How not to have a book discussion …

by I.A. Isherwood

“Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.” There are infinite moments of absolute wisdom in the film The Big Lebowski, but Sam Elliott’s folksy cowboy wisdom to the Dude has always spoken to me. When I teach a dud of a class, especially so. And yesterday was a bit of a dud.

As a humanist, I like to make up percentages base on no quantitative research. 60% of the class dudishness was because of me; 30% student preparation: 10% because it is the end of the semester.

What do I mean by dudishness?

We are discussing David Reynolds’s book The Long Shadow. It is a well-written book with a somewhat complicated argument. Reynolds contends that the Great War’s legacy can be found in really tangible ways, but that its memory, has changed so significantly since the Second World War that we have missed some of the big picture ways of measuring its impact and legacy. In an age obsessed with the lived memory of the war (and its poets!) we’ve missed the big picture. The war impacted nations, conceptions of democracy, perception of empire, culture and civilization, and generated a significant international peace moment. The book is a sweeping international history of the inter-war period and the war’s changing memory in the Cold War. It is superbly written and synthesizes a lot of excellent research.


But . . .  it has proved very difficult for me to teach. Why?

I think because the argument is an abstract one. It also requires a bit of background knowledge of students in international history to truly get the book. Sometimes students are sheepish about showing what they don’t know and this book’s scale makes it so that it’s tough to feel comfortable enough talking about it. With a class of varying academic backgrounds, some of the chapters I think proved esoteric. If the chapters seemed confusing, then there is little chance that students will engage with the argument in detail.

How did I get things wrong? I considered two ways of teaching the material.

1) The Structured Book Dissection: outline the book’s chapters and go through them, trying to tease out the facts of the chapters and how each relate to the central argument. This approach fit with the discussions we had last week on reading and note-taking, but it can prove dreadfully boring if mishandled.

2) The Seminar Book Discussion: come up with some general questions about the book and its subject and let things fly. The risk here is that if students did not do the reading or do not get the core concepts, the class will be 75 extremely long minutes. This approach is especially risky late in the semester.

I went with Option 1 and it proved deadly for the material. Rather than engaging with the chapters, we merely summarized them (and not terribly well). There were lots of awkward pauses, which I don’t usually mind if they lead to someone raising a good point or two, but this didn’t happen much. I did a lot of droning on trying to contextualize some of the key points, thereby confusing the points more as I was talking. It wasn’t a disaster of a book discussion, but it was not what the book (and the subject) deserved.

So, tomorrow we’ll go with Option 2 and we finish our discussion of the book. Let’s hope it goes a bit better.