Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Knowing Stuff

Knowing Stuff

I came out of today's classes feeling really good. I've been behind all quarter, the students have been recalcitrant, to say the least, and I've had to cut content I think is important. Not good. But anyway, today, on our way to the
Song of Roland, I had to tie up a ton of stuff we've fallen behind on and make it fit into a picture that worked. And it did -- the students, with some prodding, were able to recall details from 7th century Germanic laws, Frankish royal genealogy, Muslim invasions, Einhard, fidelity oaths, and Vikings to help me tie it all into an overview of Early Medieval Europe. From there, we talked about the changes from partible inheritance to primogeniture, and a semi-concurrent shift from appointed office to inherited titles replete with land. From there, and the kind of weaker-king, stronger nobles, outside invaders and internal social tensions, we moved on to the dreaded F-word. Except that, this time, it wasn't dreaded. Somehow, this desperate attempt to review and make sense of what we'd been doing made it possible to talk about how there was no F-system, because look at Eastern Francia and how it changes after 911. Nothing like what's going on in the west, right? On the other hand, move forward several generations after that nice document with Rollo and Charles the Simple, and we can see something that looks like a system, because that bastard William takes over England and imposes it from above, more or less. But that's different, isn't it?

The upside is that this went really well. The downside is that it was somewhat serendipitous. It made me realize that I give myself over to the gods of coverage more than I'd like. This quarter, what with teaching an overload and burning out on three sections of the same class, applying for jobs (4 more apps in this week!), serving on a governance committee and trying to keep up with an assessment committee, and still trying to get those bloody reviews finished (and don't ask about the upcoming 19th c. class -- that's a blog for later), I've really focused on concepts and methodology and hitting a few really important themes hard in class, while leaving a lot of the larger discussion to Blackboard. It's not completely satisfying, but there are advantages. It definitely makes me want to rethink some of my approach and exactly why I assign some documents and not others. Typically, it's been the same way most sourcebooks do it -- pick documents from the period and use them to illustrate certain aspects and make them more "real" to the students. Have the students try to use the sources as evidence. I suppose what I realized tonight was that, in the back of my head, I've been tying these things together pretty well, but have probably never articulated the long-term interconnections in a way that sticks. Now that I've articulated it to me, I think I should be able to improve what's already a pretty good set of courses.

Of course, in the car on the way home, I started thinking about the class, and wondered to myself, "How do I know this? Am I just talking out of my ass? I'm sure that I've read, heard assimilated this knowledge before, but I am not able to put my finger on where." I mean, some of this is so basic, and I'm sure comes from a combination of Brown's "Tyranny of a Construct," Reynolds' Fiefs and Vassals, Ganshof, Marc Bloch, etc. But still, it would be nice if it weren't quite so assimilated. This, my friends, is why we need to keep up on our scholarship -- if for no other reason than that we forget things and need to remember not just that we know things, but why we know we know them. Or maybe that's just me and other people who do this for a living don't forget why and how they know stuff?


meg said...

I know that feeling sooooo well. Even about some of the same things... although this semester it's about courtly love, excess of young males, climate warming, etc. Some of that's in Duby somewhere, but it would take me ages to find it. And I can't even remember where I read all the climate and economics stuff. Every monday and wednesday afternoon I wonder if I've scarred young minds with the dreaded False Information, or its weaker sidekick Exaggerated Glibness.

I'm sending good wishes your way on the job thing, btw -- I neglected to say that earlier, but it was true then and true now.

Ancarett said...

Sympathies on the 19th century teaching gig. I suffered through one such course the year before last, so I can imagine what agony it inspires.

Good point on the issues of serendipity in teaching -- it's enjoyable but you'd rather feel that you were reaping the benefits of well-planned pedagogy!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks, Meg and Ancarett! Meg, I think that the climate stuff might be in Duby's Early Growth of the European Economy, although my initial feeling is that it's Rene Doehard, maybe?

Jonathan Dresner said...

One of the reasons I adore conferences, though everyone says they're dead.... again, is the exposure to current research and new directions. One of the reasons I read the AHR even though about one article in ten is actually about my field is to keep up with the historiography. And I've learned more US history reading HNN and its blogs in the last three years than I ever got in school....

Yes, we need to keep our learning current. It needs to be active, not habitual.

How large are your classes? I like the sound of what you're doing as a teacher, but I find that there are pretty clear numerical limits on how large a discussion I can pull off (and if the class size is larger than that, then everyone else just sits there like a lump while a few of us have a discussion)

meg said...

I love confs too, for the same reason. And I take scrupulous notes -- transcriptions, really -- so that I can refer to them later. That way, if I learned something at ADM's Medieval Academy talk (no, don't worry, I have no idea if I saw your talk -- your anonymity is safe) and a student or colleague challenges me on the source, I can at least write the speaker and ask.

