Monday, September 19, 2011

Revamping the medieval survey

A couple of weeks into the new school year, I seem to have adjusted. For the first week or so, I felt keyed up all the time and wasn't sleeping that well. Now I seem to be back into the rhythm.

I have a class full of first-year students who are charmingly fresh and eager. I'm trying out some new assignments, although I'm already finding that some of them work better than others. The information literacy exercise I've asked them to do seems to work well, for example.

Because the bookstore is bugging me for book orders, I'm thinking again about my medieval survey course. I've now taught it three times here, and I've never been quite satisfied with it. I feel bored by the textbook and overly constrained by the reader. I find myself thinking about the equivalent course I took as an undergrad.

My undergrad medieval history professor (later my advisor) had a signature approach. He didn't use a regular textbook, per se, and didn't lecture. (Somehow I learned the dates of things anyway, but I don't quite remember when and how.) Our reading included some long primary sources, and packets of shorter sources put together by him. He organized the class around a series of polarizing questions, and forced us into arguing with each other. (His favorite rhetorical tactic in class was this: "So, John, [sums up what student just said], is that right? So you're saying that what Jane said earlier was wrong. Jane, do you have a response to that?") The essay prompts were, similarly, questions with yes-or-no answers that forced students to pick a side and state a thesis.

I've never quite been able to emulate his "pit them against each other" style of discussion leadership. But I do find myself seriously considering moving away from the books I've been using, ditching my usual reader, and trying to come up with a set of readings I (and, I hope, my students) will find more inspiring.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

I do try this in my surveys. Some semesters it works better than others (though we do still have a textbook). But something that I do in all my UG classes is explicitly organize them around 4 or 5 themes, and make it clear to the students what theme(s) a given lecture or discussion is working on.

I like the idea of going lecture-free, but I've not ever seen it modeled, so I don't really know how.

Adam said...


I think about the medieval survey a lot here and I know exactly the dilemma your describing. I've had students both say they want more lecture and others more discussion, so that doesn't help my case at all. But for books, I've been opting more and more for online material since it is both more nimble to prep than a packet and doesn't cost students anything...obviously not everything I might like can be had, but I've amassed a long list of things that can be had and I make do (and make a handful of scans when necessary). I also like Notorious' themes...I've toyed around with something like that and at least have an inkling of how it might work, though I'm not there yet (and notorious, I'd be interested in your intro syllabus sometime - perhaps I'll e-mail you about that.)



Notorious Ph.D. said...

well, I can do that, but the themes are:

-from Roman Empire to Medieval Europe (emphsizing transitions)
-Authority and Institutions (yawwwnnn... but important)
-Social organization and daily life (yeah, that's gender, too, and also things like sex and death)
-"The West" and its neighbors
-Christianity and Pre-Christian Belief systems

I may try to think of some less fusty and dusty ones, once I have time (hah!)

clio's disciple said...

Last time I tried teaching this survey I organized it thematically rather than chronologically, using a loose "three orders" model: the church, the nobility, peasants, towns. I'm still not entirely satisfied.

Adam said...

Hello again,

With the nobles, peasants, clerics, towns, did you basically spend a month on each? How did it work out? I'm always curious about different ideas for this. This semester I'm doing the themes, but each with its own mini chronology (so government; religion; daily-life, but each of those takes a month and goes Rome to 1500 and then we go back and repeat.)
What were the drawbacks of the three orders approach?


clio's disciple said...

Yes, I divided the course into roughly equal units. Peasants was a bit shorter, because I found fewer sources to use there.

I did feel that it ended up very muddled, chronologically; I wasn't sure the students were really able to keep track of developments that were contemporary but discussed at very different times. I maybe could have done more to clarify that.

I think a big part of my issue is that I'm just very tired of teaching some of the texts in the reader I've been using.