Hey all, Fireside this week, as I look to take a bit of time to focus on getting some writing done and some syllabi written before the semester begins in earnest later this week.
Also before we dive in I want to note that it appears that Patreon has been having some trouble processing some patrons recently. I haven’t seen a big movement from this and reportedly Patreon is working to fix the issue, but I would suggest if you are supporting any creators on Patreon – myself or others – you may want to check and make sure that you haven’t been caught in the Great Payments Mess-Up and are still subscribed to everything you want to be subscribed to.
And because the semester is coming up, it seemed like a good time to do a musing on syllabus and course design. I find most students don’t think too hard about the design of their courses and that’s perfectly understandable. I certainly didn’t when I was an undergraduate student. A student taking, say, Roman History tends to think of that course as the Roman history course. They don’t tend to think about all other possible configurations of a Roman history course, because they’ll only ever take the one and they aren’t designing it in any event. But of course the professor designing the course is thinking about a range of possible Roman history courses, with different approaches, teaching methods and topical focuses, and any professor worth their salt is thinking pretty hard about those choices.
And for the students out there, it can actually be really quite valuable for you to think about why your professor made the decisions they did too. A good syllabus should tell you and that can help you plan your own approach to the course material. So let’s talk about how to read a syllabus (at least for a history or classics course).
Most professors have a standard syllabus format they use, but you’ll generally find the same basic elements in each of them. I’ve used the same standard format for my syllabi for years now, and it’s fairly typical and goes as follows. First, there is a block of raw information (course location, title, time, my contact information, TAs contact information, etc.), followed by a course introduction or description, which in my syllabi is usually a couple of paragraphs, but for some courses may just be a few sentences. That course description is actually one of the most useful parts of the syllabi but also one of the least read. After that, I place the list of required books. Then I have brief descriptions of the major assignments, followed by a breakdown of how the course should be graded.
It’s after this that I get to the ‘policies’ section, which deserves a few words. Universities increasingly require certain boiler-plate statements with specific information to be included in syllabi. Most students skip over these policies. I won’t say not to read them, because there is often useful information in these boiler-plate paragraphs, things like university policy on disability accommodation (important if you need an accommodation!), attendance policy or the honor code. But these chunks aren’t written by your professor, generally, so they don’t tell you much about the course; they instead tell you about some of the rules of the university.
Finally, there is usually some form of course schedule. Some professors are fairly vague and flexible with their course schedules, but I am not. My syllabi list every single reading and assignment and the day on which it is due right at the beginning. I do that because I know students have many classes and need to be able to plan ahead, so I want students to be able to see at the outset when the heavier and lighter weeks of the course will be, so they can strategize their workload. I strongly recommend students, when you get your syllabi for all your classes, place all exams and major assignments on a single calendar so you can see them all together. That way, if you have three papers due in a single week, you know months in advance and can space out that work.
But there’s more information you can pull out of a syllabus.
First, look to see if the syllabus is trying to signal course themes or focus. Any college course at the undergraduate level is bound to be an exercise in selection. I cannot, obviously, teach you everything about Roman history in a single semester, I am going to have to pick and chose what to focus on. Likewise, your Latin class obviously cannot cover everything in Latin literature or even in a single author. That course introduction paragraph is thus going to try to signal what the professor intends to focus on, what threads are going to tie the lectures, discussions and assignments together into a coherent whole.
For a skill-focused course, something like a Latin class, that may be very easy to spell out in an introduction. A course reading the speeches of Cicero with an aim towards improving students mastery of grammar and vocabulary – a fairly standard undergraduate Latin prose course structure – is going to be quite different from a course reading the same speeches with an eye towards Cicero’s rhetorical strategy (you’d be more likely to see this in an advanced or graduate course). And as a student that matters both because it is going to tell you what skills the course is building but – perhaps more practically – what skills the professor is interested in assessing.
Likewise, a course on Roman history has to pick the ‘threads’ it is going to follow. My own Roman History survey syllabus is pretty blunt that, “special attention will be paid to the political and military institutions of the Roman Republic…the strengths and limitations of Roman political institutions and the causes of their eventual collapse.” In short, my survey is structured as a political history, focused on institutions. One could easily teach the same course as a series of biographic sketches of key leaders or as a cultural history focused on Roman values and worldview.
Recognizing the kind of course and its focus can be a particularly major help in studying for exams, removing quite a bit of the guesswork in terms of what will be tested. That grammar-and-vocab Cicero course is probably going to test grammar and vocabulary, probably with a translation focused exam. By contrast, the Ciceronian rhetoric course is going to want you to be able to explain the rhetorical strategy of a passage; it might also ask you to translate, but most of the points are probably going to go into explaining what Cicero is doing rather than simply translating what he is saying.
