Category Archives: teaching

On Teaching as Deep Thought

When a sessional instructor bowed out in August, I knew that I was the only logical candidate in our department to take over teaching the second-year survey course on early industrial Europe. However, this was a course that had been my personal bête noire for some time. I’d team-taught it on return from maternity leave in early 1997 and again a few years later. Neither time did I feel I’d done the topic justice, yet here I was volunteering to do it on a few weeks notice? What changed? A lot, and a lot of it was me.

I credit Jo VanEvery for a fair chunk of that change – a few years ago I signed up for her one-on-one sessions and it was wondrously helpful. I learned to clarify what I wanted to be doing so that I could be more mindful in what I was doing. At the time we spoke, I felt as if my research and teaching were insurmountably disconnected. Jo helped me to revisit my teaching, approaching it to find links with my research, and, honestly? That changed the entire game. I have always loved teaching, but approaching teaching as a way to link students and their studies to my own expertise helped enliven the practice. Next term, I’ll do that in one way with a course on Game of Thrones (on which I’ve published and lectured), but I have also used that perspective to help improve my classroom work on other “regular”histories. The challenge, I thought, would be to see if I could do this with a course I’d taught twice before and despaired about: Early Industrial Europe.

So I asked myself two  questions: what really had to be in the course and what could I do to make that exciting? Continue reading

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On Grand Tour, 1740

Johann Georg Keyssler (1693-1743), was a German scholar who served as steward to a succession of German nobles before making his name as a skilled tutor ideal for leading young noblemen on the Grand Tour. In 1740 he published a collection of his travel letters as Neueste Reisen durch Deutschland, Böhmen, Ungarn, die Schweiz, Italien und Lothringen which was translated into English in 1756. Keyssler’s observations combined careful descriptions of terrain and town life along with keen assessments of the political and economic contexts of the European continent since the 1680s.

These excerpts come from “Letter XIX” in Volume 1 of Travels Through Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, and Lorrain. London: A. Linde & T. Field, 1756.

Lausanne lies in a valley, but so uneven that the carriage wheels must be continually shod. On the east side of the town is a very spacious walk, with a wall, and a prospect towards the city and lake of Geneva, which seems very near, but is a good half league off.

In the wall of the great Church was a crack wide enough for a man to creep through, occasion’d by an earthquake in the year 1634. The celebrated old professor Pictet used to say, that when he was a boy and at play in the church-yard, he has sometimes laid his cloak in it; about thirty years ago it was closed again by another earthquake, and the crevice which remain’d was fill’d up with mortar, being not above an inch in breadth. The tower does not want beauty, but having been twice burned, only half of it is now standing. A smaller tower belonging to this church was also set on fire by lightening, when they produently beat it down by a chain ball, by which the body of the church was saved, and since a spire has been raised on it. In the church is the marble tomb of a chevalier of the house of Granson, likewise of duke Charles Schomberg, who lost his life in Piedmont in the year 1698.[1] On one side of this cathedral is a wall’d terrass like that at Bern, with this difference, that the terrass of Bern is much higher wall’d, and that of Lausanne has the advantage in prospect, commanding the lake and all the low country towards Geneva. This country indeed from its nature, and the improvements of it, affords a delicious view in the variety of little hills and dales, fields, meadows, vineyards and woods, together with the neighbourhood of the lake. All these allurements, and the regularity and mildness of the government, draw people of all countries into the Païs de Vaud, and especially to pass the summers and autumns there; some also purchase lands.

