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.
This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.
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.
I am probably not alone when I say that I have a hard time taking GOP “socialism” rhetoric seriously. The same goes for right-wing attempts to equate Obama with Hitler. Apparently, however, I need to keep this rhetoric in mind when planning my classes, for it has entered my classroom in an unexpected way. In a blue book essay about totalitarianism this summer, one student explained nazism in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” There was no political intent behind these statements. The student simply drew on the language of everyday life, as students are wont to do.
This is a sad commentary on what rhetorical excess on the right is doing to our everyday vocabulary, but it also presents an opportunity. Without engaging in politicking, I can use this apparent linguistic and cultural deficit not only as motivation to be more thorough about how I teach socialism, nazism, and other modern political ideologies and systems, but also as an example for historical thinking. My instinct here is to talk about the use and abuse of history, which is probably what I will do. On the other hand, however, some of those who throw around the “s” word really believe that socialism is on the march in the United States. If I were to take such fears seriously, I would also use them to teach my students about how the meaning of language shifts and even mutates over time, sometimes meaning different things to different groups of people. This too would be a worthwhile lesson, although it would bring me closer to something that some students might perceive as politicking. I should probably take that chance.
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.
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.
I have been teaching History 100, the one-semester survey of Western Civilization that is required for all students at George Mason University. Yes, really. One semester. As I mentioned earlier, this semester I decided to abandon the old chronological approach and follow a thematic one instead. I organized the course into six major themes, plus an introductory unit on historical thinking. One of those themes was “Politics and Human Rights.”
If one looks at Western Civ textbooks or the reading lists from my days as a graduate student, human rights are not going to be an obvious subject of study, especially not for a history survey that can only afford to choose six major topics. Yet they are not only important to learn about, they also offer a powerful integrative vehicle for talking about a variety of issues that have been central to the history of the West since the eighteenth century. Continue reading