Time and the UnTextbook

The semester is looming and as per usual, I have discovered that I forgot to order textbook for my History 101: Western Civilization course. Fortunately, textbooks are not a vital cog in this course and the texts that I tend to use are fairly common.  Because I teach the course in the university’s large Scale-Up style, active learning classroom, students have ample opportunities to share books, can find search the web for key content, and spend as much time producing text than reading it. 

As readers of this blog know, I have been puttering around on two textbook projects for the last few years. One is a fairly conventional history textbook and the other is taking shape as an untextbook that leads students through the process of pulling apart conventional history texts and writing their own. I’ve been blogging my effort to pull together my various notes on this second textbook project. Two weeks ago, I wrote up a short section on sources for history. This week I deal with time, chronology, and periodization.

I haven’t quite decided whether this project will work alongside a conventional textbook or whether this untextbook will replace it entirely. Since I use an assortment of textbooks in my course, this part of the untextbook project asks students to not only critique their textbook, but also to begin to uses dates to frame their own arguments.

It’s rough, but it’s something:

Time is the medium in which history happens, but chronology represents a unique challenge to students. Some of this stems from the long-standing fear of having to memorize names and dates. Historically, survey courses courses have managed chronology in various ways. In many cases, particularly for World History and Western Civilization, topical approaches have trumped chronology as an organizing element in textbook and classroom narratives. For example, despite the contemporaneity of the Hellenistic period and the Roman Republic, they often appear in different chapters. As the goal of this class is for students to create a textbook, one of the priorities for this work is to understand how chronological conventions and periodization schemes shapes the way in which we understand the past.

At the highest level, this section unpacks the assumptions (and historical circumstances) that created the BC/AD (or BCE/CE) convention in annual dating. Some of this involves the simple recognition that BC/AD dating was not used by most of the societies that we study in the course. Then, in a slightly complex register, we can discuss how Christian dating conventions and reflect our own distinctly Western approach to organizing historical time. As a start, we can, then, demonstrate that even our most basic chronological conventions depend on historical and cultural circumstances.

Approaching chronology at a slightly more complex level involves introducing students to the basic periodizing conventions common in the student of the premodern West. For example, students should understand that the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean depend in large part on material culture difference. Whereas scholars have defined the the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods in Greek history on the basis of historical events. Likewise, historians divide the Roman world into the Roman Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, but, much to students’ consternation the Roman Republic controlled an empire. In each case, divisions between the early, middle, and late carry judgements that speak to traditional views of the birth, life, and death of particular social, political, and cultural practices. Understanding the distinction between the Early Medieval, High Medieval, and Late Medieval period requires an understanding of both political and larger cultural contexts further complicating the superficially simple tripartite periodization schemes that tend to dominate high-level historical periodization.

Unpacking the scholarly and political conventions behind these periodization schemes allows students to recognize some of the decisions that textbook authors make when organizing their content. This forms the basis for a timeline exercise that starts with students preparing a timeline on the basis of the information in their textbook(s). For a single chapter, students should make a timeline of the important events, dates, and periods from their textbook? What do these names and dates tell us about the priorities of the textbook authors?

Alternately, students could be asked to make a timeline on the basis of a traditional historical question. I’ve used two:

1. How did the Athenian democracy accommodate the challenges of the Athenian Empire?
2. What caused the fall of the Roman Republic?

The first question required students to pull apart Thucydides narrative of the Peloponnesian War (usually on the basis of the Funeral Oration of Pericles, the Melian Dialogue, and the the Mytilenean Debate) and interleave it with historical events from their textbooks or another source. The second question has a greater emphasis on historical causality and pushes students to sort through the complex series of events that led to fall of the Roman Republic as well as traditional sources that critique the Republic’s decline (involving brief excerpts from Sallust and Tacitus and Augustus’s Res Gestae). Both exercises push students to understand to connect chronology with arguments and this contributes to a more general appreciation of the how periodization schemes reflect the arguments that scholars have made about the past.

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