Likewise, it should be no shock that the focus of the questions on my Roman history course’s midterm and final exams tend to follow the course themes. I vary my essay questions year-to-year, but things like assessing the effectiveness of Sulla’s political reforms, the degree to which the Roman republic was a democracy, the impact of Roman expansion on political institutions, the role of Roman institutions on motivating Roman militarism, the strengths and weaknesses of Augustus’ political settlements are all the sorts of things I ask. Those questions of course all orbit the course themes: they’re all questions about political institutions!
You might also be able to detect some of what a professor was thinking in terms of assignment design, because assignments too are likely quite intentional. In particular, there tends to be a spectrum from purely assessment based assignments to what I call pedagogical assignments. A pure assessment assignment might be something like a multiple choice exam: it doesn’t aim to teach anything, but is purely to check to see if you know things. A purely pedagogical assignment might be something like an ungraded in-class exercise; I am not assessing you but hoping that by having you do something you will learn something. Most assignments have a bit of both, but often not an even mix.
A classic form of pedagogical assignment is the de minimis reading quiz. What the professor wants is to make sure you carefully read that week’s reading assignment, but what most of us learn by experience is that a reading assignment with no attached assessment does not get read by many students. A quiz on the reading, even with a very small grade impact, will ‘keep students honest’ (which can in turn, improve performance on later exams; we aren’t assigning these readings to be mean, but because we think you’ll learn from them!). Even better, a quick quiz directly before a class discussion on the reading can help jog student’s memories of what they read, making for a better discussion. Even better, write the quiz questions so that they focus on the same topics as the discussion (want to be these connect to the course themes?) to really prime the discussion.
I will say for my own practice, I dislike purely assessment assignments and try to use them as little as possible. Even my final exam is designed to have some pedagogical impact. Students in my military history courses may recognize that the questions for the final exam’s big comprehensive essay tend to ask students to apply what they’ve learned to a contemporary security policy matter, for instance, because that’s one of the capstone skill the whole course has been trying to teach: to use military history to think about the security challenges today. The essay is a chance to practice that skill, one last time; to take just one step beyond the course material.
And if you are thinking, ‘man, his courses sound like they involve lots of writing,’ – well, yes! They do. Another thing presented in the syllabus is that I think writing is a very important skill and one that can be usefully honed and refined in the history classroom. Writing persuasively and well isn’t some in-born talent, but rather is a skill, developed through practice. The only way to ‘get good’ at writing is to write a lot with purpose. For my classes, my syllabus and paper prompts are clear that the main criteria for assessing paper writing are focused on argument structure (the nuts and bolts of making the point), the quality of evidence used and the clarity with which the argument is delivered. Which is to say I am more interested in getting students to nail down the basics of delivering a persuasive, logical, evidence-supported argument and much less interested in rhetorical flourish or stylistic excellence. I want the Willys Jeep of analytical writing, not a Rolls-Royce.1
So in all of this my final advice to students as the semester approaches: this year try to give a bit more thought to why your courses are structured the way they are. Doing so can tell you something about how to approach the course and reveal the ‘hidden’ skills you are actually supposed to be acquiring on the way through.2
On to the recommendations!
I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t start by recommending myself, writing a shortened version of my take on Sparta in Foreign Policy. This particular article went pretty wild, getting hundreds of thousands of views and sparking a lot of angry responses on social media from folks whose grasp of Greek history was often quite limited. But if it touched a nerve then that it good, that is what it was supposed to do. The whole point of placing articles like this in major public-facing publications is to reach a target audience through that publication. In this case, my goal – as with most things I write for Foreign Policy – was to reach the military/security policy community. Going by the response, I think I succeeded in that (while also upsetting a whole lot of people with vaguely or not-so-vaguely authoritarian politics).
For those of you trying to keep track of the War in Ukraine, Michael Kofman did a very informative podcast over at War on the Rocks with Ryan Evans looking back at the past few months, the current Ukrainian counter-offensive and some of the issues involved (and this one isn’t behind the paywall). Kofman’s analysis is useful in part because he’s giving a pretty unvarnished view of both sides, whereas a lot of the online commentary is not merely pro-Ukrainian but sometimes unwilling to consider that Ukrainians too can make mistakes, face challenges and experience setbacks. I think in some ways the heady successes of the early war has given a lot of folks a real aversion to admitting that sometimes things don’t go Ukraine’s way. That doesn’t mean they’re losing or going to lose, it means this is a war and the enemy gets a vote.
