a_d_medievalist: a gift for my birthday from gillo.  Please don't use it! (Default)

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.
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(NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 14)

Yesterday's post was suspended due to my going to a charity dinner and then for drinks with friends. That and feeling horrible when I got home. I swear I've had H1N1. But at the moment, I'm having San Elias 2009 Sauv. Blanc. I recommend it. I also recommend Men who Stare at Goats, which made me laugh. Saw it tonight with two biologist colleagues, who are lovely people. They also bought me fantastic gifts for my birthday -- Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and the best pirate t-shirt ever.

Oh, right -- so that's what I did today. Slept, tried to grade papers, took care of a friend's dogs, and slept. And dinner, movie, and hanging out. A few errands. Tomorrow is going to be a serious workday.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about teaching things religious in history classes. It's not so hard to teach basic ideas of Confucianism or Islam, but the Abrahamic religions are tough, because you never know the audience, and people will get offended. And I'm the first to admit that I'm not an actual authority on such things, but I have actually done *some* reading, and did ace two courses on the History of Christianity with an Actual Big Name Scholar at Beachy U. Not to mention I'm sort of a medievalist and all, and we do read a fair amount of vitae, passiones, translationes, regulae, and actual theology at some points in our lives. Having said that, I admit that I do tend to confuse monophysites and monotheletes, but am pretty sure there's an iota of difference between them. Oh, and also? Have done much in the way of reading and coursework on the Reformation. So possibly, I have some foundation to teach a bare-bones sort of historical approach to such things.

To be fair, my students seldom question my ability to teach about religion in the context of my classes. But there are always some who have a hard time with my saying that Christians at a certain time believed X, or that Muslims believe that the Quran was dictated to Muhammad, whereas the Bible was put together by committee... and of course the "is Islam a violent religion?" question. And normally, I just don't care. That is, I don't care what people believe in private. I don't care what people believed in the past. But I do care that people in the present not argue that adherents of religion X believe Y, when they have not always believed that. This especially bothers me with Christianity, because beliefs about Christianity are so often wrapped up in ideas of progress that are actually sort of appropriate -- after all, to Christians, we're moving towards the apocalypse and all. But I get sort of irked when that's linked to a belief that "J. Student's" Christianity is so much better and purer and right-thinking than the Christianity of the past. I get sort of irked when students talk about Christians and Catholics, as if there is a difference in 300 CE, or as if there were no Christians till the Reformation (except that they often don't know about the Reformation). I become annoyed when they ask me about salvation, and I reply that at the time in question, people believed one thing, only to be told that those people were wrong. This is most especially irritating when those people include, um, I dunno ... Church Fathers??? Because, well, Augustine, as much as I think I would have disliked him, is sort of largely responsible for Christian theology, I'm pretty sure. So are some of those other guys who died well before Luther. It's not that I'm all about orthodoxy -- after all, I think that both Ariua and Pelagius were sensible about some things. It's not that I want them to believe anything -- I really don't care. But I would like them to be a little more open-minded about history when it includes religion.

Yes, there's a story behind this rant. It doesn't have much to do with my students, as it happens. And to be honest, it's not just religion that does this -- I get the same sort of frustration when talking about Liberalism, Conservatism, various forms of Socialism and Marxism ... it's just cranky-making when you have to fight the "but it's not always been that way" battle, is all I'm saying. Because I teach history. Nothing has always been this way, with only a few biologically determined exceptions.

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It's Sunday again, and I'm not entirely ready for tomorrow. This has been the story of my semester. I know what I'm teaching. But I don't feel on top of things, and really, my prep is relying more on experience than on immediate prep. I hate that. Part of this is the way I teach. I really do focus a lot on that active learning thing, so I don't lecture much. But the past three weeks have been absolute torture. The students haven't really been prepped, and this means that time I've planned on doing one thing is often spent just trying to get them up to speed while not annoying the hell out of the few students who are prepared.

Overall, I have some very bright students, and many of them are doing the work, but aren't really getting it. I have to say that, despite the quiet in the room, more of them are taking notes than is typical for SLAC students, and most of them are really using the discussion boards well. It just never feels like we're as together as I'd like. And tomorrow I need to backtrack a little, because I noticed on the discussion boards for one class that they really want to talk about a particular topic.

That is one of the nice things about World History, at least -- I can move things around a little. Still, next semester, I am going to try much harder to create mini-lecture podcasts with maps and all for my classes. In my spare time. :-)

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Another short post, I'm afraid, but it's been a long day. The fools who started NaNoWriMo clearly weren't thinking about the fact that this is a hellaciously busy time of year for academics. I swear I don't know what happened to my day, but I know I was busy and in my office from 8:30-7:00 with a couple of bathroom breaks and only two cups of tea -- except for the time I was in class.

So anyway, I thought I'd address one subject that has come up in comments so far, and that is whether or not one uses excerpts. I mentioned in my last post that I agreed that full pieces were preferable to excerpts, but that one can't always read the full thing. It depends on the course and the level of students, just for starters. Still, I understand the objections to excerpts, especially those in a reader. Often, they are chosen, as Jonathan Dresner pointed out, to put forth a certain didactic point. This is problematic at best -- especially when the point of the editor is not the point you'd like to make!

