Teaching Great Books on the Web


The web is a wonderful tool for teachers. But if we are to use it properly, we have to think through the connection between what appears on our web sites and what we do in class. Otherwise we will be spinning our wheels when we put a great deal of effort into spinning our webs. So the first half of this brief essay is not about the web at all but, rather, about what I teach and my assumptions about how this material should be taught. Then I turn to an account of my own way of using the web in the two great books courses that I teach in the Temple University Intellectual Heritage Program.

Teaching Great Books.

Intellectual Heritage is a two semester sequence of courses that is required of all undergraduates at Temple University. The first semester begins with Thucydides, Sophocles, and Plato and includes texts drawn from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an as well as works by Galileo, Machiavelli and Shakespeare. The second semester begins with  John Locke and romantic poetry, continues on  to Marx, Darwin, and Freud and concludes with Gandhi and a contemporary novel.

The central assumption of my way of teaching these courses is that all learning that transforms the way we think and understand ourselves is, somewhat paradoxically, rote. The greatest mistake beginning teachers make—the greatest mistake I used to make—is to assume that one teaches students by telling them something. This works when teaching is just a matter of giving students information that they can easily assimilate given what else they know. When I offer a course on the US Congress, I can teach my students the three most powerful committees in the House of Representatives simply by naming them. But when I teach them about the various ways in which power can be centralized and decentralized in a legislative body, and the political consequences of these different forms of organization, I can not simply tell them. To understand the importance of different distribution of power, students have to take a conceptual leap. They have to develop a new way of thinking and acquire a new vocabulary.

What is true for studying power in a legislative body is even more true for studying great books. To understand each text, our students must come to think in a new way. They have to address problems they have not considered with ways of thought that are foreign to them. Learning this material is not so much an accumulation of information as it is a second acculturation. A second acculturation is, in some important ways, very different a first one. Yet both require a great deal of repetition and rehearsal. Our students learn a new way of talking and writing. And they do so by repeatedly hearing and then using a new set of concepts and ideas. They have to see and hear this new way of thinking again and again as preparation for their own efforts to talk and write in an unaccustomed way.

Some faculty members are disdainful of the elements of rote learning necessary to the teaching of the deepest and most powerful texts we know. They criticize other faculty members who, in their view, ask students to “regurgitate” ways of thought presented in class. This criticism is a valid complaint if all students are asked to do is repeat formulaic sayings they do not understand. To truly have learned a different way of thought, one must be capable of using new ideas and concepts in a flexible and intelligent manner. But what the critics of rote learning forget is that students do not acquire this skill in one step. Most of our students— most of us, for that matter—come to use new ideas in small and halting steps with frequent, and necessary, backsliding and detours.[1] A new concept or idea is but one element in a network of concepts that make up a way of thought or form of life. Students slowly come to grasp the interconnections of these different elements and only do so by criss-crossing from one part of the network to another many times and from different directions. As Wittgenstein once put it, learning a new way of thought is like learning one’s way around a city. Only when we have come to the same intersection from many different routes will we confidently know how to make our way through it to our destination.

The critics of rote learning often demand that we teach our students to innovate and think for themselves. This is a fine ambition. But to take it as the first goals of a great books course is to forget just how much we must learn before we can think for ourselves.[2] And it also is to forget what an achievement it is to come to a comprehensive and subtle grasp of the books we teach. A student who comes to have a solid understanding of Locke’s notion of the state of nature and the role that idea plays in his political thought has accomplished something both difficult and important. To soundly  compare and contrast Plato, Machiavelli, Locke, and Marx is an even more precious and rare achievement. Students who can do that are truly ready to think for themselves.

Socratic Dialogue and Its Limits

In most ways, I am a very traditional teacher. I am convinced that the best way for me to teach students classic texts is through Socratic discussion. My class sessions consist almost entirely of discussions in which our aim is to interpret some text. Our discussions are not free for alls. I work through the text with my students. When first approaching a text, I avoid generalities of all sorts. I also try not to look to far ahead. I ask my students focused questions that are meant to elucidate the meaning or meanings of particular passages. As time goes by, we try to put these passages together. And this, of course, involves considerable re-thinking and reevaluation of the conclusions we have already reached.

Socratic discussion has many advantages. I can lead students step by step into new ideas. I can see where students are confused and, also, respond to their enthusiasms. I can model new forms of thought for students and go over material in different ways. I can go deep enough into the texts to stimulate the best students while not entirely losing students who are slower to grasp the material. And, by responding to my questions, students can begin, a little at a time, to think in a new way.

