Daily Archives: October 25, 2006

What is Enlightenment (in 10 minutes or less)?

There are times when we all have to take a deep breath and explain to our students what “Enlightenment” means. Or “Romanticism.” Or, “sensibility.” Or, we might have to answer a question like, “What was the position of women in the eighteenth century?” These are the moments when we dig deep into our teaching experience, our accumulated reading, our long-term memory, and even the paltry insights we scatter across every course, and try to impart something bigger, wider, and deeper than, “here is a novel. Let’s read it!”

The historical background lecture, I’ve noticed, is the terror of every graduate student imagining herself as The Expert in front of a restive class. I know I hated doing them, because I felt that I was travestying something I’d spent years trying to figure out on my own. Let them go read a bunch of sermons! Or try to understand Hegel! Or read the remotest, dryest stretches of Dryden’s prose! Let’s see how well they do, huh?

And my suspicion is that the lectures I gave back then were, to put it mildly, pretty crappy, though of course no one complained, probably because they had no idea what I was talking about. For the inexperienced teacher, opacity is bliss.

When I got to an actual job which demanded that I answer such questions pretty regularly, I took a more pragmatic attitude, and learned that a large part of teaching is the strategic reduction of complexity, simplifying things by storytelling, by schematizing, and by drawing distinctions, all designed to produce certain insights among students. And this is one of the invaluable things that teaching experience gives the teacher with the luxury (and the burden) of returning to the same materials again and again: the ability to zero in on the strategic simplifications that have generated insights among their students over time.

Now, one thing I noticed in Allen’s interesting thread on Enlightenment universalism was the fact that many of the respondents were working off of the large-scale paradigms they generated for their own classes. I know that I was. And I’m wondering if we could talk a little about how we develop such meta-contexts, to use an awkward term, for teaching and research, and discuss how these meta-contexts relate to our own and others’ scholarship, as these continue to develop over time.

After all, I think we’ve all had the experience of sittting in the class of a “great lecturer” and realizing that we are listening to insights developed decades earlier, and polished through mere repetition.

So, the intellectual and historical background lecture. How did you develop yours, and how do you continue to develop it in successive courses?