Introduction to the Course

This is an introduction to the course itself, not an introduction to the subject matter. Read this to find out how I'm running the course this semester and for advice on how to approach the material. It's rather talky, but please read it in full.


What's the course about?

The Crusades. Yes, thank you. But what about them?

First order of business is to know the basics: who, what, where and when. Who fought, where did the crusades take place, when did they occur? What were they fighting about? None of these are as simple as they appear to be. The question of "why" is even more difficult. You should keep each of the "five W's" clearly in mind, revisiting and revising them as you go through the course.

Beyond that, I encourage you to do exercises in abstraction. Every historian quickly discovers that no matter how much time alloted in a course, no matter how many pages in a book, there is never enough time to cover everything. Every attempt at writing history is an exercise in abstracting the material into some shorter form. I'm taking fifteen weeks and hundreds of pages to cover the Crusades. How about doing so in one week and a hundred pages? Or one day and ten pages? Or five minutes and one page? All can be done; each is simply a matter of abstraction. It's not a matter of merely cutting out material; abstraction requires a reformulation and a new understanding.

You know those sequences where the camera starts at some microscopic level and keeps panning outward until it's at some astronomical level? Writing history is like that. At one level you might see microbes crawling about; at another you see oh, the microbes are in water; oh, that's a lake; it's a lake on a planet; and so on. Each level actually has something different to tell you in the context of its own perspective. In fact, writing your term paper is precisely an exercise at a certain level of abstraction.

When you are done with the course, my intent is that you will have your own themes, dervied from the various accounts you read here. My hope is that you will be able to express these at varying levels of abstraction; that you will be able to tell a friend about the Crusades in three minutes, or write a five page paper for a writing class, or write an encyclopedia article. And you know you'll be able to write a twenty-five page history paper on a topic because you will have done so. You won't emerge from this course having "learned the Crusades" in the way you learn calculus. Rather, you will have learned it in the way one semester of drawing teaches you to draw: you will have the basics and will know how to go forward, either on your own or in further formal study.

About the Discussion Questions

I generally like to have an open format for my courses, letting students ask all sorts of questions. This can, however, get confusing at times. The student might wonder which are the Important questions? What am I supposed to be learning? What, to invoke the abominable language of education theory, are the Course Objectives?

As to that last, I don't believe in course objectives, or at least not in the form in which I usually encounter them. Learning about history is like reading a book or viewing a painting. The author does not list Reading Objectives. The artist does not provide Viewing Objectives.

Neither, however, do I want my course to dissolve into a meaningless swirl of names and dates, nor even into a mere narrative—history as one damn thing after another, as the old saying goes. My compromise is the Discussion Questions.

These come in two forms. One is more factual. These ask you to find places on a map or put things in sequence or make a list. They are simple exercises, intended to give the student a way to impose at least a bit of order on what is a very large body of information. The second type is more interpretive and is intended to get the student to form an opinion or draw a conclusion, or at least to question the text at hand.

Therein lies my dilemma. I don't want discussion to be a collection of more or less random questions and idle observations, but neither do I want it to become nothing more than students providing the "answers" to the Discussion Questions. So, I can hear you asking, what exactly do you want, Professor Knox?

Something in between. I want students to feel free to ask any question that occurs to them, no matter how supposedly stupid or obvious they may fear it to be. I also want them to consult the Discussion Questions to help them find a path through the jungle of material they'll be reading, and to bring any of those questions into the class discussion as they feel inclined. The balance will vary, depending on the individual student, and that's fine by me. The history major will find a mix different from that of a non-history major. That variation is, in fact, one of the delights and strengths of this format.

About the Textbook

There isn't one, as you may have noticed. To be more correct, all the required reading is online. There is finally (as of 2011) enough material available over the Net to make a physical textbook unnecessary. Ever since I began teaching virtual classes (in 1994) I've tried to have as much of the class online as possible.

If you feel you would benefit from having a textbook you are very welcome to buy one. I have three different suggestions, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Hans Eberhard Mayer, The Crusades. Second edition.
This is what I've used as a textbook for years. It's competent, fairly readable, covers the main crusades, and is concise enough to still be affordable. If you buy, make sure it's the second edition, not the first.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades.
More recent than Mayer, Riley-Smith has a somewhat wider view of the Crusades as a movement. This one and Mayer are really the only two viable candidates for a college-level textbook. You won't go wrong with either.
Sir Steven Runciman, The Crusades. Three volumes.
We're not very clever with our book titles, are we? [grin] This is an older work and is recommended only for those who have the time, money, and inclination to invest in the subject. Runciman has a definite point of view (rather pro-Byzantine) but his is by far the most readable narrative and, at three volumes, the most detailed account that is readily available. It says something about the work that it was written in the 1950s and is still available in paperback. Be careful, though; don't bother with the one-volume abridged version. If you buy, get the full set.

Crowdsourcing the Crusades

One great thing about having class material fully online is that I can have lots of editors. I encourage all my students to let me know when they have a suggestion for improvement. This can take a number of forms, including but not limited to the following.

In addition, I have a couple of specific questions for you this year. I'll take feedback at any point during the semester but would really really (really) like to hear from each of you on each of these. In each case, please explain your choice as fully as you can.

  1. How was it without a textbook? Keep doing without one? Or go back to a required physical textbook?
  2. Did you use the Discussion Questions? Should I try to make them more prominent and useful? To put it another way, should I try to direct students more, or let them make their way through the material in a more independent manner? I always worry that students will come away with lots of factoids but with poor general understanding of the topic.