Breadth versus Depth: Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”
For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.   We are finishing our freshmen core text class with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel that integrates some of the themes we have been studying so far this semester, including the role that Christian… The post Breadth versus Depth: Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.

 

We are finishing our freshmen core text class with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel that integrates some of the themes we have been studying so far this semester, including the role that Christian faith plays in our lives, the criteria for proof and knowledge, the self-examination of motivations, the class structure of society, and asking what ultimately holds society together. Of course, these are not the only themes in Crime and Punishment, but the novel is rich enough to addresses these subjects where students can follow the arc of the development of characters, questions, and topics in a single narrative. Doing this requires a different skill in reading than what students have done thus far, which is mastering excerpts of core texts. It will be interesting to see if they can make the adjustment.
Until this point, what we have done is breadth; now we are doing depth. There are advantages and disadvantages of each approach. One of the main rewards of breadth – covering multiple core texts by reading only excerpts – is that students are introduced to a tradition of thought that allows them to anchor themselves in a specific civilization. For example, by surveying an array of thinkers, the student can see the connections among Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls in their understanding western liberalism. By seeing the whole of the tradition first, students can then piece together the parts.
But for this approach to be successful, it is incumbent upon the professor to make explicit the connections among texts for the students. Often this is done by thematically organizing the course, e.g., the Enlightenment, Romanticism. Without the professor pointing out these explicit connections and embedding the themes in the course, students will get cognitively lost throughout the semester, just reading one random text after another without knowing why. In other words, course design is critical for the breadth approach to be successful; otherwise, students only see trees instead of the forest.
Depth is opposite of breadth. Rather than reading multiple texts, students read only representative samples in their entirety (or, at least, mostly in their entirety). Instead of reading passages of Luther, Calvin, Milton, and Pascal, students will read all of Luther’s Treatise on Christian Liberty as an example of the power and problems of Christian faith in the modern world. By reading the whole work, students learn to follow an argument, narrative, or meaning in a text from beginning to end and deeply examine the assumptions, logic, evidence, and rhetoric provided. One could argue that this type of sustained reading is even more critical today with students’ shorter attention spans.
Like breadth, the professor is critical to make this approach successful for students. Given that most of class time will be devoted to the examination of a single text, the professor can show how this work influences and is influenced by other readings (the so-called spoke-and-wheel method). For example, the professor could show how Treatise on Christian Liberty was influenced by Augustine and a reaction to Aquinas and later influences Calvin, Pascal, and others. This is comparatively easier to the breath approach where the professor has to connect several texts together with each one given relatively equal weight (hence, theme tends to be the better organizing principle here). Expressed differently, the professor still has to provide context and connections, but it is usually easier when using depth as opposed to breadth.
As stated before, both approaches have their strengths and weakness, so I have decided to combine the two in my core text course, something that I have done previously in my past political theory classes. We adopt the breadth approach for the first 2/3 of the semester as organized by themes; and we use the depth approach in the final 1/3 of the semester to integrate these themes (and thus texts) into a single narrative. For this course, I don’t spend too much time on the context of Crime and Punishment – just enough so students have superficial knowledge of nineteenth-century Russia – because my main pedagogical aim is to show how the themes of the Christian faith, Enlightenment rationalism, industrialization and capitalism, and social contract theory play out in Dostoevsky’s novel. The hope is that students will be able to see what they have read before manifests themselves in Raskolnikov’s journey from murderer to moral regeneration.
But who knows whether it will work? Russians aren’t known for their predictability and working according to a plan, so the whole thing might go off the rails, like Chichikov’s troika at the end of Gogol’s Dead Souls:
“Russia, are you not speeding along like a fiery and matchless troika? Beneath you the road is smoke, the bridges thunder, and everything is left far behind . . . Russia, where are you flying? Answer me! There is no answer. The bells are tinkling and filling the air with their wonderful pealing; the air is torn and thundering as it turns to wind; everything on earth comes flying past and, looking askance at her, other people and states move aside and make way.”

The post Breadth versus Depth: Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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