Saturday, September 24, 2011

Medieval survey revamp, part 2

If I had a camera, I'd take a picture of my desk. It is covered in a pile of Penguin Classics, source collections, and other stuff. I pulled off the shelf just about every book that seemed possibly appropriate for a 100-level medieval history survey. Following the suggestion of Dr. Notorious, I made a list of themes, and jotted down both short and long sources that I'd like to teach related to those themes. One thing that became clear as I did this is how strongly this list deviates from what I've been teaching in this course. It is definitely time to freshen up the reading list (and probably the assignments). Of course, I've made a list of possible readings that is longer than I think the students can actually manage, so it'll need a bit of winnowing down.

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.