The Art of the College Lecture

On showmanship, historical riffs, and funny accents

I think I've said before that I like to boot up college lectures and listen while gaming. I'm still playing Civilization V (stuck on King) and so I generally use the Yale History Department's lectures (available through Open Yale) as background music. "Background music" is really disservice, if only because since I've started teaching I've been thinking about which lectures I enjoy and which ones I do not.

My favorite right now is John Merriman's "European Civilization, 1648-1945." It obviously helps to be actually interested in what folks are lecturing on, and European history is basically my second love. I've long said that had I been born white, I would have been a medievalist. I don't read the material for the courses, or purchase the books, though I'm going to read Merriman's single volume history of modern Europe this summer. Still, listening to these guys have helped me get a hold on what makes for a great lecture.

Merriman is a kind of a freestyle rapper. He is riffing off the material and doesn't really do "in this year this happened, and in that year that happened." Instead, he just gives you anecdotes, quotes, and observations about the periods. Merriman has this weird ability to inhabit the history -- he'll do these really exaggerated accents or capture the tragicomedy of World War I by noting the obvious threat of the Germans "in Ostend eating moules frites."

Or he'll note the frightening absurdity of Austrian anti-Semitism by quoting Karl Leuger's assertion, "I decide who is a Jew."*

Last week I was talking about how much of teaching is performance, and Merriman gives a show. This is not demeaning. So much of getting people to care about a subject is conveying your own passion. I imagine that it's a lot easier to convey passion at the University level, then at the elementary and secondary school level where teachers often must be passionate over a range of subjects, and passionate about a curriculum that may not be their own.

Anyway, I highly recommend Merriman if you like European history. He is not quite as focused as David Blight. And I wouldn't listen to get a strict "chronological" read of history. But there's something to be said for not presenting history as an orderly sequence of events. Rarely do people at the time see it things that way.

* I've thought a lot about that "I decide who is a Jew" quote. It really says a lot about how a ruling class uses race to conceal their power. Surely the Jews existed as a people with their own traditions, folkways and affinities. But when Leuger says "I decide who's a Jew" he is claiming the right to declare who is inferior by blood and who isn't. It is very similar to the way the colonial Virginians (and racists today) claimed the right to "decide who's a nigger." It is not enough to say "I have more guns than you, so I win." The "win" must be ordained by God. Or science--which to the racist, is just another word for "God." Beyond the task of justifying and reifying power, "race" has little meaning.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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