The resort of persons of rank from Geneva and the canton of Bern, of men of letters and parts, of gentlemen who have travell’d, of experienced merchants, and other persons of amiable qualities who come hither as to refuge from civil and ecclesiastical tyranny, affords the most desirable opportunities of spending the time agreeably in improving conversation. Even ministers of state whose talents have shown in the greatest courts of Europe, have chosen this spot for the seat of their repose: and their conversation to a mind turn’d for instruction, whom they are pleased to honour with their confidence, cannot but be an exquisite entertainment, as they themselves may feel transports of rational pleasures, which they were strangers to amidst the tumult of a court, and the embarrassments of their station. [155-6]


To return from my digression, and say a word more of the charming Païs de Vaud, which beginning at Morat, reaches to Geneva, and is to be distinguished from La Vaux, which is but a small part thereof lying betwixt Lausanne and Bevay, and not above three leagues in length, and but one in breadth; it produces the wine called Vin de la Vaux, of a good body and agreeable flavour, yet has not such a demand as the Vin de la Côte growing betwixt Lausanne and Geneva, which not being so strong is accounted more wholesome. The country from Lausanne to Geneva abounds in vineyards, but the wine of a strip of land betwixt the river Aubonne and Pronsontause, a little brook falling in to the lake, half a league on this sideNyon, is esteemed the choicest. This territory is three small leagues in length, and is distinguished by the name of la Côte. The wine of the growth of Rolle and Bursin, two particular spots from here, is reckoned to surpass the rest, and especially the white wine; a the barony of Copet, which lies nearer towards Geneva, is celebrated for red wine.

The wine growing on the Savoy side of the lake of Geneva had formerly a very soniderable vent, the people of Geneva, and the neighbouring Switzers buying their wine from Savoy; but a certain rapacious placeman put the duke upon laying a duty upon this wine, which, as the Switzers could not be without it, he said would be a great increase to the revenue. Such counsellors are but too readily listened to, and the imposition took place. This of course occasioned the wine to rise, and the Switzers were not wanting to make remonstrances, but to no purpose; at last, seeing no remedy, it came into the minds of some leading men, that though their forefathers had never any thoughts of planting vines, yet that it was not impossible that their country, especially that part of it between Geneva and Lausanne, might yield as good wine as Savoy; the position of their mountains and of the land in general, affording a better exposure to the sun than the Savoy territory. The business was set on foot, and the consequence far exceeded all expectation; whereas the Savoy wines remained upon their hands, and instead of the uncertain advantage which the duke’s finances were gaping after, they lost, besides the detriment to the industrious subjects, a certain income, which they have never since been able to retrieve.

From Lausanne through Morges to Rolle is reckoned five hours journey; but it is usually gone in four. On the right-hand lies Aubonne, at present a government of the canton of Bern, but formerly a lordship belonging to the marquis du Quesne, which he purchased of Tavernier, the famous traveller, and afterward sold it to Bern. Tavernier had bought it upon the king of France’s having given him letters of nobility, with an intent of quietly spending there the remainder of his life; but by the knavery of a cousin of his, whom he had sent to the East-Indies with a cargo of two hundred and twenty two thousand French livres value, and the sale of which would at least have fetched a million, became involved in such troubles, that he was obliged to dispose of every thing, and ended his life in a manner very different from the ease and affluence with which he had flattered himself. As for the marquis du Quesne, he was eldest son of the famous admiral du Quesne, the only person whom the French could oppose to the Dutch admiral Ruyter. These two sea heroes are said to have had such mutual esteem, and such a dread of losing the honour they had gained, that they always avoided each other, sending private information of the course they intended to steer; till once du Quesne being by contrary winds hindered from pursuing the course which he had specified to Ruyter, they happened, contrary to the inclinations of both to meet of Mesina, and thus there was a necessity of coming to an engagement. It is also said, that from a false motion made by the Dutch admiral’s ship, du Quesne concluding Ruyter to be no longer in command, immediately animated his men with assuring them that Ruyter was killed; whereas he lived some days after he received the wound.[2]

