Don’t forget your books

16 01 2013

Yes, I am going to comment on David Brooks’s syllabus and no, I am not going to make fun of it.

Easy stuff first: attendance and participation–20%; two 2500-word essays, 40% each. That’s not far from my 300-level bioethics course: 20% A&P, 20% science quiz, two research papers, ~2500 words, 30% each.

No, what caught my eye was the reading list: Look at all of those books!

General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman” by Ed Cray

“Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do And Who We Should Be” by Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan

“Augustine of Hippo” by Peter Brown

“How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” by Sarah Bakewell

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke

“The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist” Dorothy Day

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr

“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin

I’d rather have the students read Pericles (via, say, Thucydides—and hey, let’s toss in the Melian dialogue while we’re at it) than read about Pericles—ditto Augustine and Montaigne—but if the Kagan, Brown, and Bakewell books include large chunks of these thinkers’ words, it’s defensible.

I like the Dorothy Day (of course), think de Tocqueville would have been better than Burke (and, perhaps, Niehbuhr), and while I have the Kahnemann book on my to-read list, I wonder what he’ll do with it. Berlin, eh, but perhaps fitting.

I also think  “The Character Course” would be a better title than “The Humility Course”—I think a fair amount of the snark is due to the title itself (the other part, of course, due to Brooks himself)—but it’s the content that matters, and, again, the content is defensible.

That’s not a major endorsement, of course, but its minimalism isn’t meant as a slam. It’s hard to put together a syllabus, especially the first time, and what’s on the page and what’s in the classroom are not always in sync. And that were I to teach a course on, say, political character, I’d probably keep Pericles (and the Melians) and Augustine and Day, add Plato and Machiavelli (of course), perhaps Voltaire, probably something from Foucault’s History of Sexuality, focusing on ethos and self-care. Something from Mandela. Portions of the Nixon tapes, perhaps. Some James Baldwin.

At least, that’s what I’d like to offer; I wouldn’t actually be able to do so: There is no way I could assign that many texts. My previous chair actively discouraged me from assigning too much reading (too much for a 200-level course: more than 25-50 pages a week), although the current chair might not have a problem with my overloading 300-level students.

More to the point, the students wouldn’t do the reading. I got my 100-level American government students to read the text by assigning near-weekly quizzes, and by requiring them to pull from the supplemental book (journalistic essays) for their take-home mid-terms. I’m wondering how to get my 100-level contemporary issues students to read their short-short pieces before class, and am tentatively planning to require them to hand in a brief summary of the readings before each and every class.

In other words, if they’re not being graded directly on the readings themselves, they will not do them.

I recognize this with my bioethics class, and while there is a fair amount of reading on the syllabus, I’d bet that more than half the class doesn’t bother to do all of the reading. Why would they? No final exam.

Given that, I’ve concentrated less on the answers the various authors provide and more on the questions. They won’t remember the readings, may not need most of them for their papers, so if I want them to get anything out of the class, I have to find something that will stick to the roofs of their minds.

(Another image I’ve used? Questions-as-earwigs.)

I ask them questions, I poke their answers, turn them around and push ’em right back at ’em. Oh, you think this is settled? Well then, what about that? What, you say that that has nothing to do with this? What about p, q, r? If you approve of red, why not orange? On what basis do you disapprove of triangles?

I can do this because these kinds of troubles are inherent in the material itself; when I half-joke that I aim to trouble you, it’s less about what I come up with sui generis than what I can point to in the rumpled textures of, say, enhancement technologies. Having ranged over this ground for some years, I’ve become, to switch metaphors, pretty good at kicking up the artifacts half-buried in the dirt—and showing them how to do so, as well.

It’s be great if my students would read everything that I assign because they truly want to learn everything they can about the subject, but that ain’t gonna happen.

So I work around that, and try to get them to care enough to learn, anyway.

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3 responses

17 01 2013
dmfant

17 01 2013
geekhiker

When I was in college, I was convinced that all of my teachers were speed-readers. It was the only way I could explain how they could possibly believe that I would have time to read everything that they gave me, plus go to classes, work and, every so often, sleep.

So, how many books do you assign to read in your class? I remember some classes where we would pick up spiral-bound books that contained copies of certain chapters from certain books, so that we weren’t reading entire books, just the parts that most directly pertained to the class and, more importantly, asked the questions that would become the class discussion…

19 01 2013
absurdbeats

It depends on the course, but usually 2 or 3, and perhaps some additional (online) reading.

Not too much, I think, but then again, I like this stuff.

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