Leaders, wars, and the survey course

Last week we administered a survey/quiz in our Western Civ course, asking students which of the topics we’ve covered interested them the most.  The results were a little surprising, at least to me.

Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon, via Wikimedia Commons

The most common answers involved subjects that many academic history tend to downplay: wars and leaders.  More students claimed they wanted to learn about strategies, battles, kings, queens, and presidents than anything else.  They wrote that they’d enjoy taking an entire course on the origins of World War I, the major campaigns of World War II, Napoleon, or the Romanovs.  What captivated these young scholars was the same sort of material that many academic historians dismiss as old-fashioned.

What accounts for these students’ responses?  I think it boils down to two factors.  First, political power—especially the relationship between modernity and monarchy—was an organizing theme that undergirded the course as a whole.  Our professor spent quite a bit of time analyzing the ways personalities, institutions, and change intersected, and he did so in such a captivating manner that students couldn’t help but want to explore these questions further.  In other words, good teaching leads to engagement with the subject matter.  It was a valuable lesson for us TAs, who will be thinking about how to organize our own courses in the future.  As I said a few months ago, the opportunity to observe great professors in the classroom is one of the biggest benefits of grad school.

The second reason so many of the students found wars and leaders so engrossing has to do with the subject matter itself.  At the end of the day, it’s hard to deny that battles, alliances, campaigns, and the lives of powerful men and women are pretty darned interesting.  After all, these were the very topics that prompted the first historians of classical antiquity to take up their pens: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, and so on.  And in our own time, the commercial success of military historians and biographers such as Andrew Roberts, Rick Atkinson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Antony Beevor, and Antonia Fraser speaks to the enduring appeal of this approach.

These were the sort of topics I used to feel guilty about spending time on as an adjunct.  As much as I loved lecturing on Xerxes, Alexander, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, the Crimean War, and Operation Barbarossa, going into detail on leaders and wars always seemed like an indulgence.  Every semester I chipped away at my coverage of conflicts and great men and women.  Maybe I should’ve let them be.  When we start making those hard choices about what to omit from our survey courses, perhaps we should leave space for these subjects that still take hold of the imagination, even the imagination of Generation Z.

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