What we’re reading this semester

by I.A. Isherwood

For the last three years I have taught a First World War survey course at Gettysburg College. I proposed the course because it is my academic area of interest, but also because I thought it would be nice to offer a FWW course during the centenary for undergraduates who might not know that much about such an important world event. In a small way, the course has been a way of trying to demonstrate the significance of the war’s ‘long shadow’.

I first walked into a college classroom as an instructor ten years ago (more on this anniversary in a future post). The last decade has seen an explosion of historical materials available online, which has been a great boon for student research, but also has made the task of sifting through materials a bit daunting. Still, students now have more resources at their fingertips than they did a decade ago and, in theory, it would be entirely possible to teach my First World War course without requiring students to buy a single book.

That’s not the approach I’ve taken this semester, not entirely, but I have adjusted my syllabus to take into account the cost of books and to take advantage of online resources freely available to my students. They still have a core textbook – this semester I am using Hew Strachan’s one volume history of the war – but I have supplemented their core reading with entries from the International Encyclopedia of the First World War. The latter is a fantastic resource that offers peer reviewed articles on hundreds of topics, each with sources, hyperlinks, and recommendations for further reading. In addition to the above, they will be reading some other articles and viewing some films/online lectures.

I have assigned a few other books so that students can get a feel for some current research and develop their skills reading and evaluating longer works. This semester, they will be reading Michael Neiberg’s new book on the American response to the war in Europe – The Path to War – as well as Emily Mayhew’s book on medical care during the war, Wounded. Throughout the semester, they also will read Ernst Jünger book Storm of Steel, to understand one soldier’s perspective on combat. Rather than assigning the latter in one chunk as I’ve done in the past, I have broken the memoir into sections that correspond to the changing nature of the war. So when we discuss the western front in 1915, they will read Jünger’s experiences that year, when we discuss the Somme, they will read about his fighting at Guillemont, etc. We will be using the memoir as a supplemental source rather than evaluating it strictly as a work of literature (though there will be some of that too).

Long story short, I’m trying a more blended approach to student reading than I’ve done in the past, a very small but logical concession to modernity.