What I'm Teaching This Fall
War and near-war, but not just war
Textbooks on shelves? Check. Syllabi printed? Two down, one to go. Moodle pages? Getting there.
Classes don’t actually start until Monday, but since I’m in the middle of working up my three courses, I thought some of you might be interested to know more about what I’m teaching this fall.
One is a course that I teach, in multiple modes, throughout each and every year. But the other two are part of what’s more or less a two-year rotation. Which means that the last time I taught them was in the middle of the COVID-shaped fall of 2020, when I had to redesign courses to work both face-to-face and remotely. So even as things are getting back to normal, I’m still thinking about what innovations from 2020 can return in 2022.
The Cold War
I’ll start with the only class on my schedule that’s actually got an HIS prefix — and even then, it’s cross-listed in both History and Political Science, and most of the students are there for a 300-level gen ed tag.
The Cold War was the first class I developed at Bethel — having previously TA’ed in John Gaddis’ popular Cold War survey at Yale and then taught it myself in that university’s summer program. And while it seemed to be getting stale after ten years, more recent events have revived student interest in a chapter in contemporary history that isn’t also part of their personal memory. In fact, since we’re starting the course in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (six months ago today and still going), we’ll spent the two weeks after Thanksgiving focused on what came after the fall of the Soviet Union — e.g., by discussing Mary Sarotte’s new book on US-Russian relations and “the making of the post-Cold War stalemate.”
But along the way, I’ll also get to reprise some of my favorite teaching exercises with a new crop of students. Teaching late 20th century history means that I get to use a wide variety of primary sources, from TV reports on the Tet Offensive and the collapse of the Berlin Wall to clips from Dr. Strangelove and The Lives of Others; from leading singalongs on my guitar to country and rock music songs about Communism and nuclear holocaust to having students read sermons and essays by Christian theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr., and Oscar Romero.
And, as always, I’ll dedicate one day to simulating an early Sixties nuclear crisis, with students assigned to American and Soviet teams. Here I think I’ll retain one COVID era innovation and keep everything on Zoom, since it better simulates the feeling of having to make decisions far removed from each other, in the days before there was even a “hot line” connecting Moscow and Washington. It’s about fifty-fifty whether or not they blow up the entire world.
That never happened, but the dirty secret of the Cold War is that so many people died during it — not just 15,000 Russians in Afghanistan and almost 60,000 Americans in Vietnam, but many times that many Afghans and Vietnamese, plus the victims of proxy wars fought in the Global South.
So it works out well that I alternate Tuesdays and Thursdays in Cold War with Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in a class dedicated to helping young Americans to see war more clearly.
Inquiry Seminar: The Fog of War
Because of that goal, I call it The Fog of War.It's one of several fall sections fulfilling a first-year general education requirement called Inquiry Seminar, along with classes on topics as varied as improvisation, cultural intelligence, big data, art and colonization, medieval culture, and novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s notion of “the danger of a single story.”
“IQ” for short, all Inquiry Seminar sections are meant to help new college studentswork on skills like research, writing, and speaking and to understand themselves better as learners. But perhaps most importantly, IQ helps students "develop and understand the meaning and value of a liberal arts education in the Christian tradition.”
So my idea for Fog of War was that I’d take a group of students who have grown up in a country at perpetual war without most of them ever having any experience of war,and help them to see war in all its complexity through the varied perspectives of the arts, humanities, sciences, and other fields they might study at a liberal arts college like Bethel. Of course, history will be our recurring discipline: each Monday we'll look at a different conflict; all students will read chapters from an American military history textbook, plus they'll take turns researching and delivering 8-10 minute presentations on specific aspects of those wars. But each week we’ll also dedicate Wednesday and sometimes Friday to looking at war more generally via other fields of study, from economics to ethics, art to literature.
