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?

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History 100 Again

I have been pretty happy lately with my approach to George Mason University’s required History 100 (Western Civilization); however, chronological confusion in many exams last semester made me long to try a textbook again. I might live to regret the attempt, since the course is only one semester long, but I have decided to try the abridged version of Mark Kishlansky et. al., Civilization in the West (Penguin Academics). Trying to squeeze everything into the syllabus was much harder this way, even after skipping the first 200 pages of the text, but I am hoping the textbook will assist me in conveying a better sense of the chronological terrain. I have never been against textbooks in principal. I just have not found them to be practical for a one-semester course of this kind. Will this book fit the bill? Ideally, of course, someone would write a shorter book specifically for this kind of class. Abridged histories are usually still too long. Nonetheless, I am hoping that this halfway affordable text will prove to be an exception.

There are two other reasons I am changing things. First, doing so might help to minimize chances of plagiarism, since there will not be a similar set of assignments already in circulation on campus. Second, change keeps my teaching fresh.


p class=”commentary”>This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.

Plagiarism Again

I had no plagiarism cases this fall. Maybe it is because I had an unusually ethical group of students, but it probably also had something to do with analysis they did based on short documents instead of books commonly discussed on the internet. With few exceptions, there were no answers to be found on the internet, though I took some chances with the inclusion of A Doll’s House in some questions. Even then, I did not let students focus on Ibsen’s play, but instead forced them to relate it to short documents that I made available on Blackboard. I have made similar attempts in the past, but usually by asking big synthetic questions based on two or three books instead of narrower interpretive questions based mainly on two or three specific documents.
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A Different Approach to History 100?

George Mason’s Hist 100 courses are supposed to cover Western Civilization in one semester. To manage this Sisyphean task, I switched from a chronological to a thematic approach. While this makes sense from an analytic point of view, covering themes seems to alienate some students, because the themes appear in the foreground, not the events and personalities. Moreover, the themes tend to bridge larger periods of time. With “Religion and Society,” for instance, I cover the Investiture Conflict, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, the Wars of Religion, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment. And “War and Society” goes from the French Revolution through the Second World War into the Cold War.

The material in my thematic courses has been organized in a more meaningful way than was possible under a broad chronological approach, but it has not held students’ attention. That is why I am thinking about covering a selection of specific episodes the next time around. I could put these up front and use the people, ideas, and issues involved as a vehicle to understand the broader themes that I want them to learn. A possible subtitle for such a course might be “Select Events and Ideas,” which might also make the history feel more manageable to the students.

A New Personal Record in Plagiarism Cases

I had a new personal record in plagiarism cases this semester: eight. With ninety-seven students total on my rolls at the end of the semester, that makes a little over 8%. To be absolutely clear, I am talking about open-and-shut cases. The burden of proof is on the professor, as it should be, so I never report any honor system violations based merely on my suspicions, no matter how strong they might be.
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Summer Term

The summer term is upon me. Here is this summer’s version of “Western Civ” at George Mason University and “Euro Civ I” at Georgetown University. Both courses are thematically organized. Neither has electronic assignments due to the compressed time period in which everything has to be done. Euro Civ I has only papers. Western Civ has papers and source analysis homework. In the latter case I figure the additional structure might be helpful, because the course has to bring students right up to the present. Of course, some students are going to hate me for it, which a reminder of the absence of exams might or might not ameliorate.

By the way, Euro Civ II will probably be chronologically—not thematically—organized. For that course I have the luxury of a whole term to cover only two hundred years of history.