Classes I Keep Thinking Of Teaching

I don’t know how many folks use sketchy drafts of syllabi for possible or potential classes as a way to think about interesting issues. But it’s how I go about things, which is why I tend not to repeat my more thematic classes that often. Sometimes I teach the class two or three times and then that’s it, I feel like I’ve thought through the debates or tensions in a particular interconnected set of texts and materials. I know that there are students yet to come who haven’t, but I also don’t want to keep flogging a course on their behalf when I feel like the life has gone out of it.

I taught a class on gender and colonialism like that some years ago, for example. I just came to the conclusion that the canon I was working from was tired or repetitious in some ways, and that some of the things which people writing on the subject were trying to accomplish had been accomplished. I didn’t have to convince the students that “gender” was an important administrative and political category in colonial societies, for example: that was old hat to them. So you move on.

I also get dreamy about courses when I recognize that there’s a great critical mass of really interesting things to read or view that are readily available to be assigned. It’s not just when there are compelling books, but when there are compelling relationships between various materials, a debate or set of shared questions or concerns already established. My course next semester on the history of reading and the book came out of this kind of thought-process. I’m teaching one next year on the history of play and leisure and another on the environmental and material history of Africa that came out of similar thinking.

So here’s what I’m thinking about now for the next three-year cycle beyond my next scheduled leave:

A History of Political Imprisonment in the Twentieth Century
Only problem with this class is that I’d have to hand out Prozac throughout the semester.
Some books I’d use: Hugh Lewin, Bandiet; Kang Choi-Hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang; Francois Bizot, The Gate; Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon; Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago; Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman; Jacobo Timmerman, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.

England and Empire
I’d do this as a survey course: it seems to me that this literature, always strong, has gotten really compelling lately, with lots of new debates and attention in the public sphere. It would be a chance for me to dive thoroughly into Victorian and Edwardian England as well–we don’t actually have anyone doing English history in the department, so it would also fill a small gap in that respect.

An Intellectual History of Anglo-American Conservatism
I’ve been reading Burke again this summer, and went back over Hayek as well. Both very interesting and in many ways useful to me. It would be interesting to try and flesh out a full syllabus worth of key thinkers, look at when and how they were influential in the US and UK, read them sympathetically rather than in the dismissive style that they might be otherwise mentioned round these parts (say, the way that Rand always gets casually bashed). This would take a lot of work on the U.S. side of things on my part, largely to fill in the social and political history and the connections to intellectual history in the 1950s-1970s, where I feel I’d be tentative. But it would be a good course to have in the catalogue, I think, and good for me to think through.

Africa Interregnum: Explorers, Missionaries and “Legitimate Commerce” in the 19th Century
I’m doing a directed reading with a very interesting student on this subject this semester. I feel like the mid-19th Century drops out of my own survey sequence and in many cases, out of the periodization that Africanists offer (precolonial, slave trade, colonial). I think I’d have to teach this as an upper-division course, maybe with a prerequisite–I’d like to focus on reading tons and tons of primary texts in it and do it as a course with a major research assignment.

A History of Failure and Error
I’m completely fascinated by this topic as a general issue in historiography, because it can be remarkably hard to study, and yet, any time you want to make a claim that a policy, action, technology, business or anything else succeeded and its success was contingent, e.g., not inevitable or determined, you really are making a shadow claim about the history of failure. So I’d love to see if I could assemble sufficient materials to talk about it as an overall topic. There’s a decent amount in technological history on the subject, and maybe business history. I’m going to think about this one some more during the year.

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30 Responses to Classes I Keep Thinking Of Teaching

  1. jfruh says:

    I think the failure class seems really interesting. Back in my brush with academia (which involved ancient Rome) it always struck me that historians were very focused on creating somewhat static and timeless pictures of how societies worked, which made it dificult to explain how and why it happened that sometimes they quite violently didn’t. Not sure how macro the scale is you’d be doing or how far afield you’d be going but there’d be a lot of material.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    For the History of Political Imprisonment, how about Soyinka’s The Man Died? A very powerful book. And shouldn’t Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks be included as well?