That also gives me the chance to bring in additional voices. We’ll not only have a week on gender studies, but students will read and review a book of their choice by and about women experiencing war. I won’t lean as heavily on guest speakers as I did in 2020, when it felt like one way to make a virtue out of the necessity of using Zoom so often. But students will hear from experts like my uncle Jim, a retired photographer who will cap our week on journalism by talking about his Pulitzer-nominated work with veterans returning from Iraq, and my former colleague Steven Lancaster, a psychologist whose research often focuses on the experiences of his fellow veterans.
So I’m primarily a facilitator, there to help prompt questions and suggest resources. Since another IQ objective is that students will “practice personal agency in the learning process,” we’ll focus the second half of the semester on individual research projects, in which each student draws on literature and sources from at least one academic discipline in order to better understand some aspect of war more deeply.
Christianity and Western Culture
Finally, my standby course: I teach Christianity and Western Culture (or “CWC”) at least twice a year, and sometimes three or four times. Those times I teach it in J-term or summer, it’s either a hybrid or online course. But in the fall and spring, CWC continues much as it has since it was created in the mid-1980s, with 130-student lectures each Monday and Friday and 17-student discussion sections in the middle of the week. And the lectures are delivered by members of a multidisciplinary team — two teams actually, and I’m the professor who shuttles back and forth between them from fall to spring. This semester I’ll be teaching with two other historians, plus a philosopher and a theologian.
Even after doing CWC for 20 years, I truly love it. First for the sheer variety: next Friday I’ll give our first full-fledged lecture, and it will have nothing to do with anything like my areas of research or teaching specialization. No, students will get to hear a modern European and diplomatic/military historian talk about the politics and society of ancient Athens and Rome. Even before that… they’ll hear a Pietist open class on Monday with a devotion inspired by John Calvin, then we’ll jump ahead to the 20th century in our first midweek small groups to introduce some of the themes of the course using Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
While all of that pushes me out of my comfort zone, I actually think that’s a good thing. Like IQ, CWC is a first-year gen ed course, so it’s an ideal place for professors themselves to model the fruit of a liberal education, as we all have to range across disciplines, eras, and topics. Even more importantly, having to teach like that underlines that the purpose of CWC is not simply to master content, but to ask some of life’s big questions (who am I and who should I be? what is a good community? what is justice? how do I answer any of these questions??), to seek answers by listening to a variety of voices, and in the process start to free ourselves of bias and ignorance.
Then there’s the biggest question of the course: How do Christians relate to the culture around them?That’s important to me precisely because we’re not here just to train students for employment and citizenship, nor just to help them “make their faith their own,” but to understand what those (important) things have to do with each other. Because it’s done within a historical outline, we’re only indirectly engaging with the burning questions of American life in 2022 — but we are preparing young Christians to engage more thoughtfully and critically with the complicated cultures in which they will feel both absorbed and apart, immersed and in tension.
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The course title is inspired not just by its original source — Carl von Clausewitz’s 19th century masterpiece of strategy, On War — but the Errol Morris documentary about Cold War strategist Robert McNamara.
Many more of them this semester are actually high school juniors and senior doing “early college” at Bethel.
We do have several dozen veterans and active military students in the College of Arts and Sciences. None of them took this class when I first offered it in 2020; I’ll be curious to see if that changes this fall.
Last year, my colleague Sam Mulberry and I also developed a flipped classroom version of CWC that’s being taught each fall at a local Christian school, a particularly intense version of early college that lets those students earn a Bethel associate’s degree at the same time that they finish high school. It will run again this fall, taught by a former CWC TA who majored in Social Studies Education then went to seminary, with Sam, myself, and one other Bethel colleague showing up via recorded lectures, twice-monthly webisodes, and shorter videos embedded in digital timelines we created to replace a traditional textbook. That, and we’re hoping to bring the students to campus for a review session, tour, and lunch.
There’s always a part of me that thinks we ought to be doing this all within a world history structure, rather than a one-semester version of Western civ. But I’m still persuaded by the founding argument of CWC: that it’s important to start with “the West” not because it’s particularly admirable, but because it’s closest to what most students already know. By practicing with that culture, they can be both more critical of their ongoing engagement with it and hone their skills for later study of other cultures.