Blogs > Cliopatria > Falling Short: some thoughts on teaching Western Civ and driving a bus

Nov 28, 2005 12:19 pm

Falling Short: some thoughts on teaching Western Civ and driving a bus

I'm back in the office after the long weekend.  We're into our final two weeks of the semester.  Folks are returning to campus this morning in various stages of mid-holiday exhaustion, anxiety, and satiety.  Few times of year in the academic calendar are as potentially frantic as the two weeks of school that remain after Thanksgiving and before the Christmas holidays!  'Twill be a busy time.

Once again, I have failed to get as far as I had hoped in my Western Civilization courses.  My ancient history class (History 1A) will, as it has every semester since I started teaching in the fall of 1993, stop well short of the mandated "end point."  According to the catalog, History 1A is designed to cover, in one semester, all of Western Civ from the Mesopotamians up to the death of Louis XIV in 1715.   1B, the modern half of the sequence, merely covers the remaining 290 years of recorded time.

When I first started teaching here at Pasadena City College, I asked one of the older profs (long since retired) if he ever "got" to 1715.  "No", he said thoughtfully, "I never have.  I made it to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) once, but that was a rare year."  He told me to try my best, and accept that "falling short" (chronologically speaking) was part and parcel of what it meant to teach history survey courses.

When I first started teaching, I covered far more ground than I do these days.  Fresh out of graduate school in the early 1990s (and still writing my dissertation), my knowledge was thin indeed.  That first year of teaching at the college, I composed my lectures out of a few old textbooks, particularly this one.  I was usually only one week ahead of my students.  What I lacked in depth, I made up for in enthusiasm; I had learned early on that a good lecturer is not necessarily someone with a profound grasp of details, but rather someone who can weave a compelling narrative. 

Still, in those early years, I worried about "filling up" my teaching hour.  My greatest fear was of running out of things to say.  I needn't have worried -- in the dozen years that I've been teaching, I've never run out of thing to say (though that may say more about my personality than my erudition.)  Today, my biggest task is choosing what not to say!  Especially in these final weeks, I ruthlessly cut out entire lectures, trying to decide what my students absolutely need and what they can do without.

For example, in my Monday/Wednesday History 1A course (the one that is supposed to get to 1715), I have four lectures left.  One of those days is devoted to preparing them for the final, so really, I only have three lectures.  And I'm just now reaching the fall of the Roman Empire.  I'm a millennium short of where I ought to be.    What must I say about the Middle Ages?  The Renaissance?  Do I cut out the Vikings?  The Black Death?  Feudalism?  The development of the Western Church?  So many vital topics, and simply not enough time.  This is not unusual; in the last five or six years, this is where I usually am two weeks before the end of the semester.

Yes, I was absent a couple of days this fall.  But even if I had given every lecture I had planned to give, I would still be centuries away from the prescribed goal.  And it's not as if I've wasted time in the earlier weeks of the course!  I've whipped through Hammurabi, the Hittites and the Hebrews; I've given only cursory (if, one hopes, entertaining) treatment to Sappho and Socrates and St. Paul.  I tell stories and relate anecdotes that consume time, it's true -- but if I didn't, I would simply be spitting out a litany of facts and dates that would vanish from my students' minds as soon as their finals were finished.

I know I "covered more ground" when I was a novice teacher.  I covered more ground because, frankly, I knew a hell of a lot less about the subjects I was lecturing on.   Though I don't read new material vociferously, I do continue to explore the subject matter on my own time.  Today, for example, I know infinitely more about the struggle between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the early first century of the common era than I did in 1995.  I have more detail, and better stories, to share with my students.  And I'm not going to sacrifice all the good stories for the sake of fulfilling the impossible demand of making it to the building of Versailles and the War of the Spanish Succession in the same semester in which I've been lecturing on the religious reforms of Amenhotep IV!

