Western Civilization

January 02, 2004


The worst class I ever taught on my own was the first time I taught Western Civ. I did an even worse job with one of my TA jobs, but that was because I and the professor wanted to assign completely different readings, present the class material very differently, and were essentially teaching completely different classes. Oddly enough he is one of the people I model my own classroom performance on - I just assign different readings and tell different narratives.

That first Western Civ was bad for several reasons - I did not have a lot of confidence going in, it was a Community College class with all the problems with attendance, preparedness, and maturity that go along with teaching at a CC, the textbook was terrible, half of the assignments sucked. The underlying problems with the class are somewhat like those with the other badly taught class - I was trying to conform to a set of speficications that did not suit my teaching style. Let me explain.

That particular CC, which actually has a great English department and OK US history, has a European historian who believes that students can not read and that students must be able to master the "stuff" of history. So, she uses a simple textbook, her classes are spent practically reading the textbook (students can and do follow along with the text on their desks), and every ten days or so she has a multiple-choice exam quizzing the students on their ability to regurgitate the textbook. The whole thing is a mile wide and an inch deep.

That CC wants its adjuncts to use this teacher's syllabus, to use her writing assignments, and to use a standardized multiple-choice midterm and final exam. So, I used the test bank that came with the textbook and put together multiple choice tests. It failed. The tests were too hard for the kids, even using the test bank I was spending about as much time creating the exams and running them through scanners as it would have taken me to grade essays, and my teaching style did not fit the testing methodology.

You see, what I like to focus on is change over time, the story of history, the people and the choices that they faced. If I can conjure up the past, get the students excited about the events, and encourage them to see both patterns in behavior that translate universally and particular characteristics that make each moment unique, then I have done what I intended. I use the surveys to teach the students to think like historians, not to make them memorize names, dates, or paragraphs from the textbook.

The problem with this teaching style is that it requires that I have a good textbook and that the students read it. The textbook that semester sucked. The students did not know how to read. And, I was too caught up in doing the classroom my way. I did recover during the second half of the semester; I threw out the multiple choice exams, gave them short essay exams, and made them write. That worked a lot better because now the evaluations were compatible with my teaching style.

I was reminded of this experience because I was putting together class titles and readings for my next Western Civ. I am getting psyched about it. It helps that I picked the book, and chose a fairly good one. It helps that I am writing the evaluations. And, it helps that I am picking a couple of core narratives to organize the class rather than trying to figure out whatever pattern someone else may have had in mind. I will give the kids the narratives in the syllabus and on the first day of class - part of my "no surprises" teaching style.

My current thought is that there are two big narratives between the end of the religious wars and the present. Each of them has some sub-categories.
Nations and People


  • Rise of absolutism
  • Rise of empires
  • Rise of democracy
  • Collapse of absolutism
  • Collapse of empires

Making and Doing


  • Industrial Revolutions
  • Classes and Masses
  • Gender roles and female emancipation

In other words, I see one big story following political organizations as they evolve from kings with "absolute" powers and weak governance into empires with "absolute" rulers and strong governance into democracies. Different nations do this at different rates, and the meta-narrative of the modern world is the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Feh, this is poorly articulated. I will need to work on it.

The second big story is that while agricultural communities have strong gendered divisions of labor and are only moderately productive, industrialism in the three waves of industrial revolution has increased productivity, increased standards of living, shattered old social orders, and shattered the gendered divisions of labor.

I spent some time after dinner today going through the text, going through the schedule of classes, and portioning out readins while coming up with class titles that are catchy and that reinforce the themes I want to cover. Thus, the classes for March are:


Mon 1, The First Industrial Revolution, Noble chapter 20
Wed 3, Working Men, Working Women
Mon 8, Royalist Reactions, Noble chapter 21
Wed 10, Socialism, Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto
Mon 15 - NO CLASS - Spring break
Wed 17 - NO CLASS - Spring break
Mon 22, National Unifications, Noble, Chapter 22
Wed 24, The Second Industrial Revolution, Noble Chapter 23
Mon 29, Optimism
Wed 31, Europe and the World II, Noble Chapter 24

I still need to review my themes, review class titles, and make sure that I will be telling my linked narratives and also explaining an enoughness of the "stuff" - kings, and elections, and battles, and ideologies. I will keep tweaking this for another week, but the basic outline is down. Now I need to figure out paper topics.

Oh, and one oddity. One of the students in that first Western Civ class worked at the county library. We became friends, and before she left for Americorps she was our primary babysitter. Even in a terrible class, some things work OK.

Posted by Red Ted at January 2, 2004 08:22 AM | TrackBack