There are a few places to go for archived syllabi — H-Net, ExEAS, I had a printed collection at one point, as well, then there’s the GMU Syllabus Finder — but not a lot of open discussion of course design. I’ve gotten help on sources, etc., from lists like H-Asia or by blogging questions (“bleg” means to “beg via blog” but it looks like “blech” to me so I won’t use it) and bothering old friends. But we need a more sustained discussion. So I’m going to inaugurate what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts here (and the other blogs about syllabi I’ve designed or am working on.
Early China is a great course: I keep toying with the idea of making it the one required Asian course for history majors, because the material is so fundamental, and it’s my best-attended China course by far. The problem, of course, is the richness and range of the material. This semester, though, I’m not even trying to make the semester “flow” because the history itself doesn’t. It’s episodic and inconsistent and the emphasis has to shift to make sense of things.
The foundation of the course is in two books. The first is the textbook, of course: Valerie Hansen’s The Open Empire is a great book, well-written and challenging at the same time, with lots of material for me to work with and good basic stuff for the students. There may be a better textbook out there for this class, but I don’t know of it. My chief complaint about the book — relative weakness of intellectual/religious history — will be rectified with other readings (actually, I suspect that when she wrote the book, she knew that most teachers would spend quite a bit of time on the philosophical traditions anyway, so she didn’t have to). The second “constant companion” this semester will be Chinese poetry — Watson’s Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry covers up through the 13th century, and is a really good “greatest hits” collection — which we will discuss a bit almost every class period. I’m kind of a poetry geek: not much of a poet myself, and not a huge fan of Western poetry, but the orality and social nature of poetry in other times and parts of the world makes it fascinating social and cultural evidence. Plus, it’s often quite fun, very powerful stuff. The first class was Tuesday, and I had them reading poems aloud and discussing them, something I hope we’ll be doing over the rest of the semester with similar energy.
Now the lumpy bits. The other three books for the course are very time-specific, and we will work through them at the appropriate moments. First is the “Axial Age” philosophers — using Ivanhoe and Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, which I picked up at the AHA last year (those book table giveaways really can pay off!) — three weeks on Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Mozi, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Hanfeizi. I used to use the old Columbia sourcebooks, but the new editions are … too much. Way too much stuff that I can’t use, and not quite enough of the stuff that I really want. This year’s text gives me about fifty pages of each of these thinkers: quite enough to discuss in depth, with some nuance and sense. I regret that I don’t have an equivalently good source for the Song Neo-Confucianists, but I might photocopy the Columbia sourcebook’s readings on the Wang Anshi debates, which has served me pretty well in the past. Buddhism also gets kind of short shrift, but I haven’t decided how much that’s a problem yet.
The last two books are secondary works, and they’re relatively older scholarship. This is where a really good chat with some Chinese specialist colleagues might have helped, but I think for what I’m trying to do these are good sources. First is the forty-year-old Jacques Gernet. Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276. I need to do a bit more background reading on Marco Polo before we get to that one: I’d forgotten until I picked the book back up last month that Gernet cites Polo as pretty reliable. But Gernet’s book is primary-source rich and nicely structured; supplemented with some good visual materials, and it’ll be a great “slice of life” experience. Second, and the last thing we read, is Ray Huang’s 1587, A Year of No Significance (I love that title!), which gives nice biographical sketches of officialdom from the Emperor down to “eccentric” scholar-bureaucrats, all grappling with the great (and not so great) issues of the day. The discussion of how the Imperial system is supposed to work, and how it actually does work, should be a good cap to the semester.
I’m experimenting this semester with a heavily discussion-oriented class, with much less homework than I’ve required in the past. So most of the grade is in the tests (a few midterms, some pop quizzes, and a final), with a full 25% coming from attendance/discussion/participation. The tests may end up being essays (I often do take-home essays for finals, in particular) so writing won’t go unevaluated. But I think I want to focus on reading this semester, and engagement with texts and colleagues. I hope I’ve picked sources that are lively enough and clear/complex enough to make that easier.
So, what have you done to your syllabi this term?