Today is the first day of the fall semester.
Expectations run so high that the beginning of the new academic year takes on a sacramental quality. Incoming freshmen look forward to beginning the rest of their lives. Returning students anticipate catching up with friends after three months at a monotonous summer job. No one has fallen behind in any class yet, and the illusion of academic responsibility will endure a couple of weeks without tarnish.
The new semester also brings the promise of relief from Houston’s relentless summer heat, and I’m sure that the temperature will be at least ten degrees cooler merely because the university has decreed that it is Fall. It must be time to break out the sweaters.
Fall also brings the sublime feats of strategy and strength that characterize college football. Some of us can actually smell and taste the approaching season. The new academic year offers many charms, but let us not forget that we have returned to this place for the education that the university provides.
With that in mind, here’s a run down of the classes that I’m teaching this semester.
Western Civilization I
This course is my old friend. I’ve been teaching it longer than any other course, and it’s probably my favorite one to teach. However, this semester things might get a little crazy. I’m teaching two sections of Western Civ, but one of them will be 100% online. I spent a lot of time this summer trying to put together an interesting and rigorous course, but undoubtedly I’ll experience some unforeseen problems.
Putting together an online course actually caused me to adjust a number of elements as I prepared for my face-to-face class. It’s good to look at the material from a fresh perspective every now and then. I even put together a new primary-source reader over the summer.
The Medieval World
I approach this class with great trepidation because I’ve never taught it before. The class is a survey of European history between 700 and 1500. We’ll begin with the Carolingians and hopefully work our way to the Renaissance.
I’ve decided to teach this class around the unifying theme of “medievalism.” I want the students to think carefully about how our modern-day culture makers use and abuse the Middle Ages. To start us thinking in that direction, we’ll begin by reading Thinking Medieval by Marcus Bull. It’s a brief book about what “medieval” means and about how we think about it.
Twenty-first century Americans aren’t the only ones who try to make sense of their own lives by looking at the distant past. Medieval people actually did the same thing, so I’m also assigning a couple of epics that illustrate that idea.
First, we’re going to read the Táin, which is probably my all-time favorite epic. The Táin is an Irish epic about a cattle raid. It’s sort of like the Iliad, except the warriors are trying to get back their prize bull instead of get back the most beautiful woman in the world. It’s not as weird as you think. After all, the Greeks thought the adjective “cow-eyed” to be a compliment.
Next, we’ll read the Song of Roland, which is a French epic set during the days of Charlemagne but written hundreds of years later. It doesn’t tell us much about the rule of Charlemagne in the eighth century, but it is a fun way to learn about French culture in the eleventh century. It’s kind of like watching a Ridley Scott movie about the Middle Ages and realizing that the movie is really about twenty-first century American politics.
Freshman Year Seminar
The final class that I’m teaching in the fall semester is Freshman Year Seminar. This class prepares students to succeed in university and hopefully prepares them for success in life as well. With success in mind, we’ll be reading Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do.
At HBU every FYS class needs a theme, and the university foolishly lets the instructors choose their own themes. I chose detective fiction as my theme. Everyone thinks highly of problem-solving skills, and I figured that detectives solve lots of problems.
We’ll read some Edgar Allan Poe, some Arthur Conan Doyle, and some G. K. Chesterton. We’ll also read Agatha Christie’s mind-blowing Murder at the Vicarage, which is appropriate since we’re a Christian university and vicarages are sort of Christian. I’ve also put J. Mark Bertrand’s Back on Murder on the list to give us a little Houston flavor.
So that’s what I’m going to be doing this semester.
I’ve also bought new notebooks and sharpened all my pencils. I’m ready for school.
If you’ve got book suggestions for future syllabuses or if you want to tell me about how awesome you think the Táin is, look me up on Twitter.