Great War Course Planning
I’ve made a little more progress in my Great War course thanks to the early deadlines for book orders. We can’t cover as many books as I might have liked because of the compressed time period: three three-hour meetings per week for one month. I can’t fill all that time with lectures either, for then the main question would be who succumbs to fatigue first, me from speaking or the students from listening. More depth and less breadth is my goal, though the reading schedule will remain rigorous.
We’re going to do four major units with six books. First, there will be the origins question with July 1914: Soldiers, Statesmen, and the Coming of the Great War by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. and Russel Van Wyk (Bedford/St. Martin’s 2003). We’ll supplement this documentary history with the first chapter of The First World War by Hew Strachan (Penguin 2005) Second, we will use several classes to cover the course of the global conflict using Strachan’s survey together with the personal narratives in Intimate Voices from the First World War by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis (HarperCollins 2005). Third, we will use Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Anchor 1990) to consider the cultural impact of the war. Finally, we will look more closely at the war in two countries with Imperial Germany and the Great War by Roger Chickering (Cambridge 1998) and France and the Great War by Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker (Cambridge 2003).
I might add some articles or online sources when I write the syllabus, and students will get a broader feel for the literature through brief oral book presentations at the end of the semester.
Because students will need a little time to begin reading in the first place, I will begin the class by looking at a selection of classic films. There could also be a lecture at the beginning on broader trends in war and society, although I’m tempted to forego that in favor of students raising related questions during discussions.
Incentives for students to read will be not only the subject matter and two short papers, but also a midterm and final exam. While I am no big fan of exams in history courses, many undergraduate students seem to need this carrot and stick. They might even appreciate it, though I would expect none to admit as much.
What happens during classroom time will depend largely on class size. The theoretical upper limit is 45, but I’m told 25 is more usual in the summer. Even that would be too large for meaningful discussions, so I’m thinking about what kind of discussions among small groups of students could occur within the larger classroom, with the groups then reporting results to the class as a whole. I have little experience with this setup in history; however, I regularly use the technique when teaching English to non-native speakers. I believe that this student-centered approach could be applied to history, in which learning historical thinking and a new topic is also about doing. Students need to read, think about, and discuss history in order to make it their own. Discussions in small groups could significantly increase the amount of practice that each student gets in a larger class.
Integrating these student-centered discussions into classroom time should also help with the pacing of each three-hour evening session. There will be more variety for everyone, and time usually passes more quickly for students when they are actively engaged in the class.