Socratic discussions are wonderful. But they create difficulties as well. Some students get entirely lost. And, even after a good class, most students have to do work on their own to master the material we have covered. After class, most students feel that, even though they have followed the discussion from beginning to end, they are at a loss to put the material together as a whole. They can answer narrow questions. But they cannot begin to give a coherent account of the central ideas of the text we are studying.

The best students at the best universities could, with time and effort, put the material I discuss in class together for themselves. But this is a difficult and even painful process for the vast majority of students at most public and many private universities. The freshman and sophomores I mostly teach are not experienced enough in tackling difficult texts to work through the material on their own without enormous effort. And, since many of them are holding down jobs to pay for school, they simply don’t have the time to make this effort.

I can help my students put the material we discuss together in a coherent manner by frequently summing up. But this, I have concluded, is not the best solution. For one thing, I don’t want to spend valuable class time giving frequent lectures, however short. Nor do I want to upset a class dynamic that insists on active participation from the students. In addition, a quick summary doesn’t really give students what they need. For one thing, students grasp the material in different ways. A summary that helps one student might confuse another. Second, all students find it useful to see different ways of presenting the material in a coherent way. One central element of the art of teaching, after all, is learning how to say the same thing six different ways. Third,  most of my students need a way to consult the material I could provide in brief lecture outside of class. For like most good lectures, my summaries of our discussions need to be thought about and assimilated. Some students are good enough note takers to get down on paper what they need for review. But many are not.

How the Web Helps

My solution to all these difficulties is to use the web to provide a variety of material to the students that help them to review the material we discuss in class and to make it their own. I provide students with a number of different kinds of aids.

Introductions to assignments. Before every class I try to provide a brief review of where have gone and an introduction to the topics for the next day. These remarks largely replace in-class summaries of the material. They guide students in doing the reading and help them prepare to take part in class discussion. An additional advantage is that it gives me a place to send students who miss class and who call me up and say, “Did you do anything important in class today?” After telling them that I did very little of importance, I send them to my web site for details.
Notes on the texts. This is, I think, the most valuable material for my students. I provide them with very detailed and highly structured notes on the text. These notes provide an elaborate reconstruction of the interpretation—or sometimes, competing interpretations—of the texts that we have developed in class. Many of these notes go beyond what I can do in class, thus providing material that stimulates the most engaged students. (I leave material I have decided not to discuss in class in the notes, in part for this reason.) Other students can skip the details and still have a great deal of help in integrating their own study of the text with what they have learned from our class discussions.
Overviews of the course. In addition to notes on specific texts, I provide my students with an overview of each course. In these notes I try to emphasize broader themes and help students see key points of comparison and contrast between the texts.
Paper topics and examination questions. I generally give students this material early in the course as it helps focus their attention on certain elements of the texts. I generally give students eight to ten questions to prepare in advance choose two or three of these questions for the examination. My paper topics and examination questions do not stray far from the main issues I emphasize in class discussion and in my on-line notes. I certainly welcome originality, to the extent of eccentricity, in the papers and examinations I read. But I do not demand it. I do, however, expect students to answer questions in depth and breadth.
On-line discussion. I have not made use of this mode of interacting with students as much as I would have liked, largely because of the effort of developing the other materials I have made available to them. When I have used it, on-line discussions have been a very useful ways of elaborating on certain matters that have come up in class. I also use on-line discussion, and email conversations with particular students, as a way to point students to notes and overviews that can answer their questions.
Students very much enjoy having all of this material available to them. In effect, by providing it, I am more than doubling the time I spend with them. The notes and overviews on the web are essentially the lectures I would give if I taught Intellectual Heritage as a lecture course. Rather than resenting the material on the web because it makes additional demands on them, most students are eager to have help in working through our class discussions. At the same time, most students very much value those discussions because they can ask questions, express their own take on the texts, and actively learn how to think in the ways demanded by the texts.
Another reason students seem to value the material on the web is that it provides a number of different views of the texts. My aim—not entirely achieved as of yet—is to have the different material I have placed on the web come at the texts from different angles.
Because I do not have a sophisticated system for tracking student usage of my web site, I cannot be sure how many students use this material. I do have some evidence from teaching evaluations, from my discussions with students, and from the limited data my web host provides. This evidence suggests that at least eighty-five percent of my student use the material on the web and that probably sixty-five percent use it extensively.[3]  I am quite certain that students who use this material received higher grades and enjoy the course more.[4] Looking back over examinations and papers from the last few years pretty clearly shows that, as my web site has expanded, there has been a steady improvement in the quality of student work. Since there is nothing so painful as reading bad papers and examinations, this has been most welcome to me.

