Saturday, January 08, 2011

Syllabus for The History of American Thought Since 1865, Spring 2011

Starting a week and a half from now, I'm teaching (for the first time) an upper-level course on U.S. intellectual history, entitled The History of American Thought Since 1865. (That is, it's the first time I've taught it; it has been offered for many years by a senior member of the HWS history department who also teaches -- most recently this past fall -- the companion course, The History of American Thought To 1865. (I should say that it's his course title; I'd prefer one with "intellectual history" rather than "American thought" as the key term -- perhaps since the latter can be read to imply a unity that I don't think exists, but possibly just because it sounds old fashioned.) I thought I'd tell you about it.

First I should say that this is not, in fact, the complete syllabus for the course -- I don't see any particular reason that anyone save my students would be interested in my grading policies or my office hours. But since I've been interested when other academic bloggers have posted their syllabi, and since, in putting together this course, I benefited from looking at the online syllabi of instructors at other institutions who were generous enough to share them with the world, I thought I would pay it forward and give the interesting parts of the syllabus, namely, the required readings and some indications of the nature of the assignments.

One thing I'd note is that there is (I believe) a wider range in what is taught as the basic material for U. S. Intellectual History than for any other sub-field of history -- not only in books taught, but in subjects covered. Its comparable, I think, to courses like "Introduction to Philosophy" or "The U.S. Novel Since 1945", where you wouldn't be surprised to see entirely nonintersecting topic lists appear on multiple syllabi: there's simply too many different ways to approach the material. Thus, despite my filling the shoes of a senior (and, IMHO, quite fabulous) scholar, I am teaching the course quite differently than he does -- and, indeed, quite differently than did any of those whose syllabi I've seen, online or elsewhere. Perhaps doing so is cheeky, but I think that even those of us who are but Sub-Sub Academics (as Melville might have put it) have to approach a topic as we ourselves see it -- something which is shaped by, but not copied from, our elders & betters. At any rate, you should know that this is my particular take on this material; if you look at any other online syllabi, you'll see very different ones.

So. The term has fourteen weeks of classes (not counting the week of spring break that interrupts it). It starts and ends mid-week, so there are thirteen full weeks, plus two partial bookends. I will be assigning a book (or significant chunk of one) every week -- an unusually heavy load in this time, I'll admit. We'll have one discussion a week, on the readings; the other two weekly classes will be devoted to lecture, when I will attempt to put into context what we do read, and to talk a little about the thousands of equally important books that didn't make my list of 13.

Here are the thirteen reading assignments:
  1. William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe Each Other (1883)
  2. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
  3. William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907) and "The Will to Believe" (1896)
  4. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916) (select chapters only)
  5. Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Women and Economics (1898)
  6. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922)
  7. T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land" (1922), plus a few critical articles on it
  8. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952)
  9. Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, (1953) (select chapters only)
  10. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
  11. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
  12. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, (1989) (select chapters only)
  13. Noam Chomsky, Language and Problems of Knowledge: the Managua Lectures (1987)
Where available (#1-8), I have linked to complete online texts; otherwise the links go to Google Books (if they offer a preview) or elsewhere (if not).

Precisely which chapters of the Dewey, the Kirk and the Rorty will be assigned is something I'm still mulling over. (I might even assign all of the Rorty -- it's hard, but it's not that long.) From the Kirk I'll assign the American chapters (he does the U.S. and Britain) -- but I might cut down on those further. Dewey I just need to cut down for length -- but I'm not sure how I'm going to do it yet. (That's one of the things I need to do between now and the first day of class.)

As for why I'm assigning a few articles to accompany "The Waste Land", although I don't for the others: it's just a very different sort of text. The other twelve writers, however complex they may be, are each trying to make an argument; Eliot writes a poem. Thus its connection to the course material will be more obscure. Also, it's a difficult poem to read for the first time. So I'm going to assign a few articles to (hopefully) help the students through these stumbling blocks.

To anyone who wants to say: "this is insanely ambitious": I know, and I agree. Let's move on.

The assignments will be threefold. The students will write a one-page reaction paper every week, making an observation and asking a question about the book; I'll have a few students read these aloud each week to serve as a jumping off point for our discussion. (These papers are largely intended to make sure students both do and think about the reading.)

