Multiple Points of Entry

Cognitive psychologists continue to debate whether there are “multiple intelligences.” There is no controversy over the multitude of learning styles, however. This truism about how we learn is especially relevant for history because historians, and students in history courses, need to grapple with many kinds of sources. Each poses its own set of challenges. Scarcity, however, dictated that we choose a single approach to each topic, find a single best example, or the few most important details. This no longer need be the case. And we can help students make some of these choices for themselves.

One class discussion in my “Modern Europe and U.S.” survey is on Louis XIV and life at Versailles. Students read Jacques Barzun’s discussion and an excerpt from a source he uses extensively, the Memoires of the Duke de Saint-Simon. In addition I put on the course site a letter from Madame de Sevigne in which she describes the pressures generated by a royal visit. The student assignment (see  “Some Very Detailed Examples") is: Submit annotations, from Saint-Simon’s account of life at court which deepen, complicate, and/or confuse the portrait drawn by Barzun. Because students choose the passages they do not have to pretend to a mastery that, as neophytes, they cannot achieve. This changes the dynamics of the class, which becomes a workshop on how historians read. Barzun comes to very different assessment of Louis XIV than Saint-Simon. And the students write and talk about reading Barzun in the light of the Saint-Simon excerpts. Here is one student’s notes. She was in an honors section of the course, and her work was exemplary.

Candice’s Notes

Barzun’s account:

  • according to Barzun, the court of Versailles, led by Louis XIV, was all about a facade
  • the principle of sovereignty was misconstrued as personal rule-despotism (285)
  • the last thing the King wanted was to be thought of as arbitrary, however
  • instead he learned to use etiquette as an anti-revolutionary force
  • life at court was a daily drama with Louis at the lead, every noble was fighting every other noble to win the King’s favor, be it just a nod or a glance of approval in his direction
  • the King noticed every absence, so that in this way any potential rebels were under permanent surveillance
  • gaining the King’s approval afforded special privileges, such as posts of high honor, promotions, land or cash, decorations
  • for a noble complete satisfaction came from simply obtaining the favor of a word or a smile from the King, and in this way the monarch was absolute and arbitrary
  • there was a royal master of ceremonies to constantly think up occasions for throwing parties and entertainment, which kept the nobles busy preparing for such events
  • court was a fusion of revelry and rivalry, it was an audience, a show, a spectacle, full of grandeur, brilliance, and power
  • the King terrified all who came near him because everyone so desperately wanted his approval; no one was at his level
  • ”no source of pride or strength-helped anybody to withstand his glance; all were reduced to humility” (289)

Saint-Simon’s Account:

  • the King liked order and regularity in all things, but his passion was glory (deepens Barzun’s account of how he King maintained stability peacefully, but also was so honored that none were his equal)
  • says he was naturally kind hearted and just, which also follows what Barzun said
  • deepens Barzun’s account of his childhood by saying how badly he was neglected by his parents and how deeply this effected him as an adult
  • somewhat confuses Barzun’s account by saying that his greatest weakness was his love of flattery, because according to Barzun, his ability to make everyone in his Court wish to flatter and fall into his good graces was actually his genius and not his weakness
  • continues with this idea by recounting how he was able to be talked into going into war merely through flattery, Louis simply praised how strong and mighty his army was and that was all it took to persuade him to battle,  and would engage in cheap sieges in order to appear brave
  • loved reviews, in which he was essentially told how great he was, because he truly believed himself to be all that he was said to be
  • Simon again confuses Barzun’s account by referring to the “entertainment,” the cookery, the masquerades, the dressing of the soldiers, ceremonies, etc., as obsessions of the King himself, which he loved to dwell on, and which his Ministers once they learned how to master him were able to keep him occupied with these things while achieving their own interests
  • in Barzun’s account, these entertainments were in fact the King’s method for keeping the citizenry busy to prevent rebellion
  • were it not for fear of the devil, he would have caused himself to be worshiped as a deity, which is in agreement with Barzun’s account of how the citizenry worshiped him
  • expands upon Barzun’s account of how the King kept track of attendance by saying that he did this by frequenting the festivities at Versailles, so that the nobles were there as much as possible in fear that their absence would otherwise be noticed
  • if anyone was habitually absent he demanded a reason and was displeased
  • then in the future if he was asked to grant a favor to that person he would reply “I do not know him”
  • confuses Barzun’s account in that it says that he always had a great number of spies and took great care to know the goings-on of the citizens, because Barzun alludes to the fact that spies were not necessary because of the demand on attendance he created
  • knew how to make the most out of a word, a smile, or a glance, expands on Barzun’s account by describing how he knew that how he bestowed the favor was as important as the favor itself

Expectations change when you make authentic assignments. Students expect to make mistakes. They expect to find some of what they read confusing. They expect help. I received lots of e-mails asking me to react to one or another reading of Barzun. I expect students to grapple seriously with challenging materials. I expect them to write notes before every class. Their notes take the place of quizzes. If the web is the untextbook, these notes are unquizzes. Students ask questions; they try out interpretations. I evaluate their notes, again before class. Much of the time this takes the form of a two-word e-mail on the order of “nice job” or “too perfunctory.” On some occasions, however, I write extended responses in which I suggest alternative or complementary ways of thinking about the topic. I expect students to make a commitment to the course, and they expect as much of me. Teaching and learning with abundance is labor intensive.

