Elohim yevarekh otakh*

A few years ago I reformatted my Introduction to Humanities course so that it was less of a chronological frog-march through Western culture and more a feast of big ideas.  I wanted students to come out of it with half a dozen or so conceptual frameworks for thinking about how the past shapes the present.  So I would teach them a big concept like the Great Chain of Being or Renaissance Humanism and then have them tease the idea out of various primary source readings.  How, for example, does this section of Vasari's Lives of the Artists speak to a humanistic concern for individual accomplishment?  Or in what way are Machiavelli and Luther reflecting increasing cultural autonomy from traditional authorities? 

No quizzes, no tests, just write, write, write and then revise, revise, revise.  I called this "Wrestling with the Angel" and explained that the name came from a passage in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with an angel all night and will not let him go until he receives a blessing.  "The texts are your angel," I told the students.  "I want you to fight the good fight and connect these big ideas to the readings."  In this way, I was trying to teach my subject at the same time I taught and--hopefully--reinforced critical reading and writing skills.

More than once I've had my doubts about this approach.  I'm the worst kind of pedagogical Hamlet.  Are they really learning?  Maybe all these ideas are just floating around in some inchoate haze.  I blogged about this a while back (The Ghost of Content).  Well, I was just sitting here reading some final papers from Humanities 102. For the final assignment I ask students to respond to three questions: (1) What are the big ideas that made an impression on you and why?  (2) How have ideas in this class arisen or been used outside of class?  And (3) What that you accomplished this semester gives you satisfaction? 

Here's part of the response I just finished reading:
At the beginning of the semester, I was troubled to learn that this class dealt with history, as it is one of my weaker subjects. As the class progressed I realized it was not a class that would require me to memorize dates or names but big ideas. As I began to connect the big ideas together and to hone my critical thinking skills, I enjoyed the class even more. The knowledge and skills I took from this class go far beyond humanities; the reading and analysis tasks made me think and wrestle with what the authors were trying to convey, and that is a skill I will be able to use in the remainder of my college career and beyond. While it is true that employers look at your grades, they also want someone who can think critically and dynamically. So the one idea I will take from this class is wrestling with the angel; I will not be satisfied with anything until I fully understand it.
Despite all my sturm und drang, despite my incessant dithering, hand-wringing and self-sabotage, I sometimes just love this job.  God help me, I do.

* Hebrew for "I bless you."


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