Possible Problems and Solutions

There are two possible dangers of providing students so much material on the web. One is that students will rely on the material on the web and not come to class or read the texts. When I first began using the web, I noticed some difficulties of this sort. I have since reinforced my insistence that class attendance and participation is an obligation of all students. Early on in the course—in the first semester, during our discussion of the Funeral Oration of Pericles—I explain that  taking part in class is a common good that is only available to us if we all do our part in providing it. Moreover, if students do not understand the importance of class participation early in the semester, they generally grasp it after I hand back the first examinations. In addition, because my notes are written at a fairly high level, students do not easily understand them if they have not read the text or come to class.[5] In addition, I expect students to quote from and cite the text in their papers and to paraphrase the text in their examinations. But, by design, my introductions, overviews, and notes on the web contain no page references to and few quotes or paraphrases from the texts. So students cannot rely on the web based notes to the exclusion of reading the text. These solutions have worked so well, that I have dropped my old practice of not posting notes and overviews until after our class discussion.

A second possible difficulty of all the material I put on the web is that students will simply repeat what they find there in their own examinations and papers. Somewhat to my own surprise, I have not found this to be a problem at all. I do make it clear to my students that they must cite the notes I provide on the web just like any other secondary source. And I also tell them that their papers and examinations must show that they have assimilated the material and are thus able to explain it in their own way. Still, given the prevalence of cheating in the university today, one would expect that at least some students would try to copy material from the web directly into papers and examinations. This simply doesn’t happen, however. Partly this is because students are aware that they will be easily caught if they too obviously crib from my on-line notes. In addition, it seems to me that the depth and breadth of the material I provide students makes it unlikely that students will rely too much on the notes. To be frank, the less well prepared students simply are not capable of producing intelligent papers just by copying my notes. The depth of material I provide them makes this difficult. Moreover, I try to write in a style most students can understand easily enough but cannot comfortably reproduce. Even my best students find these notes challenging. But even if they are capable of replicating them, they tend to be too engaged in their studies, and have too much pride, simply to do so.[6]

It takes a great deal of effort to make all the material I put on the web available to my students. But it is not an overwhelming task. One reason, of course, is that much of this material can be reused from one semester to another. Another reason is that using the web helps so much in preparing my introductions to the texts, notes, and overviews. After all, I could theoretically provide most of this material in class hand outs. But, unless I had my own, full-time secretary, this would be an impossible task. (There is a wonderful department secretary at UNC Charlotte, Cheryl Almond, who might have suspected that I took her to be working for me full time, when I first started using ancillary material of the kind I have described here before the web was available.) The time it would take to copy and collate the notes I provide would be prohibitive by itself. Moreover, without the web, there would be no way for me to go home and think about the class that day before posting assignments for the next class and revising, where necessary, my class notes. I could not work so close to deadline if it were not possible for me to post material to the web in the evening before each class.

So, for this traditional teacher of a traditional course, the web has proven to be an extremely useful tool.


[1] It would be useful if we faculty members tried to recall what it was like to read some difficult texts for the first time. I try to keep an image of sitting in the old reading room at Wesleyan’s Olin Library going over and over two pages of Marx and Engel’s The German Ideology in mind before I teach their texts.

[2] It is also to be ungrateful to our teachers and self-deceptive to boot. For most of the ideas of all but the most original thinkers among us are, by and large, minor variations on what we have learned from our own teachers and the books they taught us carefully to read.

[3] In looking at these numbers, one should keep in mind that large numbers of Temple students live off-campus and either do not own computers or do not have web access. This raises a serious issue of providing an equal education to all students. I am deeply aware of this issue but do not have space to discuss it further here.

[4] I hope to develop evaluation tools to document these conclusions in the coming year.

[5] My notes are difficult but not impossible to understand if a student has first read the text. I do not want to force my students to turn with relief from the interpretation to the text—as was once said about a particularly Hegelian interpretation of Hegel. Students who do read the texts carefully have found my notes useful to them. Every semester I hear from students taking the second semester of Intellectual Heritage with other instructors who find my notes and overviews useful. They are typically among my most motivated students. I have also heard from students from a number of different states and six foreign countries who have thanked me for my notes. I am, of course, concerned that some of these students are plagiarizing my notes for their papers. I do not see an obvious solution, except to put my course material on a restricted server. Aside from the technical difficulties, this solution would conflict with my non-teaching reasons for including this material on a public server.

[6] That I provide so much aid for students in writing papers and examinations has one other benefit: Students have little incentive to plagiarize from other secondary sources. Cheating of this sort has not been a serious problem in most of my courses. When it does arise, it is usually easy to ferret out.