I then post excerpts from their notes into a web page that I use to organize the class discussion. Candice’s notes offer several points of entry into life at Versailles. I simply asked her where she wanted to begin. She said she was most curious about the question of flattery. Was Saint-Simon correct in arguing that courtiers used Louis’ appetite for compliments to manipulate him? Or was Barzun right in suggesting that Louis was interested in controlling the nobility and manipulated them? I asked her to pick out one example from Saint-Simon about flattery and then several other students to choose others. I then asked students to discuss how court etiquette might slide over into flattery. We used Madame de Sevigne’s account of a royal visit to gauge the elaborateness of court life. Then I asked students to recall our previous discussions of More and Machiavelli and the issue of flattery. Our goal was NOT to answer Candice’s question. It was to explore it.

A follow-up to the “Life at Court” assignment and discussion illustrates another way of creating alternative points of entry. The assignment read:

We will break into teams to report on Moliere and on La Rochefoucauld, both of whom Barzun discusses at some length.

Nov. 7: Reports on Moliere and La Rochefoucauld. Submit notes, which you will use in making the report. Both Moliere and La Rochefoucauld were social critics, often quite scathing in their portraits of Louis XIV’s France and the manners and mores of what Barzun calls “The Reign of Etiquette.” Cite specific examples and connect them to specific features of Louis’ regime. Remember to note remaining points of confusion.

In this instance students chose which text to read as well as which features of Life at Court to discuss. I spent part of the preceding class giving them a guided tour of each of the sources. Students read more attentively when they choose what they will read, and they write more cogently when they get to pick the passages they comment upon. A direct result is that the quality of their work goes up.  Below is an excerpt from one student’s notes illustrating this:

Ashley’s Notes on “Tartuffe”

  • Tartuffe is about a man who stays with a family in which everyone knows he is a phony except for the one person that matters; the husband…he signs over everything to Tartuffe and then realizes the person that he really is when his wife sets him up in front of her husband
    • he is seen as the epitome of a hypocrite in this play dealing with piety
  • what if your daughter’s wedding has now brought/ you to the point of warming this lust”
    • reveals that his current situation with the wife is based on lust: one of the seven deadly sins
    • but if he is pious, how is that so?
  • Is that what bothers you? A churchish fear?/ If that is all, then we are free and clear!/ You need not fret yourself about God’s laws”
    • tells Elmire that it is okay to be with him even though she is married and he is to marry her daughter; denounces God’s laws by saying not to worry about them
    • shows IMPIETY
  • “it’s true that heaven frowns on some dark acts,/ though with great men, our lord makes higher pacts”
    • says more or less that he is exempt from God’s laws because he is so great
    • no religious person would ever think that (also reflects the attitude of Louis towards himself)
  • “I’ll teach to you of science’s subtle ways,/ to clear your conscience and to ease your days./ for now though, let us finish what we started,/ if sin there is, be it on me imparted”
    • talks about science’s way
    • science is the enemy of religion, so how is it that he can believe in both? He is basically saying “let’s go sin” [science here may refer to theology, “the queen of the sciences”]
  • “Now, if you’re still concerned, know heaven winks,/ at carnal joys known quietly in private./ It’s whiff of scandal, draws out heaven’s wrath,/ and silent sin still sticks to heaven’s path”
    • saying that if no one finds out that they have sinned, it won’t count as one
    • impiety once again
  • “Your husband? Why concern about that rube?/ he drinks in every story like a boob!”
    • throughout the play he flatters her husband
    • this is another degree of hypocrisy shown that is parallel to that of the Court of Louis
    • the hypocrisy of Tartuffe is paralleled with that of the Court because he pretends he is someone he is not; he flatters his hosts, and he acts very pious, but in reality could care less about religion and thinks very lowly of the people he is staying with. He does it for his own benefit- so that he will gain their property among other things. The court is very much like this in Versailles because they flatter Louis and pretend they are someone they aren’t to gain approval and status.

The full set of student notes is available. Allowing students to find their own ways into the materials not only exponentially improves the quality of their work. It also dramatically alters the dynamics of the classroom. Students choose the passages we look at. They highlight the confusions they encounter. And, most critical, they control the sequence in which we take up issues. This is what I found hardest to adjust to, and I suspect most faculty will as well. I soon learned that students will ultimately raise all the points I want to touch on or will come close enough for me to make a natural transition to something they left out. But they raise them in an order I would not choose and they phrase them in terms I would not select. This can be disconcerting. But the reward for giving students the initiative in structuring class content is that they are far more engaged. The trade-off is more than worth it. Using e-mail, blogs, bulletin boards, and other communication media are vital in this regard.