Teaching Byzantine History

I promise that this is not going to become a teaching blog (not that there is anything wrong with that), but I am all excited that I have have agreed to teach an upper level history class for the first time since 2007. As most of you know, I generally teach our historical methods course and History 101: Western Civilization each quarter. Fret not, I am not going to dump one of those classes, but add another course to my plate in the fall to move to a 3-3 teaching load. (I’ve blogged about the advantages of periodically teaching more.)

The course will be the History of the Byzantine Empire. We added it to the schedule a bit on the late side, so I have to do a bit of advertising to make sure it enrolls.

So I began to think how to advertise a course on the Byzantine Empire. I came up with five clever ways:

1. The Roman Empire II: A Sequel. For the Star Wars fans and the popular enthusiasm for sequels.
2. The Byzantine Empire: Like Larry Potter or the Hobbits. My buddy Kostis Kourelis has already published in this general direction, but I would pitch my class as the study of real life Hogomorth or whatever that place with all the domes is called.
3. The Byzantine Empire: A More Western Orient. I could continue to trade on the romance of domed buildings and combine it with mystical Christianity, be-turbaned aristocrats, and a tragic narrative arc to make it a kinder, gentler, more Christian, Orient.
4. The Byzantine Empire: The Other Christians. They aren’t the Roman Catholics or the Protestants; they’re the other Christians.

I only wish I had the graphic design abilities to produce movie posters for each of these classes. Since I don’t, this is how I sold it.


My flyer played up my reputation for innovative teaching and, in its place, promised the students that I would teach the class in a very traditional way. (In conversation, I’ve likened it to the teaching equivalent to MTV’s unplugged.)

I want to ground the class in a series of 15 lectures, discussions primary sources, and formal graded written works produced by single students after careful thought. I want the class to be large (40+), I want it to be challenging to teach, and I want the students to feel that the content and the format put them outside their comfort zone.

My hope is teaching a political and religious history of the Byzantine Empire (with some archaeology and culture thrown in) in a rather traditional way will get the students attention. I wonder whether our emphasis on “active learning” exercises (and I’ve been as involved as anyone in various flavors of experimental pedagogy) has paradoxically added life to some of our more traditional practices. Asking students to engage a lecture when more and more of their classes focus on discussion problematizes this form of instruction and encourages the students to develop skills like listening, note taking, and synthesizing lectures with primary and secondary sources.

We’ll see how it goes. Wish me luck.


  1. You didn’t answer the most important question: are you using Tim’s book as your textbook?


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