  3. CMarko says:

    This is the sort of thing that makes me sad to be graduating. These sound great. Personally, I would go for the political imprisonment and 19th century Africa courses.
    Would you consider posting the book list for your directed reading? I’d be really interested to see what you are doing with that.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Prison Notebooks, for sure. The Man Died is also a good idea. I was kind of thinking Mein Kampf too, but it’s so unpleasant to read.

    Sure, I’ll put up the directed reading list as soon as I polish it up a bit, probably by Monday or Tuesday.

  5. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    The political imprisonment class sounds really interesting. It lets you get at one of the great puzzles about how tyrannies function: why do they bother with show trials and forced confessions? I mean, if you’re a ruthless dictator with no moral scruples, why jump through those hoops rather than just ordering your secret police to shoot your dissidents? The fact that basically every tyranny ever has done this suggests that there is some kind of deep reason they have to — but what could it be?

    The closest I’ve ever come to having an intuition for this is from Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless. It’s kind of dual to the other books you mention, because it talks about the effect imprisonment has on those who are un-imprisoned.

  6. eb says:

    On failure, at least in American history, I seem to have come across a number of reviews of books on bankruptcy and debt in the last few years. And to technological and business history I’d add environmental history – there have been enough studies of not entirely natural disasters to make some wonder if they occupy too prominent a place in the field.

  7. bbenzon says:

    Failure: Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies

  8. Greebie says:

    As a bit of a joke, I started my own “library school” curriculum wiki called Maven Studies.

    ( if you are curious. Ugly design warning!

    Might be interesting to broaden that to other subjects for fun.

  9. As an Americanist, I’d suggest you think of your England and Empire course as going back to the 17th C. In Early American Studies, anthologies like *The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800* and *The Literatures of Colonial America* help place English colonialism in the New World in global perspective, as does Thomas Bender’s *A Nation Among Nations* and essay collections that bring together postcolonial and Early American Studies like *Possible Pasts* and *Messy Beginnings*. In other words, there’s been as much interesting new work on the first British Empire (pre-American Revolution) as on the second….

  10. withywindle says:

    England and Empire:
    Bruce Lenman, *England’s Colonial Wars*, Vols. 1-2.
    Linda Colley, *Britons*
    *England’s Small Wars*
    Rudyard Kipling, *Kim*
    George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”

    Anglo-American Conservatism:
    Whittaker Chambers, *Witness*
    John Stuart Mill (and how he gets to be a conservative icon)
    Lionel Trilling, *The Liberal Imagination*
    Norman Podhoretz, *Making It* (the first chapter should be assigned to all freshman orientations anyway)
    Barry Goldwater, *The Conscience of a Conservative*
    George Orwell, selected essays – “My Country, Right or Left”?

    A History of Failure and Error
    As always, the great J. G. A. Pocock, *The Machiavellian Moment* is relevant here. You mention contingency–and the point of Machiavelli and the Republican tradition is that we live in a secular world, shorn of a divine plan, where every action is contingent, limited, and doomed to ultimate failure, if failure means lack of infinite persistence. This being political, but susceptible to extension to other fields of study.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Those are terrific suggestions, Withywindle. Pocock I wouldn’t have thought of but you’re really right, it’s a great angle on the problem.

  12. cjlee says:

    Fascinating classes. About imprisonment, I might add Mandela and the Robben Island crew (perhaps a little obvious).

    I’m intrigued by the class on failure, since it connects in part to your previous posting on apartheid, i.e. why apartheid failed. It seems apparent that failure should be itemized (political, economic, techno, and so forth), though I would add that (some) notions of “failure” are deeply rooted in the expectations of social theory: to what extent are false expectations created/based on overconfident academic interpretation? To what extent are academics/intellectuals culpable in the production of “failure” (as an area of knowledge)? Marxist teleologies immediately come to mind, as does the “failure” of the nation-state, etc., but also the role academics have had in various development projects in the “developing” world (e.g. J. Ferguson’s _The Anti-Politics Machine_). Perhaps this could be a component of your course…..