I'm not blithely disregarding the seriousness of the catalog descriptions.  When my students transfer on to four-year institutions, those institutions will have the right to assume that the "History 1A" mentioned on their transcript covered all the material the college catalog promised.  Transfer credits are awarded based on certain assumptions, and the assumptions are based on written descriptions that we who teach are pledged to follow.  The easy answer to the problem would be to add an extra semester, dividing Western Civ into three terms (History 1A covering the West until the fall of Rome, 1B covering the fall of Rome to the Enlightenment, 1C covering Modern Europe.)  But I've been told many a time that that idea is a complete non-starter.  Community colleges are interested in getting students through quickly; complaints about how long it takes to transfer are already rife.  Anything that might slow down the process (like adding another semester) is unthinkable. 

So even as history itself expands with each passing year, and even as our knowledge of the human past grows, we must continue to teach this ever-expanding body of material within the same short two semesters.   If I honor the letter of the catalog and rush to 1715, my students will be deprived of all of the stories, the anecdotes, and the details that make history "come alive."  If I focus on keeping the narrative at a reasonable pace, and if I continue to include those fun tidbits that I know students enjoy, I will invariably fall well short of the required destination. 

Sometimes, I think of my job as being like that of a bus driver, hired to drive folks from L.A. to San Francisco and show them the sights along the way.  I've been given one tank of gas, and a prescribed time limit in which to get my passengers to their destination.  But I've also been asked to keep the passengers awake and entertained, and I've also been told that my passengers need to see as many points of interest as possible.  If I honor the commitment to get them all the way to San Francisco on time and on that one tank, I'll take them straight up I-5 through the Central Valley.   No Santa Barbara, no Big Sur.  We won't wander into any small towns; there will be no time for sight-seeing.  We'll push on when we're tired, and we'll get to our destination on time.  My passengers will have seen nothing but flat farmland, and they won't have had a chance to get a picture of the state in their minds, but they'll get where they paid to go.  On the other hand, if I drive up the coast, and stop in the little towns and cities, encouraging my passengers to walk on the beaches and in the redwood forests, we'll be late.  We'll probably run out of gas.  But my passengers will have had a hell of a more memorable journey. 

As a teacher, my job is to make the past interesting; my job is to stimulate curiosity about the all-too-easily forgotten human story.  In the time I've been allotted, I can either be effective in this task of making history come alive, or I can cover all of the required material, but after my best efforts for lo these dozen years, I'm absolutely convinced I cannot do both.

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Michael Burger - 12/5/2005

As some of these posts suggest, one needs discipline. Think of the course as though you were writing a book. If you wrote a book on, say, military developments of the Thirty Years War, you would not include everything you know, or that is even worth saying, about the topic. No, you'd be say what needed to be said to make the points you want to make about the course of Western history from wherever you start it to the early eighteenth century.

Historians need to be selective. What goes for what we write goes for our classes too.

This example is more realistic than one might think. I'm currently writing an "untextbook" for Western Civ. running from the ancient Near East to the eighteenth century (the recent one). And the idea is to be short and interpretative. There's only one way to do this: select. Indeed, my discussions with other authors of other Western Civ. textbooks suggest that the attempt to cover everything--much of it driven by marketing considerations--explains why these books are so often less than satisfactory. The same goes for courses.

David Nicholas Harley - 12/1/2005

We can surely see precursors for our ideas, if we are looking for them. The question remains, are we finding a "Western Civilization" that has only recently been named thus or are we fitting the past into our box? How does this new terminology change the story of the past, as told by historians?

To take a smaller historiographical category for comparison, "the Scientific Revolution" is clearly a modern term. People at the time made comments about how knowledge was changing, but they would not have used either "scientific" or "revolution" in this way.

"The Scientific Revolution" is a box that was invented in Cambridge in the 1940s, to focus attention on Protestants in general, and English-speakers in particular, as the originators of modernity. Not the European Enlightenment, which led to those nasty modern ideologies. The narrative of the Scientific Revolution had bitparts for Catholics portrayed as outsiders, such as Copernicus, Galileo and Descartes, but it led inexorably to the Royal Society, to Boyle and Locke and Newton. It was the intellectual equivalent of the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Modernity thus led to the Protestant toleration and scientific achievements of the English-speaking Allies, not to the death camps and the gulag.

