Teaching Civ

Apart from today’s earlier, whimsical post, I have not written much for the blog lately. This is largely due to the pressure of work—teaching, committees, etc.—which is a bit above average this semester.

But along with all that, for the last two weeks I have been reviewing a world civilization text book manuscript for a publisher. This is one of those things that publishers ask academics further down the food chain (like me) to do from time to time, usually for a paltry sum. I’d done it before, and would not have done it again, except that it allows me to make certain Schedule C tax deductions and this time the particular publisher was offering a pretty good chunk of change.

I finished my review today and sent it off, and then wondered: how many people actually remember anything from their college civ classes? I have been teaching these courses—originally “western civ,” now “world civ”—for over twenty years, even though I never took such a course myself in college (Columbia’s core curriculum was centered around Great Books). Indeed, how many people remember anything from my courses? I have always found teaching such courses—all of human history from Autralopithecus Afarensis to W. in two semesters—problematic, an occasionally satisfying but often frustrating experience. At the same time, it is precisely because of the institutional requirement of such courses that I have a job and can do the other stuff, both teaching and research, that I enjoy.

So below is the first part of my review. It is a response to questions the publisher gave me concerning the teaching of civ. I will not name the publisher, nor will I give the actual questions (you can pretty much guess what they were based on my response). I will not give the specifics of my review of the manuscript. But I thought it might be interesting for readers to look over what I wrote about what and how I teach and compare that with their own experience, whether as students, parents, or perhaps educators themselves. I would be interested in any response on any related matter, whether it is the specifics of how I teach, or how well anyone remembers the material from such courses, or what sort of impact these kinds of classes have had on them or anyone they know.

  • My department offers a two semester World Civilization survey. The first semester covers from the beginnings of history to 1453 (the fall of Constantinople) and is only required for history majors, history minors and one or two other minor fields. We usually offer one or two sections of 80 students in both Fall and Spring, and despite being required for relatively few students, it almost always fills up. The second semester is required for all undergraduates (which is over 90% of our 16,000 students) and we offer many sections, usually of 80 students, in both Fall and Spring. I teach both courses.

    We do not have a departmental requirement for the course; that is, there is no common survey text, and each faculty member is free to emphasize what he or she chooses.

    My emphasis in both semesters, but particularly in the first, is cultural literacy, since I find that my biggest challenge, frankly, is ignorance. Most of my students seem to be starting from ground zero, and my goal is to help them make sense of their world. At the beginning of the first semester, I ask the students how many know or even recognize “Pyrrhic victory” or “as rich as Croesus” or “Let justice roll down like water,” etc. Almost none ever do. I hope that after the course, they should be able to see a movie, or read a newspaper, or go to a museum and find that these experiences make more sense.

  • The main textbook I use is [editorial excision]. It’s main strengths are that it is relatively easy to read, and the students like it (at least as much as they ever like a textbook). It is well illustrated, with copious clear maps. It has a common tone and approach, as a result of only two authors. It’s divisions of the material are traditional, which does not suit everyone, but which I like just fine.

    It’s weaknesses are the same as the weaknesses of every civ textbook—it covers things I wish it would skip and leaves out much that I want to discuss. But that sort of thing is inevitable.

    As for additional reading: in the first semester, my emphasis is on the religious and philosophical foundations that the ancient world has left us. Thus I have the students read Genesis, Exodus, Amos and Hosea in the Hebrew Bible; the Bhagavad Gita; selections from the Analects of Confucius; the Euthyphro and Apology of Plato; the Enchiridion of Epictetus; selections from Islamic philosphers; and a small portion (ten pages) of the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. I have also used Tacitus’s Agricola and Einhardt’s Life of Charlemagne. For the second semester, I shift to a more political focus, and usually include such works as Machiavelli’s Prince; Luther’s Freedom of a Christian Man; Jonathan Spence’s translation of the emperor K’ang Hsi; Rousseau’s Social Contract; the Communist Manifesto; and some of Gandhi’s political writings. But at times I will vary the diet and use Descartes’ Discourse on Method, or More’s Utopia, or Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or some other such. I am always on the lookout for relatively short books of primary source material that I can assign.

  • I always tell the students that I will never include material on a test that is only found in the textbook and not at least mentioned by me. The textbook is meant to reinforce the lectures, particularly by giving the students a bit more context within which to understand the material, and to enable students who have missed a class to catch up. When students ask which is more important, the textbook or the lectures, I tell them to think of the lectures and the textbook as two speakers of a stereo system, and I emphasize that old college rule of thumb: two hours of work outside of class for every hour in class.

  • For lower division civ surveys, I use PowerPoint a lot. It helps a great deal in presenting a massive amount of material in a short space of time. (However, I hardly use it at all in upper division history courses.) I do not assign any online resources—I consider these distracting when the main thing students should be doing is encountering a text and considering ideas. I do not use WebCT or Blackboard—no one has ever explained to me (to my satisfaction, anyway) what is the pedagogical value of such tools. I do not have a web page or home page for the course, but am considering setting one up. I have never taught the course online and hope that I never will.


    3 Responses to “Teaching Civ”

    1. Episcopal student Says:

      As someone only a few years out of college, let me say thank you for not using WebCT. My friends and I all despise it, and at least in my experience it creates a lot of hassle for no discernible benefit.

      Technology is great when it actually adds something to the class, but lots of professors seem overly enamored with innovation for its own sake. (On the other hand, at least they didn’t become theologians!)

    2. James G Says:

      The course I took back in college was called “Human Civilization: Ancient to Renaissance” and I still remember it with fondness. The professor was a short, bearded Egyptologist with an odd Eastern accent (Delaware maybe?) and he would regale us with stories from his summer digs. We read Gilgamesh, Suetonius, and various short works including a collection of ancient Egyptian writings. The textbook was actually mostly on art and architecture. It was a gen-ed class but the professor was one of my favorites even though I only had him for the semester. I recommended the course to my best bud and he loved it too.

      Reading your course description makes me wish I was back in school. Is it possible to enroll at your university for one course only? Looking back now I wish I had of had more history classes. Unfortunately it’s hard to fit electives into an engineering curriculum, especially if one wants to graduate in four.

    3. green smoke coupon Says:

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