I had to drop one of my adjunct gigs because of some additional responsibilities I was taking on, so the only college classes I’m teaching this semester are world history courses. I’ve been neck-deep in ancient history books for months, letting my to-read list on early America gather dust. I feel a little like an expatriate who’s lived overseas for so long that he starts to forget his own language.
We’re getting to a point in these courses that I both anticipate and dread—the classical era. I like it because it’s interested me since I was a kid, before I was really into “history” as a discipline; I dread it because in a survey course you generally don’t have time to get into the details, and the details are the fun part when it comes to the classical age. It’s a period that threw up more than its share of compelling people and incidents—Marathon, Syracuse, Alexander’s march to India, Hannibal crossing the Alps, Antony and Cleopatra, the fall of the Roman Republic, and all the rest of it.
It’s all very well and good to pooh-pooh dramatic narrative, but most of us who get into the history business did so because at some point in our lives we got caught up in the stories. I can’t tell you how many students of the Civil War have told me that they owe their obsession to Bruce Catton; I’ve never heard anyone tell me that an analytical monograph is what set their imagination on fire. At some point, budding young historians must (in the Apostle Paul’s phrase) “put away childish things” and learn to enjoy theory and analysis, since a love of dramatic episodes and colorful characters won’t sustain a career in history. But the fact remains that it’s just such episodes and characters that create historians and history enthusiasts.
Now, this brings us to a maddening Catch-22. Survey courses are full of potential history enthusiasts who are susceptible to the lure of these incidents and characters, but they’re also the very history courses where it’s hard to indulge in such things, because there’s so much material to get through. It’s hard to stop and smell the roses when you’ve got to cover everything from the Neolithic through the Renaissance. The pressures of time and the knowledge that storytelling doesn’t constitute history combine to make many of us reluctant to meander along these pathways in survey classes. When it happens, it’s often in spite of our attempts to avoid it.
That’s what happened to me the other day when my lecture went off the rails during my afternoon class. I got sidetracked in the Greco-Persian Wars and went off on a tangent, and my students actually enjoyed it. They were sitting up and paying attention. In terms of imparting information it was my least successful lecture of the semester so far, but in terms of student engagement it was my most successful. Maybe I should be guilty of dereliction of duty more often.