Du Quesne continued a firm Protestant; so that when, in his advanced age Lewis XIV. Was practising upon him to forsake his religion, he frankly answered, Sire, j’ai rendu asses long temps á Cesar ce qui est dû á cesar; il est temps, que je rende aussi á Dieu ce qui lui est dû. ‘I have long enough been rendering to Cesar the things which are Cesar’s, it is now time for me to render also to God what is due to him.’ So little did the king understand this, that turning to the by-standers he said, Est ce que la tête tourney á cet homme? Veut il server l’empereur? ‘Is the man out of his mind? Is he for serving the emperor?’ Being on account of his naval qualities, the person whom in those times the crown of France could not spare, he was the only one who, at the time of the repeal of the edict of Nantz, was connived at, and not compelled to abjure his religion, or quit the country. The heart of this great man lies in a marble tomb erected by his son in the church of Aubonne; the spirit of persecution, after all his eminent services, not allowing the whole body to be carried out of town. [161-3]

[1] Charles Schomberg (1645-93) was born in Brandenburg but ended life as an English duke under William & Mary. He served as a general in the Prussian, Dutch, and English armies. He perished at the Battle of Marsaglia during the Nine Years’ War, among the 10,000 allies who perished failing to take the French-held town of Pinerolo.

[2] Keyssler here refers to the 1676 death of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter during the Franco-Dutch War as a result of wounds suffered at the Battle of Agosta. Admiral Abraham Duquesne, a renowned Huguenot naval leader, disengaged his fleet from the attack upon word of his rival’s injuries but continued to serve Louis XIV until 1684

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Shall We Play a Game?

I’m returning to the subject of crime history in this fall’s teaching: a third-year course on Crime & Punishment in England, 1500-1900. I was happy with a lot of material and activities that I used last time. I was even happier that I made some good notes about what not to do when I revisited the course (so students will do three projects using records of London criminal trials and not four).

What’s got me most excited is the prospect of building a game with the class. We’re going to use Twine 2.0 to create several text-based “choose your own story” adventures using material gleaned from the Old Bailey Online.

Each student will be responsible for suggesting some cases we might use in the storylines – a great way to get them to dig around in the archive – and also locating some images to add interest to the game as we develop it (along with documentation of where they found these so we can assemble a proper set of credits in the game).

They’ll also be expected to create some narrative choices for the game stories as we develop this: for instance, letting the player choose to either apprehend a suspect when someone shouts “Stop, thief!” or ask the complainant “What’s this about?”

Right now, I’m still working my way through the screencast tutorials while I prepare a sample game to start the course and spark their interest. When it’s up and running, I’ll link it here. But for now?

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Reading to Fuel the Fire

You know what Erasmus said? “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Well, I bought another bunch of academic books this month. Eight in print depicted, one still on the way and one ebook awaiting me on my ereader. Oops? Eight books piled up

This fall term I’m teaching a bunch of familiar courses: Western Civilization from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Crime and Punishment in England, 1500-1900 and then our graduate course on research methods which is going interdisciplinary across the humanities thanks to the wonders of cross-listing. With that in mind, I’m expanding my mind and my reading list particularly as it comes to the last element. In between writing up my crime history research in hopes of having another article complete this summer, I’m reading in order to lead a wide-ranging class of students on the start of their own research journeys.

However, on the heels of presenting at Congress 2017, I’m taking the rest of this week as a bit of a vacation. The scholarly reading goes on hold but it’s hard when the books are so tempting. . . .

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When a Picture is a Thousand Words

Or at least several hundred. My co-instructor and I wrapped up the latest offering of The History of the Western Occult, HIST 3406, with a discussion about themes, topics and ideas we’ve all been working with over the last three months. It was a lively end to a fun course that teaches a lot of valuable skills for historians all in pursuit of cool topics, obviously!

My favourite part of the wind-up is the use of word clouds (generated over at Wordle). Word Cloud of Occult History Terms It’s interesting to see what gets emphasized more, or less, in a course. I threw in all the text that had appeared on our course slides – this is the result for my half of the course which runs from antiquity into the seventeenth century. Yes, a very heavy emphasis on magic in my classes. I’m not sure if that’s a weakness or a strength?

This second word cloud comes from my co-instructor, Dr. Dave Leeson, who taught the topics from the seventeenth century to the contemporary era. Word Cloud of Occult History Terms The contrast and comparison between the two makes for some really intriguing insights both into our different ways of approaching the occult but also into the very different ways that occult history has developed since the Enlightenment era.