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, yes, absolutely–that’s really the secret historiographical kernel hiding inside the course, I think. Failure from expectations of success; contigent outcomes where some intellectual or political perspectives argue there are no such possible outcomes.

  14. Doug says:

    If Solzhenitsyn, why not One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? It’s short enough to read in its entirety and could be accompanied by excerpts from Gulag. As Gulag memoirs go, Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind is excellent and accessible. (The bibliography of Anne Applebaum’s Gulag would be another good source for memoirs; the book itself is particularly good on the early period, but more problematic the closer she gets to the present. She’s too good a researcher not to include things that oppose her own views, but too committed to her partisanship to follow where the facts lead.) There’s also the whole business of prisons within prisons; in some sense, the whole USSR under Stalin was a prison, with the Gulag within that, punishment camps within the Gulag, punishment battalions within the punishment camps, and so forth. Dante would feel quite at home.

    One of the courses I’ve always noodled about teaching (assuming of course PhD and teaching position) was one on modern Odysseys: Joyce, Nikos Kazantzakis and Derek Walcott. (Presumably there are more, those three just jumped out at me, and would certainly be engaging for a semester.)

  15. withywindle says:

    Political Imprisonment: Carlo Levi, *Christ Stopped At Eboli*. For which there is a good movie too. Partly to show that not all political imprisonments were absolute torture. Contrariwise, is *Survival in Auschwitz* too obvious and/or off topic? Perhaps something on the hunger strikers and Bobby Sands. And perhaps as an introduction, Dostoevskii, *House of the Dead*. And some sense that people sent to prison have no necessary reluctance to send other people to prison in their turn wouldn’t hurt. Solzhenitsyn’s description of the jailors and their psychology, and of how he almost became a permanent trusty, would be parts of his very long narrative that I would focus on.

    Some of Stanislaw Lem’s short stories in *The Cyberiad* and *The Star Diaries* I think talk about society as a huge prison, in coded language.

    And not really for a class, but I love the bit in the Australian movie *Children of the Revolution* where our young radical 1) keeps on trying to get arrested by the attractive lady cop he’s falling for; and 2) in prison organizes a police union.

    Whit Stillman, *Metropolitan*, has something like the following bit of dialogue:

    “I favor the socialist model developed by the 19th-century social critic Fourier.”
    “You’re a Fourierist? But they all failed.”
    “Their ideas weren’t succesfully put into practice, but they didn’t fail.”
    “They’re all dead.”
    “We all die. Does that mean we all fail?”
    Long silence; dialoguists stare at each other. Scene ends.

  16. back40 says:

    As bbenzon says, Tainter is interesting, especially compared to Diamond.

  17. mlister says:

    “say, the way that Rand always gets casually bashed”

    But not without good reason, man! Not without good reason!

  18. Timothy Burke says:

    I think reading someone in an intellectual history requires you to back off a bit and ask, “Where did this text come from? Why was it written? Whom did it affect and what did they do as a consequence of their reading?” before you say, “By the way, this book/thinker has a lot of problems”. I think that would be particularly important in this course, because some of the students on the left might be inclined to make it a sort of Lord-of-the-Flies hunt-for-Piggy kind of thing every week–I’d need to make it a ground rule that they back up and really read, think about the history, etc., before teeing off on a given thinker.

  19. mlister says:

    You’re right, of course, but it’s so easy to bash Rand that it would be hard not to. (For lots of fun try to find a book that was published reprinting her marginalia and the like on other thinkers. Now, I’d not want all of mine re-printed, especially from my undergrad days, but it’s pretty amusing to see her railing against Hayek (in _The Road to Serfdom_!) for being taken in by “collectivism” and other good deep thinking.)

  20. withywindle says:

    Not for your class, but I admire Ursula K. LeGuin’s *The Dispossessed* as a wonderfully well-written and sober look at an anarchist society, and how it might work at its best.

