Teaching Today

When Less Is More in the Classroom

Elizabeth Stice describes how she took a gamble and assigned only one book for the entire semester.

December 10, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/jemastock

Many students today self-report feeling hurried and overwhelmed. We often hurry them through class, too. Those of us committed to liberal arts education know that the humanities can be humanizing. But many students encounter the liberal arts in required courses where faculty members want, and need, to achieve broad coverage.

At my institution, for example, we have Humanities I, II and III. They are required undergraduate courses, broken down by time period, which are meant to encompass the history, literature, philosophy and culture, broadly conceived, of the world. I often teach Humanities III, which covers the time period from 1700 CE to the present. Humanities III can easily mirror students’ busyness, as it ranges from absolutism to postmodernism, with colonialism and the Cold War in between.

But part of the beauty of the liberal arts is the ability to have a broad perspective and to step back from the episodic feeling of everyday life. How can we engage the potential of the liberal arts in the reality of our setting?

A few years ago, I took my Humanities III and gambled, assigning all 811 pages of Anna Karenina as the only book for the entire semester. I wanted to try something new. I knew that if my students ended up hating the book, we were in for a miserable semester. There was no existing demand for longer books or more Russian literature.

But I had high hopes. In the syllabus, I compared our approach to the slow food movement. I told my students that we weren’t going to do a million things; we were going to do one thing well and slowly. We were going to read one book closely and talk about all of it. Students would always know what to read, what to bring to class and what we would be discussing. We would cover other topics in class, too, but we would always come back to Anna Karenina. On the first day of class, most students were at least excited about buying fewer books.

According to student surveys, it actually went well. Many students liked being able to “focus on one thing” and take an “in depth” look at the book and its context. For some, “it got a little boring” or “repetitive.” But some other people actually “loved it.” At times interest in the book waned, but we always managed to revive it. And most students, in fact, recommended doing the class this way again. Some students had never read a book of this length before and felt that they had accomplished something meaningful. Most self-reported that the assignments challenged their attention span.

One of the course objectives for the humanities sequence at our university is increasing appreciation for the arts. Every semester that I’ve tried this approach, the majority of students have said that it increased their appreciation for literature. Sometimes 100 percent of the class said they felt that way in anonymous surveys. A few people told me that they now want to tackle War and Peace on their own.

Going down to one book didn’t make the class easier, but it did make it significantly different. The time period of Humanities III runs from the painted heels of Louis XIV to Nike’s Air Force Ones. Anna Karenina provided a sense of continuity. We achieved topic coverage through lecture and in-class activities and used the text as an anchor -- with its 19th-century social and political context serving as a point of comparison for other time periods and even our own. Such conversations taught students to think more critically. It doesn’t hurt that Anna Karenina touches on gender roles, societal norms and expectations, class dynamics, politics and democracy, romantic and family relationships, and the meaning of life.

The use of one book was also a challenge, however. Expectations for reading comprehension were high, and students could not pick and choose among readings -- they had to keep up with all of them, or otherwise they’d lose the plot. But students were more fully engaged when they felt less hurried. Rather than rush through readings, we followed character arcs across an entire semester. That made students more empathetic toward the characters and curious about the material. Some even started reading ahead.

At the end of Anna Karenina, the character of Levin is processing his recent spiritual awakening. He realizes that his transformation will not make his life perfectly happy or even make him agreeable all of the time. He will still “lose his temper with Ivan the coachman” and still “argue and express his thoughts out of turn,” and there will still be some wall between the most interior aspects of himself and his wife. But, he thinks to himself, his life now “is not only not meaningless like it was before, but has the indisputable meaning of goodness, which I have the power to instill in it!”

Similarly, liberal arts courses will continue to be required general education courses for many students. And coverage demands will persist. But we have the power to instill our classes with meaning.

In Josef Pieper’s famous book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, he reminded readers that the Latin word for “leisure” came from the Greek word for “school.” School was leisure, and leisure was contemplation -- finding wholeness as a human being and “experiencing the world in an aspect other than its everyday one.” Our students may not think of our classes as leisure, but the liberal arts can bring aspects of that classical understanding of leisure into the classroom.

Undergraduates today are often tired and overwhelmed. They are pressed by work schedules, classes, social life, social media and news-related anxieties. Classes like Humanities III can create space for contemplation and examination of the human condition. Anna Karenina is one way, but any classroom can be a space apart from the everyday. This is the promise of the liberal arts, whose chief texts are not about skill acquisition or achieving success but about the discovery of the self and others.

Bio

Elizabeth Stice is associate professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top