Short passages also tend to reinforce the idea that one uses primary sources to illustrate 'what we already know' from the textbook, rather than what I am trying to teach, which is that we couldn't have the textbook had historians not read primary sources. Even those document readers that have longer passages can annoy me because they often ask leading questions. At some level, I do understand. It's good to give the students an idea of how other people have used sources in the past. But so often the questions are things like, "what kind of evidence is there that slaves were not thought of as fully human?" I don't want that sort of question. I think such questions deaden the wit and encourage students to look no further. If the editor must offer questions, please, offer questions like, "What does this document tell you about the attitudes of slave traders towards the Africans? What specific examples can you find?"

It's a pain, really, because there are readers out there with fantastic documents; for example, I love the choices in the Andrea and Overfield reader. But I hate the questions and I hate even more the long introductions, because the students invariably want to talk about what the editors say rather than what the documents say. They know the tone of authority, and to their ears, that tone is much more "reliable" than the voice of someone who lived in the past, and definitely more authoritative than anything they could come up with. So I've come up with a way of dealing with the didactic excerpt and over-edited and glossed collection: I make it part of the lesson. When I have only a short excerpt, or there are editorial comments or organization (for example, the introduction of headings in documents that have no such thing in the original), I wait till a student starts to head off in the direction the editor clearly wanted. And I tell them that they clearly got what the editor intended, and then raise the question of whether the document is an excerpt or the whole story. This works really well with law codes, by the way ...

Sometimes, I don't need to even go that far: occasionally students will ask about what an ellipse does, or why the numbers of laws skip around. Either way, it opens up a conversation about how translation and editing can make a difference, and how they add yet another layer of questions to the external criticism. Translations are fun, too. One of the things I wish I remembered to do more often is to bring in several translations of the same document, and see what students come up with. Of course, that often necessitates the use of ... a dictionary! But that's a post of a different type.

(NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 5)
a_d_medievalist: a gift for my birthday from gillo.  Please don't use it! (Default)
(NaSchoWriMo/NaBloPoMo 4)

This is going to be a short post, because I've been transcribing excerpts of sources by hand (i.e., typing, because I haven't been able to get the scanner to work) for the past couple of hours. Why? Fair use.

In response to Jonathan's and Susan's comments on the last post regarding excerpts: for me, it depends entirely on the level of the class and the point of the assignment. If what I want is primarily for the students to get a really good overall view for a period or place, or if the reading is relatively short anyway, I'm all for the whole thing. But say I want to show something about Roman provincial administration -- do I really need them to read all of Pliny's correspondence to Trajan? Or (heaven forfend) more than the pertinent pages of Civitas Dei to give them an idea of Augustine's response to the sack of Rome?

What about when I am trying to teach the students to pick apart a document? how much do I need?

I'm not really arguing against more reading or the value of reading entire works or substantially longer excerpts. I'm just saying that I'm not sure that shorter passages are any more problematic, if what one is trying to teach is how to read a source and/or how to construct an argument and write an essay around it.

Speaking of which, I'm going to have to do some modification of a series of assignments I use in my surveys. For a couple of years, I've given three papers, each worth a bit more than the one before, as part of the course grade. Each paper is successively more difficult, and they are meant to build on things we discuss regarding primary sources. The first essay is simply two or three paragraphs in which they have to identify things: author, audience, type of document, etc., and then one piece of historical evidence in the document and how a historian might use it. The second paper is longer, and asks them to look at one document and write an essay that shows that they can use that document to tell us what it reveals about [a specific theme, e.g., gender relationships or trade] the time and place. The third paper requires them to consider 2-3 documents (usually from different time periods and/or cultures) and compare and contrast a couple of themes evident in the documents in ways that show that they can not only identify themes and create arguments, but also show that they are considering how all the external criticism stuff comes into play. Just assigned such a paper. Am thinking I may have to re-think and tighten it up.
a_d_medievalist: a gift for my birthday from gillo.  Please don't use it! (Default)
Ok, so I've been teaching for a while now. I'm now at a point where students who have been taking my classes since they were freshmen are in my upper-division classes... and yet they seem to have learnt nothing. At least, they seem not to have learnt to use primary sources very well. And this makes me crazy, because it's something I focus on in the surveys all the time. It's not that they are hopeless; they are not bad at using the material in the documents, at least. But they seem really unwilling or unable to consider the source, if you know what I mean. It makes me crazy. I set up assignments that are gradually more difficult -- assignments that require them to think about authorship. And they do it, more or less. In class, before we talk about a document, I always ask the students to tell me about the document -- author, temporal and geographical context, you all know the drill. And yet, when I give them an assignment that requires them to tell me what a set of documents tells me about X, it's as if each document exists in a vacuum. Argh. Double Argh. So, I'm going to finish up with my marking and do some revamping of classes, I think. And I think I'm going to add an assignment or two that require the students to work in groups to tell me everything they can about the documents and their authors before we even start to look at the contents. I think. Maybe. What do you think? x-posted to Blogenspiel


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January 2014



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