There will be a final paper of 10-12 pages, due on the last day of class. As a concession to the "this is already insanely ambitious" point, I've decided not to make this a research paper; it will be a paper on some selection of the books for the course, tracing some intellectual issue (race, gender, democracy, class, the nature of scientific knowledge, the role of the state in society, etc, etc) through a number of the works. (Thus, if an ordinary upper-level course requires a lot of reading, plus a fair amount of reading for a final paper, this will hopefully balance out by just making the students write about the course material.)

And, finally, there will be a final exam, based largely (but not entirely) on the lectures, to make sure that portion of the instruction is tested and evaluated in some way (i.e. to make sure they come, listen and try to remember what I say). I'm going to pass out sheets each lecture with key terms (people, books, names of ideas, etc.) to help with this, since there isn't otherwise a textbook.

I'll have one student enrolled in the course for graduate credit. In addition to the books listed above, she'll read an additional three books -- secondary rather than primary sources -- and write two-page response papers on them; we'll also meet to discuss those books separately. The first of those books is Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, which is one of the most engaging and accessible of the secondary sources on this material; the other two I'll pick in consultation with her, to match her interests. Her final paper will be 15-20 pages, rather than 10-12, and will have to work at least one of the additional readings in in a significant way.

And that's my course. Putting this together -- and preparing the lectures -- has taken an insane amount of my time over the past few months, in particular in the weeks since last semester ended. Various other projects that I care deeply -- in certain cases, much more deeply -- about have been put on the back burner, if not all the way in the fridge. But it's been a fun course to prepare. If the students have half as much fun taking it as I have had putting it together, they'll love it. And if they do a tenth as much work, they'll ace it. Let's hope they all do. (Nothing would make me happier than to give everyone an A.)

Comments are welcome, bearing in mind that it's too late to make more than minor modifications for this spring (e.g. the bookstore has already ordered all the books). So even if you argue, convincingly, that I should throw this out and start again, I won't be able to.

Update, Spring 2012: I am teaching the class again with just about the same syllabus. I added a fourteenth book (as you can see I was already thinking of last year if you read the comments) -- Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice (between Baldwin and Rorty, for week 12, knocking Rorty and Chomsky to 13 and 14 respectively). And in a few cases I'm shorting the readings somewhat -- not out of a concern for length particularly, and certainly not to balance adding the Gilligan (it doesn't), but because a slight shortening of some particularly difficult readings seemed in order; so I'm omitting a chapter from James's Pragmatism (chapter 4), one from Chomsky's lectures (chapter 4) and saying that students needn't read the (second-edition) postscript to Kuhn, only the text as originally published in 1962. Otherwise the syllabus is essentially unchanged.


Brian Reed said...

Sounds like a fun class! I'm very happy to see that you're counting poetry as part of intellectual history -- seems most people these days simply overlook its existence. And yes, having taught "The Waste Land" umpteen times, there is no need to apologize for including articles along with it. I just make the need for commentary/interpretation part of the story . . . Have fun!

phosphorious said...

A very thorough and well balanced syllabus. Perhaps another feminist is wanted, but that's mere quibble.

And a braver man would swap out T.S. Eliot for Ezra Pound.

But that list comes pretty close to summing up "American thought." Please post when the course is over, and let us know how it went.

Stephen said...

Thanks, phosphorious.

I actually think, far from a quibble, the need for another feminist is the biggest critique I'd make. If I could add a 14th book, that's what I'd add. (I don't know which for sure, since I'd have to think about it, but my initial instinct would be Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice.)

Not sure I see why Pound would be either preferable or braver than Eliot, though. I picked The Waste Land for the obvious reason: it seems to me the most central poetic work in the modernist cannon. Why would you suggest Pound? (And which -- some of the Cantos?)

And yes, I'll try to post a follow-up when I can...


phosphorious said...

Eliot is of course the better choice. "The Wasteland" is central to American letters in a way that nothing of Pound's is.

Pound, it seems to me would be a braver choice, because he's an example of. . . what's the line from "Blazing Saddles". . . "authentic frontier gibberish". The pro-fascism, the anti-semitism, the idiosyncratic economic theories. . . these are all part of the American intellectual landscape. He's far loonier than anyone else on your list, but then America is far loonier than is often admitted.