Some Weeks are too Easy . . .

February 15, 2005

Some Weeks are too Easy, and
Some Weeks are too Hard
And the Weeks that lead to papers
Leave the Students working hard
Just ask thesekids,
When their brains are charred

(apologies to Grace Slick)

Last week's assignment for the students was too easy. This week's work is too hard. I planned it that way, but it does not quite even out.

When I ordered books I decided that I did not have time to make a reader, that I really wanted to talk about Edmund Burke, and so I told the bookstore to fetch me Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Tom Paine's Rights of Man, and Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front.. All are on the list of a dozen or so books that are always assigned to Western Civ. There are traditions to be maintained after all.

Then, while putting the syllabus together, I decided that I would go crazy without a steady diet of primary documents. So, I went ahead and made an electronic reader. It will need tweaking for next year, but it works fairly well.

Last week, the electronic reader consisted of two pictures, Beer Street and Gin Lane, and the assignment to write 200 words on "Why is Beer better than Gin?" for 1% of their total grade. I got a lot of pretty good answers, including the funny-but-true anachronism "because beer pong is better than gin pong."

This week they have to write me six to eight pages on Burke, Paine I and II, and Liberty, for 20% of their total grade. I expect some train wrecks. In fact, last week it became so clear that the kids were just not able to read Burke - something I had picked because I thought it was a nice easy read - that I broke my rule and talked about a reading before the kids wrote about it. I know that I will get a good fifty papers that simply repeat what I said in class. But a good twenty of those would have been total train wrecks without the help. I still expect to be reading Casey Jones this weekend, but the pileup should be smaller.

It appears that Burke is only easy if you:
- are used to reading long rambling arguments
- are comfortable with 18th and 19th century prose
- are familiar with discussions of liberty and the state
- like early modern political theory
- are familiar with Stuart England and quickly grasp the examples that Burke presents
- know the basics of the French revolution
- and can consider 100,000 words a short work.

The students qualify on none of these - even the smart kids were all at sea.

I think that next year I will have to pick between the electronic reader and the long Burke and Paine. In the US survey I have already decided to drop the monograph in favor of the reader and a novel (Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first half, The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the second half.) I suspect that the Ed and Tom show will not go into reruns at this particular institution.

Still, the two rough drafts that have come in so far show some promise . . .

Hope is not eternal; it lasts until you read the third student paper in the stack.

Posted by Red Ted at February 15, 2005 01:49 AM | TrackBack

Fingers crossed for you... And I just wanted to say thanks for reminding me of Beer Street and Gin Lane - they'll be perfect for a class I'm teaching later this semester ('respectable fears and myths', mmm)!

And I have some very personal answers to why beer is lovely (mostly) and gin is the drink of Satan, but let's not go there.

Posted by: Sharon at February 15, 2005 05:24 AM

Thanks for the kind words.

And yes, the Hogarth worked pretty well. I used it as a window into Musto's stuff on drug epidemics (convergence of real public health crisis and elite fears projected onto a taste cluster/social group)

Posted by: Ted K at February 15, 2005 07:32 AM
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