First, let me say this: I'm enjoying the students this semester, and several have proven themselves to be sharp readers of texts. They've also been enthusiastic about participating. What follows, then, is a comment on the kinds of things they've been taught to value rather than on them as students.
The other day in class, we were reading two works published by the same author in the same year--during a war, in fact. Since the author was writing about this war, I wrote the year on the board, noted and talked about a couple of the very famous battles that happened in this year, and concluded by briefly discussing a famous speech that had been given during this year. (It's hard to do this without telling you the speech, but trust me, you know this one by heart.)
On a quiz the other day (because I believe that quizzes, like short writings, can sharpen reading skills), I asked them, as a bonus, to name the speech and the year in which it was given.
One person got the right answer. One.
Some were off by a few years, and some were off by centuries.
I'm not talking about the War of Jenkin's Ear here; this was a major war in which their own country was involved. (This isn't to say that the War of Jenkin's Ear wasn't a major war to those involved.) And I had written it on the board five days before this.
To do them credit, there were laughs and groans from the class when we talked about the answer. Since another reason I give quizzes and short writings is to spark the class's interest in the ensuing discussion, and also since it was just a bonus question, this date did its work even if they hadn't known it before.
I'm not a stickler for dates usually, but I do believe that having some knowledge of the context is important, even if, and especially if, that context is contested. I don't want to turn them into little Thomas Gradgrinds, but I think that the "big concepts/no details" push in some educational circles may be doing students a disservice.
In this class I try to do both: to teach students broader frames of reference (theoretical, historical, cultural, etc.) for understanding the literature that they read and to show them how the details of their readings contribute to those frames.
And I don't teach Fredric Jameson in this course, but somehow, his phrase from The Political Unconscious seemed apt for a title.