism” and the collectivist rhetoric that is so easily conflated or confused with “collectivization,” never mind the existence of economic plans, mass murder, and a host of apparently shared phenomena commonly subsumed under the heading of “totalitarianism.” So why does this question sometimes cause me to push back instead of letting students gradually begin to understand, taking as many intermediary steps as they need to get there?

I would like to blame the heat and my tiredness after a forty-eight-hour power loss at home, and there’s something to that. But this is also one of those topics that can get my goat under better conditions, unless I am prepared for it. I am ready these days when teaching History 100 (“Western Civilization”), but the question took me by surprise in the context of a graduate survey of modern Europe. I am beginning to think it should not have.

Something about this question can elude or confound even well-informed graduate students like those in my current class. Something is getting lost in translation from a past that grows more distant, more remote. The words “nazi” and “socialist” and “communist” are on many lips in these United States, but they’re employed in our own contemporary struggles over ideology, identity, and politics. They help us to create meaning in our own world, but this circumstance complicates the already difficult task of understanding the Germany and Soviet Union that existed in the 1930s and 1940s.

Perhaps it’s time to choose some primary sources for the students to analyze in at least a portion of our next class.

Requiring Students to Use Chicago Style (or Turabian or Whatever)

While talking in class tonight about forthcoming papers, I heard from several students that many of their professors haven’t cared which system they used, as long as it was clear and they could retrace the student’s steps if necessary. That’s also long been my implicit attitude, even though I ask students to follow Chicago or Turabian and I correct their papers accordingly. Lately, however, I have come to think that teaching a specific style is actually important, even if I have done little more than point students in the right directions for style guidelines, much as I was told to use a given style manual back in the day.

But why does it matter if they use Chicago or whatever else? The historian in me says that they should learn the trade as I learned it. On the other hand, I am dealing with MA students, few of whom plan to go the PhD route, so I should not necessarily treat such classes as mini-apprenticeships for future historians. If most are studying for other reasons, why does enforcing a specific style matter?

First, all educated people need to know how to use the scholarly apparatus (footnotes or endnotes, bibliography) of any text they read, because information crucial to the author’s argument is there: evidence, intellectual debts to other scholars, and so on. I learned some of this by reading a great deal of history, but writing it helped me even more. And to do this work, I needed to follow a specific system that my professors understood, just like I had to write in English and follow a bunch of rules and customs associated with that. With that experience in mind, it seems to me that students can grow intellectually by acquiring more practice in such citation habits, even if they are not in my class as apprentice historians.

Second, my work as an editor has shown how far too many professionals ignore style sheets when they submit their written work for publication. For me, that merely creates a hassle and consumes time, but I can imagine much worse consequences in other writing contexts. Submit a job or grant application without following the directions? Forget it. Get an article through peer review that ignores the basic conventions of the discipline? Never. And so many other writing tasks—whether internal to a profession or organization or for publication the wider public—require one to follow specific guidelines and conventions. Indeed, it seems to me that we educated professionals should be able to learn and adapt to the specific style and formatting requirements of whatever writing task comes our way, even if that requires decoding seemingly arcane directions. From this point of view, too, mandating specific citation styles for graduate students can make sense.

I’m sure there are other good reasons, but it’s past midnight. Maybe readers have some ideas, whether for or against?

Consumption History Again

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.

Yesterday I asked how I could integrate the consumption history I’m learning into my teaching, and I pointed to a couple examples where it’s already there. But I missed a glaringly obvious one: the Great War.

Consumption is a vital part of the story in Gerald Feldman’s classic Army, Industry, and Labor in Germany, 1914—1918 (1966), insofar as the purchasing power of labor was inextricably linked to Germany’s social and political stability and, therefore, the country’s ability to produce sufficient armaments to continue fighting. The point is more accessible in Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914—1918 (1998 and 2004), which I have used in a course on the Great War and will use again next fall in one on modern Germany. There is also Belinda Davis, Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin (2000), which I will be using in a graduate course on war and society this summer.

I also usually bring up a much earlier aspect of consumption history when I address the Enlightenment and the public sphere: coffee houses. To make this point, there is a delightful reading from before the Enlightenment on the Internet Modern History Sourcebook: “The First English Coffee-Houses, c. 1670—1675.”

Of course, none of this is informed by a specific historiography of consumption history, but it does point out how this topic is already in my teaching. But there’s a difference between including a topic and addressing it systematically. To think about war and society in Europe, I can at least draw on the periodizing nomenclature of cabinet war, people’s war, and total war to help describe the level of societal involvement in interstate conflicts over the past few centuries (Stig Förster et al.). If such language and periodization exists for understanding consumption history, I have not yet learned it.

Perhaps the main point is to recognize modern consumer societies as having a history in the first place, instead of taking them as a direct reflection of human nature and, hence, rendering them ahistorical, as too often happens in simplistic political rhetoric that opposes capitalism and communism—rhetoric that invariably finds its way into student spoken and written comments. I sometimes try to do this with economic thought in the early modern period, but historicizing capitalism should be a central historiographical problem for the modern era, too.