Once this compelling narrative had been turned into textbooks and university courses, it became difficult to read the past without the use of this framework. Developments in the seventeenth century were emphasized or ignored according to their function within this explanatory system.

Later developments were recast by some in the light of the new way of seeing. Chemistry's belated revolution became a puzzle. The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were portrayed as having distinctively English intellectual origins.

The box has had its uses, but also its limitations. We could tell similar stories about other boxes invented or elaborated by historians, such as "feudal system", "Renaissance", "Enlightenment", and "Industrial Revolution".

In the case of "Western Civilization", the box may be so big and so encompassing that we cannot easily step outside it, to see it as a box. It seems an entirely natural part of the world, to Americans if no one else. Hence the impassioned attacks on attempts to replace it in the university curriculum.

Nevertheless, absolutely no one could have used the expression in 1700, or even in 1800. Perhaps it is not farfetched to suggest that some of the misunderstandings between Europe and the United States spring from the absence of the grand narrative of "Western Civilization" as a tacit framework in European thought.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/30/2005

I think one key to the evolution of Western Civilization as an idea is Rome. It is largely defined as the cultures that flowed into Rome (Greek and Mesopotamian --including Judaism ), Rome itself, and the cultures that evolved out of the empire, including "outside" influences upon them--for example Islamic scholarship.

Of course, the "outflow" within Western Civilization is largely limited to the area of the Western Empire. I suspect that is in part a legacy of the Catholic/Orthodox split and the "Eastern" or "Asian" style of Byzantine government. To return to Herodotus, that style smacked of Persia rather than Greece to people looking back over time.

David Nicholas Harley - 11/30/2005

I can see that "Europe" could have some of the same uses that "Western Civilization" has, but I am far from sure that the two terms are precise synonyms, with no remainder.

"When in 1623 Francis Bacon threw off the phrase ‘we Europeans’, he was assuming that his readers knew where ‘Europeans’ were, who they were, and what, in spite of national differences, they shared. This was a phrase, and an assumption, that could not have been used with such confidence a century and a half before."
---- Sir John Hale

Jonathan Dresner - 11/30/2005

Sorry, I misunderstood. I thought you were asking about "Western" when you were asking about "civilization."

I disagree: Renaissance scholars had a concept of "Europe" as the rightful and sole heir to the Greco-Roman tradition which is precisely what the Western Civilization folks now teach.

David Nicholas Harley - 11/30/2005

I am aware that not all historical subdisciplines are equally concerned about precise attention to nomenclature. I should therefore add that I am asking this question in the spirit of Quentin Skinner or Reinhart Koselleck, as a matter of historiographical semantics.

"Western Civilization" is a category of a particular shape, like many historiographical inventions, such as "Scientific Revolution" or "Industrial Revolution". It directs our attention in very specific ways. We cannot begin to understand how it does that if we cannot identify its origins and history.

David Nicholas Harley - 11/30/2005

As the word "civilization" has not been invented during the Renaissance, I suggest that this is somewhat implausible. A term such as "Christendom" cannot be translated as "Western Civilization" with no remainder.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/30/2005

Most textbooks date the invention of the "West" to Herodotus' history of the Persian wars, casting the "western" Greek civilization against the "eastern/oriental" Persian civilization.

I think the concept was revived in the Renaissance and was pretty firmly entrenched once the colonial age started, but someone who knows that stuff better than I better pick up the story from here.

David Nicholas Harley - 11/30/2005

I don't mean the course. We know about how US college courses concentrated on Europe as a whole, as courses in Europe did not. We know about wartime teaching at Columbia during the First World War.

I mean the concept. My sense is that there is an implicit comparison, with "civilization" being used as "culture" often is, as a specific local entity rather than as a general process. I don't think that one heard of "civilizations" in the plural much before the 1860s. Before then, the contrast was normally between civilization and barbarism, rather than between one civilization and another.