Not that I've ever needed to, but I feel better knowing that I could.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Meg, I long for the day to have you come to one of my talks at the MA! I just have to write something to talk about -- although I could certainly do something on creating awkward but useful databases for searching the details of 8th and 9th century land transactions! Or evidence for marriage as a political tool in a particular area based on the documents for a couple of eastern frankish monasteries! (actually, that is something I'm trying to work on ;-)

Jonathan, my cap is 40 (30 when I'm adjuncting at Religious U). Normally, my enrollments are anywhere from 25-35, and, after the drop period, normal attendance can be from 10 to around 25. It's a community college, which is great for smaller survey caps (but no TAs to help grade), but which also can attract a lot of students who still have a high school attendance mentality. If I have large groups, I tend to do a lot of group work, and then have the groups present information to each other, so that discussion goes from a more narrow focus to a broader one.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I have the same feeling about where my information comes from too - I fit everything together and have a pretty clear idea of things most of the time, but God knows where it came from! I do know that some of my stuff comes from my grad advisor's lectures to undergrad western civ classes, and God knows where she got it.

And yes, some of the best teaching moments I've ever had have been entirely unplanned. And I have no idea if I will ever be able to reproduce them!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

PS - and I agree about keeping up on scholarship too. One of the reasons my husband got out of academic was that he didn't have an active research agenda and he really felt like he was slipping and in just a couple of years he would be entirely stale.

(Of course this presumes I have time to read anything's funny, in grad school I always agonized about getting to the archival resources, but now the difficulty is finding the time to properly contextualize those sources - when doing conference papers I can always go through and dredge something up out of the sources but I'm never very confident that I know how it fits in with anything anyone else has been studying...)

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I love the "gods of coverage" concept. But I love those serendipitous moments. Pat yourself on the back -- I think they actually take a different kind of excellent teaching skill :)

meg said...

Wait, ADM, didn't you post back in the spring about having been at MAA this year?

The problem with keeping up with the journals is *time* -- it would take for-feckin'-ever to wipe my eyes over just the ones we have in our crappy library, let alone a good one. At Big Ego U., where I did my Phhhhth, there were a couple hundred journals just in medieval.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

PS - the marriage as a political tool stuff sounds fascinating. As, for that matter, do the databases (I think people always love hearing about how other people actually deal with their sources).

Emma Goldman said...

FWIW, I wish I could take one (or more) of your classes. I always hated history--not because I hated it, per se, but because I couldn't REMEMBER anything. It always felt like a list of unconnected facts (which of course it is not), which is nearly impossible to commit to memory; there never seemed to be any organizing stories. The only thing that has helped in recent years (and I'm red-faced to admit this) is Dorothy Dunnett's novels. They're a bit too swashbuckling, of course, yada yada, but it helps me start to build a framework for what was going on in Europe and parts of North Africa and so on. I think I'm ready to go find Braudel or somebody and try again (though i'll take recommendations from you, of course).

meg said...

Emma... I'm not a card-carrying historian, but my sense is that history is currently working its way toward a good balance between, on the one hand, the Big Story model espoused by the great German historians and since somewhat discredited, and the fiddly-bits model on the other.

Our way of coping in this transitional period, from what I can tell from the history classes I took in grad school and the classes that I and my colleagues teach, is to read the fiddly bits and then contextualize in class. At least it's working for me for now.

But it's a serious subject of discussion, confusing discreteness vs. narrative oversimplification.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thanks for the nice words, folks!

Yes, meg, I was at MAA, but didn't give a paper. It was local, so it made sense just to go and learn things and meet people, since I've been out of the loop for a while.

Emma, if you like 19th c. history from a British perspective, read the Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser.

Emma Goldman said...

Thanks for the recommendation--I'm a devoted Trollope fan--but I think I'm ready for some non-fiction, too, maybe around the 16th & 17th centuries (the time period for the Dunnett novels). I thought I remembered that the 3-volume Braudel covered that period. Unless you think something else would be better? And maybe require less of a commitment.

Sharon said...

You want to read 16th/17th century history and you like good story telling? Then two must-reads, neither of them intimidatingly long (unlike Braudel):

Carlo Ginzburg, _The cheese and the worms_

Natalie Zemon Davis, _The return of Martin Guerre_ (well, anything by her will be rewarding...)

And I personally am never ashamed to admit that I adore everything Dorothy Dunnett wrote on the period. In fact I just had a marathon rereading session over the last month or two. Those books were the single most important factor in reawakening my interest in history in my early 20s (and, hey mama, look at me now!) after school had managed to thoroughly kill it off.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

How weird -- I thought I posted a response, but it's not here. I'd also suggest (for good fiction) the Flashman books by George MacDonald Fraser, and Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin books if you like 19th c. stuff and the Napoleonic Wars at sea.

Anonymous said...

ADM -- any chance you could email me? I wondered if you'd be willing to comment on something I have written, but is too long for a post on CT. Sorry to be off topic; I don't know how else to contact you.
best, Harry from CT

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