This fall, my Western Civ students will be reading Jeanne de Jussie’s Short Chronicle for their research skills-building assignments and analytic essay. I chose this book for several reasons: it’s short, it’s a clear narrative account with an excellent introduction, the author has a clearly discernible viewpoint and the story involves religious, social, political and even military elements that can appeal to a variety of students. Most of all, though, I chose The Short Chronicle because it’s obscure.
In the age of Google, great teachable classics such as Machiavelli’s The Prince are simply fodder for essay mill retreads and Wikipedia cut-and-pasting. Twenty years ago, when I started teaching my own version of Western Civ, I used to give students free rein from a long list of possible topics and sources to use, hoping their own interests would drive the process of developing a great research question and an enlightening research journey. Nowadays, such an assignment is a sure invitation for a subset of essays copied pretty much wholesale the night before or, only slightly better!, written from a random assortment of websites that show up in the top ten returns from their search queries.
So it’s a joy to take a relatively unknown primary source that they won’t believe they “know” already and plan out ways that students can build their successful steps toward an analytic essay without being lulled into a false sense of security by the wealth of information they can tap about it on the web. Last year I taught with Galateo, asking students to read the work according to a set schedule, then following our in-class coverage of the era and a research workshop, analyze how any one chapter related to the historical values of the Renaissance. This fall, I’m going to stretch out the assignment with a few more defined steps: after the in-class discussion and research workshop, they’ll have to complete some research preparation assignments (practice source analysis techniques on shorter selections from the textbook, identify a topic relating to the book that they want to analyze, locate a book in our library collection relevant to that subject, locate an article from our library databases relevant to that subject and so on).
In interests of not overburdening either the students or myself, I’ll get rid of some other marked elements along the way. Certainly there will be only one essay, with a term’s worth of skill-building steps building up to it, instead of two essays as I’ve used in the past. I don’t want to give up the journals responding to daily questions in class (collected and marked for use three times during the term). Maybe I’ll get rid of the midterm? It’s a real hassle with all the make-ups I have to offer for students who’re ill or who experience family emergencies (always a few in a class of 80 or more).