This term I have been able to add a new line to my CV by getting involved in some graduate teaching. This came about because Oxford Faculty of History offers a Master of Studies course on Medieval History, and its second term is spent on an Option course and there had been complaints, because all the options available were cultural history. So the person in charge at this point balanced all, brought all to mind etc., and naturally enough lit upon The Amazing Explanation For All Change in the Middle Ages ™!
This is a thing that I know at least a little bit about, and so I was happy to be asked to join in. I am in fact convening the course, but that’s misleading as I am the very junior wheel on a vehicle mostly supported by much more senior and knowledgeable colleagues. We have, however—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to the students here should they find this, alas—had to invent it fairly quickly from scratch, and the result has been a bit various. In particular, the blurb I originally supplied for the Faculty website has turned out not to relate to the classes much. It went like this:
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, European society is often characterised as late-Antique or post-Roman, heading into the supposed Dark Ages; by the end of them, it is the home of the castles, chivalry, trebuchets, Romances and fine gowns that have fuelled the imagination of many a fantasy author and game designer. Since the early 1950s, a body of scholarship has existed that locates the series of changes that took the world from the late Roman to the high medieval periods closely around the year 1000, in a more or less violent and sudden ‘transformation’. Can this have been true? If so, how much, and where? Answering this question has produced almost as many answers as scholars and involves the study of knighthood, popular culture, the economy, castles, royal politics, heresy, reform, the effects of impure LSD (ergot) and a phenomenon that some historians argue never existed, feudalism. This option reopens the questions with a number of case studies and detailed examination of sources in a variety of genres, and encompasses a strongly comparative approach to European history around the year 1000 that will equip students with a critical basis to take on a much wider historical literature.
I mean, that still looks like an awesome course (to me at least), but the talk-up is a bit misleading. I’m pretty sure, for example, that none of us teaching this had time to discuss ergotism or heresy, and I would guess probably not medievalism either, more’s the pity. Instead, we went regional, with introduction and conclusions sessions, and between them sessions on France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Byzantium and England by various people. All of these areas have their own version of the debate about whether there was a rapid change circa 1000 and if so what it changed, and they certainly need comparing, not least because so much of the literature is on France, especially when you’re confined to English-language reading, but I would still like somehow to squeeze that quart into the pint pot and get some of the broader socio-cultural themes into play across the European board. We also used a variety of different class structures: set-piece debates, individual presentations followed by discussion, source-packs for close reading in class,1, and just free discussion of preset material, and that’s just the ones I know about. That seems as if it could either be a strength, being good training and avoiding dullness, or else a whirling confusion of expectations with no clear goals week-to-week; I could see either point of view, but can’t decide between them. It may vary per student and their individual capability.
We will obviously get student feedback and, equally obviously, I am consulting within the teaching group first and foremost, but since I haven’t written for a while it struck me that it might be interesting to ask the people reading this how you might go about working such a course. We have eight classes of two hours each; at the end of it they write an essay of 8,000-10,000 words, and that’s their assessment for the option. Can it be done in this scale? Should we knock stuff out, abandon the regional perspective, fix on a more limited set of teaching methods or mix it up some more? What would you advise? I make no promises about taking your advice, not least because it’s not all my call, but I’m interested in what shape it may take, if you feel like opining? If not, stay tuned, a seminar report should follow this rapidly.
1. This was me, and I didn’t feel it worked very well, not least because I didn’t have translations of the right sources ready and had to use what I had—this much I can fix, of course, and there are improvements I could also make to the instructions. Even so, I’ve yet to make this method deliver as a class. How about you?