Medieval Course Makeover: Learning To Let Go

I’m very excited to take my medieval survey in new directions this spring semester. Over the last couple years, the course has been good, with some great moments, but with more doldrums than I would have preferred, and these doldrums stemmed largely from the course materials themselves. Structure stifled creativity, in essence, because the structure was dictated by the course materials, which undermined my desire to truly “let go” and not worry about getting to every single aspect of medieval experience (what is called “teaching for uncoverage”).

My best sessions are usually when a) I have the freedom to shape sources and topics into coherent themes, and b) when students aren’t rushing through seven or eight different readings before every class, unable to concentrate on one at a time and lacking the background to understand any of them, really. To achieve the kind of focus and flexibility I want in the course structure, then, I’ve long felt the need to re-calibrate the materials I assign for class. This means getting rid of the standard “textbook and course reader” format, which together amount to a bit over $100 (I adhere to the c. $100 rule for book costs–meaning that astute students can get the books for about half that). A course reader more-or-less dictates what I have students read, and, because the urge is there to get their money’s worth from the book, to teach to the reader instead of to the topics. Finally, both textbook and reader, while often possessing good resources at the ends of chapters, don’t allow students to explore the vast and ever-expanding digital world of medieval studies.

So, I’m taking things in a new direction this spring. First, I’m going back to a digital project and a research paper, which I did last year with resounding success–student engagement was at an all-time high. The projects will use Neatline and Omeka again, but I’m also looking into other possibilities and platforms. Second, I’m compiling my own course reader, from free, out-of-copyright, open-source primary sources (with weblinks and attributions, of course). This allows me to construct more coherent, cross-lesson themes, with fewer but longer readings.  Third, I’m moving to shorter books that are more theme-based. Delivering the goods in smaller packages, essentially. And making sure that at least one of the books has lots of pictures and maps, because that’s important. So, here’s the lineup for the spring semester:

We’ll see how this develops, but I think the new line-up will result in higher engagement with the course overall, more in-depth exploration of specific themes, and ultimately a greater level of understanding of the complexity of human affairs in the Middle Ages. And in the mean time I’ll keep poking at a thematic (and, at the moment, alliterative) medieval studies companion (not quite textbook) that I started free-writing in August. We’re going interesting places come January.