As for the "Western" aspect, that too seems late 19th-century, at the earliest. It looks as if it was intended to point towards the United States taking up the white man's burden or defending European freedom, but this may not have been the case. Perhaps the concept sprang from the naming of courses, rather than the other way round.

Given the importance of this box as a way of framing how American students, politicians, and even historians think about the world, there seems to have been little attention given to its construction. Those who have looked at such matters seem to have concentrated on the curriculum or to have assumed that the notion of "Western civilization" was part of the justification for imperial projects that took place before anyone had heard of the term.

If anyone has any thoughts, or knows of any studies of the topic, I would be glad to hear.

Hugo Schwyzer - 11/29/2005

Oscar, I am a medievalist by training -- it's not that I don't love the later periods! Rather, there is simply no way I can, in good conscience, not talk about all the topics I do cover between the Mesopotamians and the early Middle Ages (where I usually finish).

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/29/2005

Drag or not, I think Jon has a point. Let's concede for a moment your assertion that knowing the some material in depth is better than a quick tour of the entire course.

There is a tacit assumption in your approach that accompanies your assertion. It is that teaching students the earlier period in detail is more important than teaching them tne later material in detail. Yet you present your choice of material as a sort of happenstance of chronology, as if you have not considered what material in your course most deserves detailed work.

Having said this, perhaps the greatest and most inspiring history course that I took as an undergrad was Western Civ II, 1500 to present and the in-depth work stopped somewhere before the French Revolution. I would not trade the experience of that course and that teacher for anything. And yet, I do sometimes wish he had cut bait on some of those earlier rambles--brilliant though many of them were--and had focused his intellect on topics like the French and Russian Revolutions that he admitted were as important as the topics he had discussed at such length. And which he could have done very well.

So, I guess my question is, why do you focus on the earlier period?

Hugo Schwyzer - 11/29/2005

Well, I am a thorough going Luddite in more ways than one, so I suppose I'll take the "drag on the system" as a compliment. ;-)

Jonathan Dresner - 11/29/2005

I tell my students (before every test, yes) that "I don't care if you get the date right, as long as you get stuff in the right order."

There are people who organize World history thematically, and people who organize it regionally, and people who organize it (roughly, because there's always some regional slippage) chronologically. The latter may be the least original, but for an intro-level course, I think it's the most effective. Students need some basic foundational knowledge before they start slicing up the world into parts. If I taught World History to senior history majors, I'd do it very differently.

I do make all kinds of connections across time and space in my lectures, but when I've organized survey courses non-chronologically (I tried in in Asian Civ many years ago) it has produced much more confusion than clarity.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/29/2005

As Caleb noted above, "teach everything" presents a false dichotomy, as is the on posited on your own blog about "slavish devotion to the syllabus." And "perfunctory descriptions that lack any depth or color" is just unfair. I never said that I try to cover every fact of World History -- that's what the textbook is for. What I'm trying to do is to give students some idea of the breadth and depth of historical issues and historical study while also fulfilling my obligations to them and to my department and to my institution (World History is one of the only courses at this school were topics like Latin America, India and Africa are addressed at all, and yes, we have system-wide articulation issues as well).

What I try to ask myself is this "what do my students need to know and what skills do they need to have?" and I structure the syllabus, present the material, test and grade so that they have the best educational experience possible. I'm sure you're doing something similar, but I have little patience for "experienced teachers" who haven't figured out how to structure or pace a class. I've worked with them before, and they're a drag on the system, no matter how popular.

Hugo Schwyzer - 11/29/2005

Sure, it shortchanges them. But students are also shortchanged by perfunctory descriptions that lack any depth or color. What I always ask myself is this: what will my students remember? And if I try and teach everything -- 3500BC to 1715 in fifteen weeks -- they will likely remember "less about more"; if I go at the best pace I can, I suspect they will remember "more about less."

And that's a judgment call I've made, though I do wish that a longer schedule or more sequences gave me a chance to cover more.

