Ranieri: I get to take advantage of my liberal arts/liberal education background. I also love seeing how ideas merge together and evolve over long stretches in history. I really enjoy intellectual history, or the history of ideas.
N&N: Has how you teach the course changed over the years? In what way?
R: It hasn’t changed in a general sense; my experience has just allowed me to integrate more deeply ideas and examples. I have always taken the approach that this is a history of ideas sequence, a way to see how ideas we work with today have evolved over the last 2500 years or so. Sometimes we fall into what Thoreau says are intellectual ruts that become “automatic” for us—they seem “normal,” the way humans should always view reality. Hopefully seeing how ideas have been conceived in the past helps us recognize how to get out of our “ruts” today, to think creatively and constructively. Of course, the other side of the teaching equation is the students. On that side I have always expected students to decide how these ideas relate to them. That is why my major assignments are all writing assignments—even the exams. On each of my honors syllabi is the quote, “Relating the self to the social and natural worlds, actively or reflectively, does seem to be the central aim of most traditions of liberal education. . . . “ (Sheldon Rothblatt, The Living Arts: Comparative and Historical Reflections on Liberal Education) So, in the end, that is the goal of every honors class I teach and why I give honors students choices about what to write about—choices in ideas and in texts to address.
N&N: How do you decide what material to cover and which authors to read for each section?
R: When I first started teaching, most sequence classes were taught by English faculty using only literature texts. We use literature, history texts, political texts, some history of science texts, and non-fiction essays. This is all tied to my interdisciplinary tendencies. I supplement with contemporary readings for Blackboard discussions or for class discussions in order to bring up-to-date the ideas we are dealing with, especially to show the relevance of ideas from past times and cultures to today.
N&N: How do you prepare for each class period?
R: First, I always read the material—every time—with very few exceptions in a semester. Then I go over pages of past notes and supporting articles looking for “entry points” to a reading that can start discussion or tease out critical ideas needed to understand this reading in context of past or future readings. I also note what aspects of the readings have to be mentioned in class because they are key to this text, or because they look back or forward to other material we have or will cover. Then, I look at my past URL’s and at the history book to see if there are artifacts that could be used to tie to the ideas or provide an entry point to the discussions. Then I go into class and launch with my starting points, trying to let the students guide the discussion on where it should and will go. After class I go over my notes to see if anything crucial was missed that needs to be “cleaned up” or mentioned at the start of the next class.
N&N: What is your goal for each class period?
R: Four things:
- To advance the history of ideas another little step, tying back to past classes when possible and previewing future ideas when relevant.
- To engage as many students as possible in the discussion knowing that some are thinking even when they don’t talk in class, and knowing some have not read the material as they should have.
- To always remember my key goals for the whole sequence.
- To have some fun and laugh when we can. N&N: What do you think are the most important ideas discussed in each section as well as through all three sections?
N&N: How is your teaching approach/style different for honors courses vs. non-honors courses, if at all?
R: It is more reflective, more focused on the advancing level of developmental thought.
N&N: What is the main thing that you want students to take away with them at the end of the sequence?
R: That the focus of learning at this level is on each of them. The heart of liberal education is that no learning takes place unless each student integrates ideas in to his/her own ways of thinking and then into his/her own actions. For the Greeks they sought a clarity between Thought→Words→Actions. That effort to clarify the first two (“logos”) and the integrate “logos” into actions defines each person’s ethos and arête (excellence). What that means is that no learning takes place that I as instructor can “force” on students. That is why all my major assignments are writing and why I need discussion in the classroom. I cannot force discussion or force intellectual integration of Thought→Words→Actions. I can foster an environment for that to occur and I can model that myself, but no learning takes place unless it is voluntarily done by each student. As a faculty member that is both “freeing” and “constraining.”
N&N: Anything else you’d like to add?
R: Since ancient times, learning has relied on modeling. I try to exhibit the same respect for language and expression that I require from students (including their right to express themselves, but also the need in a democracy to listen and respond to others in a civil manner). The highest level of advanced thinking is speculation. Advanced students have few opportunities to sustain speculative thought in today’s higher educational system. I give Honors students that chance and most of them thrive on it. ... We are all “texts” for a class. In this light it is both amusing and frustrating that students often treat the humanities sequence as less important than their disciplinary courses. In fact, those courses only take on their real meaning in context of what learning occurs in the honors humanities sequence.