Looking at an Old Syllabus With New Eyes

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 14, 2012

The distant but growing sigh rising across the nation is the sound of humanities professors writing—or tweaking—their syllabi for fall classes. Like Labor Day, the writing of the syllabus has become an empty ritual of late summer—a thoughtless activity that has overtaken (or shunted aside) the practice it is meant to sustain.

Strictly speaking, a syllabus is a course outline that tells the student what books to read and when to read them, what papers to write and when to hand them in, and what subjects will be discussed and when students need to be ready to discuss them. In a word, it is a checklist. It is also the dark side of teaching—or, more accurately, of the telling of the past.

For most humanities disciplines, the syllabus is harmless, and often even helpful. It is both a checklist and a contract offered by the professor. It resembles the bullet-point pamphlet the plumber walks you through, patiently explaining all the things he will do in return for sticking you with a bill rivaling your child's college tuition. With the syllabus, a professor informs the student: Here is what I will do, here is what I expect you to do. Just as a homeowner may decide to turn the malfunctioning outdoor Jacuzzi into a compost bin, the student will decide if she truly needs a course on, say, medieval scholasticism.

But the nature of the syllabus is different, I think, for historians. It is not, for us, a checklist—nor should it be. Instead, it is what's left once we tell our story—like the peanut shells and empty beer cans under the stadium bleachers once the game, with its ups and downs, twists and turns, is over.

As a historian, I suspect my colleagues in other fields are not as attached as I am to chronology. Yes, they will probably assign Immanuel Kant a week or two after David Hume—the Scottish philosopher, after all, shook the German from his dogmatic slumbers—or Jane Austen a month or so before Virginia Woolf, whose journals would be poorer without the presence of the author of Sense and Sensibility. But the emphasis upon texts, and not contexts, allows my peers, if they wish, to ignore history.

Historians, though, cannot not tell a story—at least if they are serious about their calling. But it seems we are hobbled by the fact that our audience already knows the ending. It's all a bit like Groundhog Day, but with Louis XVI in Bill Murray's role: The Bastille is taken, and a king's head falls. And falls again. Or the Union wins at Gettysburg, and a president gives a short speech that transforms a nation; or a Hapsburg archduke is shot, and Europe descends into the war to end all wars. (Except that it wasn't—which we also know.)

True historians, though, aren't bothered by spoiler alerts. Critical to these stories is the sense that what took place need not have. Thomas Carlyle on the French Revolution, Shelby Foote on the American Civil War, Barbara Tuchman on World War I: Their stories mesmerize even though—or, more accurately, because—we already know the end. (That none was an academic may not be a coincidence.)

When we open their books, the past's absolutely aleatory nature smacks to smithereens our preconceptions. We are dazzled by the collision and collaborations of individual men and women, the complexity of motives and ideals, the confusion of actions and perceptions, and the sheer volatility of this great heap of actors only dimly aware of where they've been and ignorant of where they are going. We leave the classroom, or put down the book, sobered by the realization of how easily events, since embalmed as the "way it was," could have tumbled in an entirely different direction.

Historical inevitability, in other words, occurs only after the event.

In this whirl of indeterminacy, it may be that the syllabus provides a false sense of security. One danger is that it mimics a Cook's Tour of the past, in which the only trait shared by events is chronological sequence; otherwise, it is one damned place after another. (This is the mark, in particular, of my children's intermediate-school textbook: a compendium of events that the authors, wanting only to be inclusive, were too wary to edit into a story.)

An opposite but equal danger is that the syllabus encourages a kind of teleological laziness. Nothing so rigorous, mind you, as Marx or Hegel, whose laws bend the arc of history toward a preordained end—an arc whose stages are inscribed in weekly reading assignments, and whose advent is sealed by a term paper or final exam. Instead, it is teleology on the cheap—a train schedule for students who, click-clacking along the tracks from stop to stop, assume that what happened had to happen for the simple reason that it did happen.

Before the train pulls out of the station this fall, bound for the same terminus as in years past; before the students tumble out of the car, wondering where they are and why they ever got on board in the first place, we history teachers might ask ourselves why we embarked on this particular journey in the first place. We are bound for the terminus—the same dates, events, and the like—that ended our syllabus when we first wrote it. But, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, isn't the point of exploration to return home—to that same old end—and know it for the first time?

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history in the Honors College at the University of Houston.