One thing I cannot believe I have not yet included on a recommendation list is a wonderful tool that has been around for a long time, Stanford’s ORBIS, a geospatial model of the Roman world. ORBIS is a fantastic tool both for the scholar of the ancient world but also for anyone looking to get a handle on pre-modern travel times and the different kinds of connectedness you can have. The website lets you calculate travel routes between major cities in the Roman Empire, estimating cost and travel time. All of the estimates are necessarily very approximate, but rooted in evidence and careful modeling; they are not ‘made up,’ even if they may be based on educated guesses. You can also calculate network paths and flows to get a sense of how movement to or from an individual site would propagate through travel networks. It is a very neat tool you can spend some time playing around with to get a sense of how goods and people moved around the ancient world or which you can use to game out travel times on specific routes.
Finally, for this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend James M. McPherson’s For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997). This is one of those classics of military history sufficiently well known that I keep double-checking to make sure I haven’t actually already recommended it and just forgotten. Rather than a narrative history of the American Civil War, McPherson in Cause and Comrades is focused on the more narrow question of the title, ‘why did men fight?’ He takes a ‘Face of Battle‘ approach to the question and I’d generally say this is one of if not the best application of that ‘Face of Battle’ approach (in part because it is more flexible than some of the other too-rote-by-half applications of the method).
What McPherson has that other applications of the approach might lack is his enormous evidence base, where he relies on the writings – letters, diaries and memoirs – of 1,076 soldiers who fought in the war. It’s a staggering corpus of the sort historians of previous periods can only dream of, but it provides McPherson a ‘representative sample’ (he even has tables in the back comparing his sample to the geographic distribution of actual soldiers; one note is that his sample is tilted in favor of officers over enlisted men and men from professional backgrounds over farmers and other blue-collar workers, though the latter groups are not wholly absent from the sample either). Of course McPherson cannot put everything all 1,076 soldiers wrote in the book; on some level he is asking the reader to trust that the quotes and excerpts he provides do reflect the larger corpus. But he lets the soldiers themselves ‘do the talking’ for the most part.
The collection is not, however, aimless; McPherson is building a few key arguments, which really are neatly reflected in the title. McPherson wants to outline first ‘the cause,’ by which he means the reasons soldiers actually cite in their writings as to why they have gone to war. The controversial part of this argument is going to be McPherson’s contention that confederate soldiers by and large understood themselves to be fighting for slavery and he piles up quote after quote to make the point that these men knew full well they were fighting for slavery. At the same time what soldiers understood as ‘the cause’ ranged widely: slavery, abolition, a sense of duty, the need to live up to the example of the revolutionary generation.
Beyond this, McPherson argues, however, that the ’cause’ was often insufficient to steel men against the terror of battle, and this is where the ‘comrades’ come in. McPherson details how soldiers expressed what modern military theorists would describe as ‘group cohesion’ and how it held men in the fight: the need not to let down their comrades, or to be seen as a coward by their buddies. McPherson’s view, which I’ve largely adopted, is that ‘the cause’ is sufficient to get men to the battle, but not to hold them in the fight and that it was the ‘comrades’ which kept men in the line when the shooting started. It’s possible to over-stress the distinction. Somewhat ironically, it is McPherson’s focus on ‘the cause’ which was a break from the scholarship of the book’s time, which had tended to prioritize group cohesion over patriotism or ideology, a trend which I find continues in the popular culture, despite ample evidence that patriotism and ideology do matter.3
Next week we’ll be back to our look at the Roman Republic, specifically its magistrates.
- To be honest, most undergraduates who attempt an elaborate or rhetorical style end up hurting themselves, producing mangled, over-complicated sentences full of misused words. To be even more honest, most academics who do the same are merely cowering in obscurantism.
- And academics: make those hidden skills explicit. If you are assigning a lot of writing to make students better writers, say that to them.
- I call this the Saving Private Ryan school of military motivation, where the mission is pointless and the cause doesn’t matter and soldiers only stay in it out of loyalty to themselves. I think, to be blunt, this is a cynical and short-sighted view of military motivation, heavily influenced by the American memory of the Vietnam War. But when one reads the writings of soldiers of the past, or talks to soldiers of the present, it is really readily apparent that the cause does matter. Talking to folks who served in the Global War on Terror, I’ve generally found they believed in the mission more and longer than most folks on the ‘homefront.’