  21. hestal says:

    I am taking a break because my 67-year-old body failed to tolerate the high temperatures while mowing the grass.

    Technological failures such as the series leading up to heaver-than-air flight are easy to understand. The people involved were sincere and were doing science for the most part as they neared victory.

    But in the other cases, as you delve into why failure happened, are you going to offer solutions — how to avoid such failures in future?

  22. Timothy Burke says:

    I certainly would plan to explore that question, of whether failure can be avoided, and how. But I wouldn’t want to insist that I have a certain answer to that question. I think this goes under the heading of whether there are lessons to history or not, to recall that discussion. There’s one part of me that says, sure, you can learn about certain patterns in complex social and institutional failures and learn how to fix them; there is another part of me that says, you can become wise about the *meaning* of failure and thus humble about its possibility, but not necessarily hope to avoid it consistently.

  23. hestal says:

    I’m sorry to keep beating this horse, but I spent my career doing things that people said could not be done. I was not alone, but it did happen that way. We succeeded because we were open to new ideas, new technologies, and we were willing to work our butts off in followng a rational process with specific goals. I just can’t accept the idea that there are no lessons from history and I mean real lessons — the kind you could put in a book(s) and teach in classes, just as there are lessons about bridge-building. But I have bugged many others, not just you, in asking about this and you appear to be the most open-minded about it. One famous historian, and I mean really famous, said that the only lesson he knows is that this, whatever it is, has happened before and if we got through it then, we will get through it again. So if you, and he, and they are right and there are no real lessons of history, then why don’t you guys make some public announcement to that effect and cancel that saying about “learning or repeating?” Not wanting to give offense. I appreciate your patience and your ideas. I learn something worthwhile more often from your site than any other source in my reach, and all I do is learn. So another question, is there a book or something in which someone has spoken to the “no lessons” idea? Thanks.

  24. bbenzon says:

    What are you thinking of doing in the play and leisure course? Have you seen Cross and Walton, The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century?

  25. Timothy Burke says:

    Hestal, I guess my thought is that the question of whether there are lessons to history has to be an open one in a *course*, e.g., students have to find their own way to that. Because there are strong arguments that what you learn from history is meaning, about what human life is and what it might be for, and equally strong arguments that what you learn is what not to do and what to do right the next time. I tend to think the latter, most of the time, but I don’t think I can tell the students as an imperative that it is one or the other. Sometimes, in fact, I think they need to at least be made to face the possibility that the most important thing is the search for meaning, because they’re too inclined, in too easy a manner, to assume that all problems can be fixed, and that they’re the ones to do the fixing.

    Play and Leisure is next year; the Cross and Walton is already on my list of things I’m sure I want to use. Homo Ludens also. Maybe some good material on play among primates? I’m thinking of spending a goodly time on the social history of leisure in 19th Century Europe and the US, which is a pretty rich historiographical vein, but I also want to read some much older work on the comparative history of games. I’m also thinking of a few fictions on the idea of games plus also obviously some recent “game studies” scholarship on computer and video games.

  26. bbenzon says:

    Sounds like an interesting course. In principle, some primate stuff would be useful, perhaps even some stuff on play in mammals. There is some literature on rough-and-tumble play & Jaak Panksepp talks about it in his Affective Neuroscience volume. You might want to look at some of the literature on tourism, which links, of course back the 19th century and the notion of a Grand Tour among the wealthy. Judd and Fainstein’s The Tourist City is an useful anthology. With tourism, of course, we’re talking about the commodification of “experience” and of “culture.” Which also leads us to Disneyland and Epcot.

  27. Western Dave says:

    For Games and Leisure, I would think Jennifer Price’s article in Pacific Historical Review would be a must, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing”

    The article doesn’t live up to the title, but then again. How could it?

  28. bbenzon says:

    Also, might want to take a look at Piaget’s Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Children. It is, IMO, one of his best. You probably wouldn’t want to use the whole things, but you might find some useful exerpts.

  29. Tuchman’s _The March of Folly_ might be good for the failure class.

  30. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, yeah, absolutely.

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