Discovering the Template

I’m very restless with my syllabi and with the courses I teach: I do new preps fairly often and tend to overhaul substantial portions of existing courses equally often.

In thinking about new classes, I tend to ask myself:

1. What’s a subject that interests me personally, whether or not I do dedicated research on it? There’s nothing worse than a class taught as a obligatory sacrifice to the disciplinary gods.
2. What’s a subject that I believe is likely to make sense to our students, be interesting to our students? If I pick something I think is interesting but that has no traction or connection to what any of our students believe to be important, I have to spend a lot of extra effort to explain what the class is about and why it matters. That might be worth it on occasion, but the key thing is that I can’t design a course of that kind and then skip that extra effort.
3. What’s a subject where the material I can assign, particularly readings, is lively and diverse and plentiful? A subject that’s potentially interesting but has mostly developed through leaden, specialized or obscure scholarly writing is not a good topic to teach to undergraduates.
4. What’s a subject where both the nature of the topic and the material available lets me present a variety of divergent ways to think about and make use of the subject matter? A subject that’s interesting but only within a scholarly or constrained intellectual tradition is not a good subject to teach to undergraduates.

What I’ve become aware of over time is that the syllabi that result from following these rules have a consistent implicit design to them. I haven’t consciously planned to make my classes this way, but as I look back at what I’ve done for the last decade, I see the same structure over and over again.

While I put a premium on material that I think can spark interesting conversations, and on a heterogeneity of voices and approaches, very much privileging material by non-academics as much as by scholars, I can see that another thing I often do in my courses, particularly thematic classes, is provide a “spine” narrative that supports the discussion. For all that I think “coverage” is an uninteresting objective for a class, I clearly recognize that without some core storyline or knowledge base, a class would be nothing but 14 weeks of “another interesting reading”: fun and diverting, but not giving students any sense of cumulative ownership over the subject, a sense that they know something that can be brought to bear in unexpected and creative ways on later readings (and on later experiences once the class is over).

To give an example, take a look at my spring 2012 syllabus for The History of Reading. The first third of the course is a highly compressed overview of the “standard narrative” of the historiography of reading and the book: pre-Gutenberg, Gutenberg & early modern print culture, massification of print, globalization of print culture. Rather than trying to give a full, rich view of particular historiographical nodes of debate at each stage along the way, I basically pick on or two readings as synecdoches: Eisenberg and Darnton for Martin, Febvre, Johns and all other early modern & post-Gutenberg analyses, or Rose for much of the literature on massification. Hofmeyr and Khumalo for globalization, here picking Africanist work simply because it’s what I know best.

I feel that the more typical impulse from many scholars setting up a class like this is to want to take one or two more tightly circumscribed periods and locations and really get into the back-and-forth of scholarly debate and research. For me, this is just that “spine” that establishes a baseline knowledge that the students can then bring to bear on all sorts of other claims about reading, the book, print culture, literacy and the like, both later in the class and in their research papers. I also have noticed that I frequently place a more universalizing or cognitivist text at the front of courses with this design, to put history as a discipline in some kind of perspective.

The second portion of the class is just a selection of materials about reading and books that I find engaging, written for larger publics. Again, looking at my syllabi, I see now that I usually try to make this move at this point in a course, taking the more specifically scholarly historiography and putting it into relationship with some broader, wider set of reflections about the topic.

The third part of the class is where I try to make the history pay off as a way to read and reconsider contemporary debates of some kind. Most of my classes have as their fundamental argument that contemporary practices and debates have a hidden “genetics” behind them, that there are histories embedded within them that shape those practices without any conscious intent. Or alternatively, I hope to suggest that issues and questions which are taken as being unique or special to our contemporary moment are not, and that the study of the past can usefully unsettle that perception. The point is, one way or another, I want to see what happens when we try to put the historiography to use. Maybe in this case we’ll decide that many of the obituaries being written for the book or for reading are not only in error, but that this is only one of the many moments where it’s been commonplace to believe that reading is at any end. Maybe we’ll decide that reading is genuinely undergoing a revolutionary reinvention (or a total eclipse). Maybe we’ll decide that reading should be knocked off its throne, to be one of a multitude of literacies worth having. Maybe we’ll feel that reading is wonderful but that the modes and practices of reading privileged by the scholarly humanities are killing that which they profess to love. I have no idea. The point is that just covering an academic subject is pointless if the students don’t get some chance to put it to use. And if they get that chance, one of the options on the table always has to be that concern for the subject itself is an impediment to some important or practical outcome. If I’m teaching African history, for example, I feel obligated to offer students at least a glimpse of the ways in which you might decide that “African history” is not the subject frame that you need for studying human experience that has taken place on the African continent.

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