Books for Back to School

The Fall Semester starts today, and I get to impose reading on college students who are, make no mistake, reluctant readers. In my opinion, and experience, this particular generation is particularly reluctant:  they have so much else to do!  They have to keep track of their friends’ activities on Facebook, they have to check their phone messages, they have to text every waking thought and state of being, and as I teach at a large public university, they have to work.  In terms of daily priorities, I imagine that reading is very far down the list.  I do not despair, because once I get them to read (by forcing them to write papers) it is clear that the majority of my students can comprehend and analyze texts quite well, but I find myself putting more and more thought and time into choosing the books for my courses as I know that these books have a lot of competition:  they have to catch my students’ attention, and hold it.

I am teaching courses on Medieval Europe, Tudor-Stuart England, World History, and the Expansion of Europe this semester, and here are some of the texts that I’ve chosen for these courses, with a little bit of the rationale for my choices.  All of these courses (except for Expansion of Europe, which is a graduate seminar) have (boring) textbooks that the students read (I think/hope) for background, and several monographs which are the basis of their papers.  I will spare you the textbooks, which are a completely different teaching issue.  I’m almost to the point of ditching the textbooks altogether but not quite yet.

Another realization that has (much too slowly) dawned on me is that my students “learn” most of their history from movies, so when I get them in a class they have preconceived notions that I have to take on. Usually I get students who love Tudor England or medieval Europe, but actually know very little about these eras.  I used to reproach them, but now I’m more inclined to take advantage of their rather romantic interests.  For the Tudor-Stuart course, I’m actually assigning a biography of Anne Boleyn, for whom a veritable cult exists.  Anne Boleyn is now clearly more popular than even her superstar daughter Elizabeth I, so they’re going to read all about the tragic queen/master manipulator in context, from a reliable source:  Eric Ives’ updated biography is accessible yet scholarly, and I’m going to give them an essay prompt for the book that will force them to dig deeper.

Speaking of digging deeper, my medieval course is going to have a strong archeological theme this semester. Too often material sources (as opposed to literary ones) are not given serious consideration by historians, but students find archeology fascinating.  So I’ve chosen tw0 texts that I think should really illuminate (and de-romanticize) the Middle Ages for my students:  Barbarians to Angels.  The Dark Ages Reconsidered by Peter S. Wells, and Colin Platt’s King Death. The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late Medieval England.
I threw some architectural history in there too with Philip Ball’s Universe of Stone.  A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, which I also chose because it was written by a non-academic.  I like to contrast scholarly and trade publications in my courses, and my students (like the general reading public) inevitably favor the latter.

World History is a tough course, for both the students and myself:  it’s “big” history, hard to grasp.  We have a two-course core curriculum world history requirement at Salem State, and so our entire department (and a battalion of adjunct professors) teaches it.  I have to admit that I bring my decidedly Eurocentric perspective into my world history courses; I just can’t help myself.  The book that I chose for this semester’s course, Paul Freedman’s Out of the East:  Spices and the Medieval Imagination, reveals this bias, as it examines “the East” from a western focus. I’m hoping some of my students might point this out in their papers.  A somewhat similar book, perhaps more successfully global in its approach, is one of the eleven books I’ve assigned for my Expansion of Europe seminar, Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat.  The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Modern World.  I cannot recommend Brook’s book highly enough:  whether you know a little bit about the seventeenth century, or a lot, it accomplishes what the best history books do:  transportation to another world.  My students better like it.

4 responses to “Books for Back to School

  • alastairsavage

    It’s funny you say that most of your students get their historical knowledge from movies. Do you know this site from the British Guardian newspaper: ? Every week or so, Alex von Tunzelmann looks at a movie’s historical accuracy and gives it a grade for entertainment. It’s been going for years and it could be a fun talking point.


  • alastairsavage

    Congratulations on being on Freshly pressed by the way! You deserve it – your blog’s great.


  • Susanna P

    Kudos for requiring non-textbook reading! As a student, while I enjoy learning from textbooks, I also love getting more in-depth knowledge about specific historical aspects from being assigned other books. I was thrilled when I saw that my African history course this semester called for one textbook and about half a dozen novels, epics, autobiographies, and other nonfiction books! I feel like such readings add a greater depth to the information presented in the class.


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