Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Survey: Listening to Rakove

This summer, I began listening to recordings of Jack Rakove's Colonial and Revolutionary America lectures at Stanford.  Available on itunes, Rakove's course joins a host of free classes posted on the web, including lectures offered by historians at Stanford (see link to Stanford's iTunes U), Yale (see link to Open Yale Courses), Harvard (see link to Harvard Open Courses), and other schools (if you're institution offers classes relevant to legal history, please feel free to link in the comments!).  Listening to Rakove's lectures helped me think more critically about my own lectures on the colonial period, pushing me to reconsider questions of content, tone, coverage, and style.  For example, Rakove does not spend a great deal of time grilling students on individual readings, choosing instead to provide his class with a grand narrative and relatively infrequent questions.  If he does ask a question, it tends to be philosophical, often pushing students to compare some aspect of the subject with current conditions, or simply to provide an opinion.  Pedagogically, this approach allows Rakove to present a staggering amount of material in an accessible, engaging way.  Along these lines, Rakove refers frequently to slides, either portraits, maps or other illustrations to hold student interest, meanwhile weaving his own work into the larger secondary literature.

This last move was particularly interesting.  Listening to Rakove's source citations in lecture is like listening to a master historian riff on a comprehensive exam question.  It is impressive.  It is also useful.  Through lecture, Rakove places his work in the context of the larger historiography, or at least that aspect of the historiography that Rakove believes is important.  For example, Rakove begins his lectures in 1607, with the founding of Jamestown; sending a signal that earlier trading encounters between Europeans and Indians did not matter.  However,  one could complicate this narrative by discussing Indian pre-history, including the history of Indian/British trade in the 16th Century, including the remarkable voyage of Tisquantum from Massachusetts to London prior to the Puritan arrival at Plymouth.  One could also include the Spanish or French incursions into North America.  For example, John Winthrop states forthrightly in his "Reasons for Puritan Migration" (1629) that one goal of the enterprise was to "raise a Bulwark against the kingdom of AnteChrist w[hi]ch the Jesuits labour to reare up in those parts."  What kingdom?  To understand this decidedly evangelical reason for migrating, it is necessary to recover the French founding of Port Royal in 1605, and the first Jesuit Mission at Penobscot Bay in 1609.  While this does not necessarily reduce the significance of Jamestown in 1607, it does put a different spin on the early phase of the course.