The Blessings of Teaching the Same Course Again and Again

1808 Map of Europe
Map of Europe from an 1808 atlas - University of Texas Library

The other day I mentioned that I was in the middle of writing my syllabus for HIS354 Modern Europe, one of the staples of my courseload at Bethel University. As any teacher reading this knows, offering the same class year in and year out can be the bane of one’s existence. It can become numbing to cover the same ground over and over (and hear the same questions and answers from students). It tempts you to save time and energy for other projects because it’s so easy to reuse the same notes, films, PowerPoints, assignments, exam questions, etc. Adding to the challenge is that this particular course is a survey, cramming the history (from 1750 to the present) of an entire continent into one semester. So on top of torpor and sloth, you run the risk of superficiality.

Yet Modern Europe is probably my favorite class to teach. And I think I’ve found two keys to making a recurring survey like it work: first, to choose moments at which to decelerate and sink more deeply into the story of modern Europe (one of which I’ll discuss at the end of this post); and second, to resist the impulse to embrace it as a providing opportunities to innovate.

Educators reading this: How do you deal with the challenge of teaching the same course repeatedly?

Precisely because it’s taught every year and follows a fairly typical list of topics for such a survey, I like to use Modern Europe as a personal pedagogical laboratory, a space in which I can test out new teaching ideas. (I think of it like twelve-bar blues, or certain modes of jazz: over a familiar rhythm and predictable set of chord changes, you can improvise variations on the melody. Or, if you prefer, it’s like a rearrangement of an old hymn: the melody is known, but it rests atop a changing bed of harmonization.)

Radio Modern Europe logo
The logo for my "Radio Modern Europe" podcast

Pretty much from the beginning of my time at Bethel I’ve enjoyed developing small-group roleplaying scenarios—probably the most effective, and longest running, is a mock trial of the German military policemen profiled in Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. Or, in 2007 and 2008 I decided to replace a third of my lectures with required hour-long podcasts (still available on iTunes U as “Radio Modern Europe”) that enlivened some of my drier material using interviews, music, and (I hope) some humor. (I especially enjoyed playing the roles of Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin, sharing some “Great Moments in British Football History,” and “breaking down” the Cold War with my friend Sam in the style of an NFL pregame show.) More recently, I’ve tried to break a bit from the typical two exam/one paper model and develop take-home exams that synthesize in-class material with original, individualized research that focuses on countries beyond the Britain/France/Germany core that I cover most heavily (or on marginalized groups—women, immigrants, religious and sexual minorities—within those three countries).

This coming year I’m going to add a new emphasis on public history, defined by the professional organization of its practitioners as the place “where historians and their various publics collaborate in trying to make the past useful to the public,” or “the conceptualization and practice of historical activities with one’s public audience foremost in mind,” rather than historical scholarship done primarily for an audience of fellow scholars. Perhaps the most common manifestation of this is the presentation of history in museums and historical societies, though it also shows up in the work of archivists, oral historians, documentary filmmakers, and others. While this field has largely been American in membership and interest, its goals and methods are certainly pertinent to European history as well. (I touched on this topic during my World War I series earlier in the summer, when I discussed the challenge of commemorating the war in public spaces.)

So this semester Modern Europe students will spend the second half of the term in small groups researching topics from the 20th century in order to develop a proposal for a work of public history (e.g., museum exhibition, documentary mini-series on the BBC, monument or memorial) to the rest of the class.

What’s your favorite work of public history? What made it particularly effective?

I’m intrigued by this kind of emphasis for a number of reasons. First, public history is increasingly a field of interest to our majors as they ponder “What can you do with a History major?” Second, even if they don’t pursue a profession related to public history, I’m hoping this project will help them become more critical and appreciative consumers of (or, depending on how you think of it, participants in) public history in this country. Third, it connects back to a major theme of Modern Europe, especially in the past few years: the distinction between history and memory.

I’ve tended to develop that contrast primarily in my choice of World War II as one of the moments when I slow down the survey and deepen our study, spending entire class sessions on the Holocaust, collaboration and resistance, and the aftermath of liberation. As a segue out of that section of the course into a concluding unit on contemporary history, I have students consider how Europeans of different nationalities (among other differences) have remembered or tried to forget the years 1940-1945, only to be confronted by revisionist historical scholarship and works of public history that challenged the convenient myths of the postwar era. For example, we’ve looked at Henry Rousso’s notion of a “Vichy Syndrome” in French history—that the postwar era was marked by successive phases of mourning, forgetting and myth-making, the recovery of memory, and obsession.

Tony Judt, PostwarAs my theme for this mini-unit, I’ve used the words of Tony Judt, from his epic Postwar:

Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself, history contributes to the disenchantment of the world. Most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive—which is why it is not always politically prudent to wield the past as a moral cudgel with which to beat and berate a people for its past sins. But history does need to be learned—and periodically re-learned. (830)

History is often described as “collective memory.” Do you agree with Judt that they’re separate and distinct? That one reinforces itself while the other “disenchants”?

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