Dave Stone - 11/29/2005

Hear, hear, Jonathan Dresner. Among the biggest pet peeves of students, in my impression, are history courses that finish short of where promised, or get off the rails, syllabus-wise.

I think that's especially important in US survey / Western Civ / World Civ. Given the appalling ignorance of history most of our students arrive with, those introductory courses have as one of their purposes a basic introduction to the major events of the past; skipping an era because you can't get to it shortchanges our students, I believe.

Hugo Schwyzer - 11/29/2005

Caleb, thank you for an eloquently explained middle-ground position.

Alas, the syllabus requirements at California community colleges are set by the State of California through so-called 'articulation agreements" with the UC and Cal State systems. Would that I could alter them!

Caleb McDaniel - 11/29/2005

I'm not sure there has to be a choice between "Hugo" and "anti-Hugo," since all the putative anti-Hugos here seem to agree that engaging students with interesting material has to be a priority--not because lecturing is a performance art but because in a survey class, piquing student interest is the best way to ensure that they will stay interested once the class ends.

I'm also not sure the "anti-Hugos" are really anti-Hugo either. I'm sure they would all concede that it is impossible to cover "everything" that a world history or Western Civ course might conceivably cover. Selectivity is always involved here, so the question is not whether Hugo is being "thorough," but whether thoroughness has to be defined by chronological range. If you decide that the most important thing to do is get from Year A to Year B in a course, it's not that you're being less selective than a teacher who decides that the most important thing to do is to trace Theme A or Theme B or explain the emergence of Phenomenon C. It's just that your principle of selection is different.

There seem to me to be two different discussions going on here: one is about what a World History course should cover, and the other is about whether a teacher should hew to the syllabus. (Or to the course description.)

Those are two separate issues. Perhaps there is a position between Hugo and anti-Hugo, though, that would (a) decide from the get-go that the most important thing to the teacher in the class is not getting to a particular year, and then (b) modify the syllabus and the course description accordingly.

A teacher whom I greatly respect once told me that you can look at an "Introduction to [X] History" in one of two ways: as a "survey" course that attempts to say something about every period and place that falls within the purview of that field, or as an "introduction" to the central problems that historians in this field face--as an "invitation" to future classes, as the first word rather than the last. By saying that, I don't want to set up another false dichotomy, since one could conceivably see an Introduction course in both ways. But I don't think that leaning more towards the second than the first reading of "Introduction" is necessarily a flippant or suspect pedagogical move.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/29/2005

Oh, there's great stuff in history, to be sure, and those details can be very useful to draw students into serious discussions (or at least expose them to serious issues when they least expect it!).

The line I use, and my students are probably a bit tired of it, but it works, is "I don't make this stuff up. I don't have to, and I probably couldn't if I tried."

I spent most of my lecture on the Renaissance last week talking about Machiavelli: he is, for me, the epitome of the Renaissance Man (much more so than Da Vinci, who was not moderate in his ways or politically engaged) and his scholarship quite impressive, but it shocks them to hear a modern scholar talking so positively about the writings of someone whose name is a synonym for treachery and raw power. Through his scholarship and career, though, I could talk about nearly the whole scope of the Renaissance (I had to talk about the art separately), from commercial and political changes to the rise of critical humanistic studies.

For the record, I used to teach Western Civ, but switched to World when I switched schools, and have never regretted it. It makes much more sense to me this way. But that's a discussion for another time.

Michael R. Davidson - 11/28/2005

I am more or less with Jonathan and Russ on this one - although I would note that I do not think that "making history come alive" or making lectures "entertaining" and/or "lively" need be sacrificed. Once the personal discipline to leave the day's topic behind after 50 minutes is developed (discipline which was the anti-me!) then there is not reason why the more entertaining bits cannot be selectively interspersed.

I teach the World Survey rather than Western Civ., which presents a rather larger problem, but I still manage to find time to gross my students out with Assyrian torture tactics, bemuse them with Jainist philosophy, get the men cringing over discussion of palace eunuchs, get the women infuriated over Ban Zhao's 'Admonitions', amuse them with Yang Guifei's 'exploits', and get them giggling over my lecture on 'Shit, Sex, and the Single Person in 19th-century Cities', amongst other things.