Hopefully they’ll also be useful tools to stimulate our students’ minds as they study for the final exam coming next week!

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Time Management and Teaching

As we support Youngest in her transition to university, I’m reminded of how vitally important are all those skills that aren’t only academic, especially the skills of time management. In my own undergraduate days, I wasn’t a paragon of time management prowess. Many essays were typed the Sunday before they were due only by virtue of the fact that it took most of a day to go from handwritten notes on legal pads and a towering stack of books beside my table to typewritten essay. I kept well ahead of readings mostly because I love reading but I lacked the savvy to read efficiently so that the only thing that saved me was my ability to speed-read. I never pulled all-nighters, but I stayed up too late too many times doing too much stuff at the last minute. In short, I wasn’t good at time management but I learned through the school of hard knocks.

I’ve tried to teach time management to my students in university – not as a broad set of academic principles, but in practical requirements for the course that force students to try out some time management principles by scaffolding assignments with proposals, submitting drafts or discussing their progress on a regular basis. I’ve become convinced of the value of planning work ahead, even to the point of assigning myself fictitious due dates (a few weeks or a month ahead of what’s required) to ensure that I’m not, myself, working up against an impossible deadline.

Youngest, who has autism as an additional factor, doesn’t cope at all well with last-minute pressure, wouldn’t work well burning the midnight oil and doesn’t know how or want to BS her way out of undone readings and homework (hallelujah!). But she doesn’t intuitively know how to break down a list of due dates and class schedules into an actual plan of attack. So we’ve been spending time with her these first weeks of term showing her how to identify what needs to be done and then putting that into a plan of attack for the week ahead (as well as, in a general way, the entire term). Here’s what we do:

  1. Open up her planner agenda for this week (after scanning the month page that lists all major items)

  2. Review course manuals (syllabus/outline/whatever), learning management systems and class notes for what needs to be done this week (readings, labs, quizzes) as well as what might be good to prepare for further ahead

  3. Estimate how much time each activity will take – 30 minutes/problem for these questions; 3 hours for this reading, etc.

  4. Write all that needs to be done in this week’s NOTES section

  5. Note each individual task on the week day it’s going to be done

  6. Cross off achievements as they’re completed and don’t forget to submit all completed work (that’s on the list, too)

We’ll see how this goes. So far today she’s done two parts of one big assignment and read through a textbook chapter. I’m off to remind her now that the first two books of The Odyssey (another part of today’s goal) still await before I take a moment to write down and organize my own week’s activities because I’m realizing this level of planning can work for me as well as for her!

Want more time management material? York U’s excellent Time Management Guide and Many Time Management Resources & Links at Dartmouth. Enjoy! It’s time for me to get back to class prep. That’s in my schedule, you see!

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HIST 3406: The Occult in Western History

Another autumn course is this course on the occult that I’m team-teaching with a delightful colleague, David Leeson. The Occult in Western History surveys esoteric beliefs and practices from ancient times through the twentieth century. Thankfully, I have my colleague to tackle everything after the witch-hunts!

I look upon this course as a way to discombobulate the students, forcing them to clearly articulate what they know and believe as well as what people in the past knew and believed (and the essential differences between the two). How does it change our understanding of early Christianity when we acknowledge how it related to magical beliefs of the time and created new secretive philosophies to engage thinkers? How are alchemy and chemistry related and yet also distinct? How much of the occult can be explained by a lot of lonely people throughout history who just want to find true love (or epic wealth or gain respect or whatever they lack)?

The trick is not to make it all about lecturing but to get the students to participate. This is the second time we’re teaching the course so I’ve added even more questions and discussion prompts to my daily lists. In the opening weeks of term we’ll be reading The Perfect Discourse and using that to lead them into the hermetic occult tradition. Then they’ll pursue some research projects before wrapping up their term work with a study of Nightmare Alley.

I expect we’re going to have a lot of fun along the way, not the least of which will be bringing up and appropriately debunking pop culture takes on the occult like this:

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