Mike Davidson

Jonathan Dresner - 11/28/2005

And ends there, perhaps?

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 11/28/2005

I just find it funny that "Western Civ" starts in Mesopotamia...

Russ Reeves - 11/28/2005

I am also the anti-Hugo (and, probably also in "Oh so many ways.") Ask students what they think of a survey class that doesn't cover the period promised; in my experience, they find it annoying (I know I did). I divide a semester (at least in my planning, not necessarily on the syllabus) into small episodes, usually 2-4 classes each, and strive to make each an interesting self-contained narrative. That, and a couple of "catch-up" days interspersed through the semester keeps me on track.

It probably also makes a difference that I teach both semesters of surveys in a small college. I can't just skip a millennium without having to pay the price when I see several of the same students in the Spring.

Hugo Schwyzer - 11/28/2005

This is just the sort of argument, Jonathan, that would be worth having over lunch. You are not unlike a few of my colleagues, the sort whom I thoroughly respect but whose pedagogy I find mystifying.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/28/2005

in Oh, so many ways.

I finish my syllabus. Every semester. Especially in World History, but also in every class, I leave days (not a day but days, scattered through the term) for "catch-up/review" and I will use them if I need to. About once or twice a semester, for example, a class will go off the rails due to current events or a discussion which veers into radically different territory. Then I use my reserve days.

How do I do it? Discipline, pacing and selectivity. I'd love to spend the entire semester (we're doing World to 1600 this semester) talking about Greek philosophy, Asia and the Renaissance/Reformation. I could, without trying hardly at all, if I told my students even a small fraction of what I know and find interesting about these topics. That's not my job: my job is to make sure that students who come into my class leave it with at least some exposure to the entire range of material from the course description, master syllabus (for our World History courses) and my own syllabus.

I don't know if my lectures are "entertaining" or "lively" but they do what I want them to, which is to pick out the most interesting and important elements of the material and explain how and why they are interesting and important. And when my time is up, with a few exceptions, I move on.

I don't know what my students are interested in. Some of them probably would be thrilled to have me teach the course as an intellectual/religious history. Some want wars and kings. Some want Asia; some want Africa. I don't know. Whatever they're interested in, they took the course because that interest was reflected in the description of the course. For me to throw up my hands and say "sorry, I won't get to that; by the way, I never expected to even though it's in the course description and syllabus" would be, in my view, unfair to my students and to my department (which assumes, particularly in World History, that I do cover the vast majority of the expected material).

It's all very well to "make history come alive" but that doesn't mean that you have to make all of history come alive. We have to be engaging, but we also have to be responsible and thorough. I'm no fan of the "syllabus as contract" theory, but I do think that we need to be accountable for our promises and responsive to the diversity of our students interests and needs.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/28/2005

In my US from 1877 to present class I've faced a related dilema. (No Europeanist laugh here over how paltry the time period is. I also teach the World Survey. I know.)

Afte 9/11 and particularly after we invaded Iraq, I have found it absolutely essential to get foreign policy up to the present and to increase the information on the US and the middle east. In practice this is about three twice-a-week classes diverted from other topics.

The result has been that I've turned the course into something close to a 20th century +5 course, with quick background on race and industrialization. A nasty thing to do, but it beats falling short.

Manan Ahmed - 11/28/2005

Given what you so eloquently wrote, is there merit to sticking to the choronology? I mean that one can teach the rise of the British empire and tie it to the Roman empire. One can teach the trade routes of Ancient Near East and tie them to the later routes under the Mongols. One can talk about models of kingship from Sassanians to the Medieval Europe.

Shouldn't the World Civ get sliced and diced a bit differently?

Caveat: I have never taught World Civ [only Islamic Civ] and am just, you know, throwing out thought bubbles. But, I would be interested in hearing yours or Jonathan's thoughts.