Monday, August 15, 2011

Setting Up the Syllabus, Part I

The Schedule

It comes last on the syllabus, but I have learned the heart of my syllabus is the schedule. It’s like the great, ghastly tick-tock machine of Gregory Maguire’s magical novel Wicked – subtly controlling all other events (at least that’s what I think happens in the novel). When I first began teaching, I rarely stuck to the schedule – allowing lectures to run over, showing too many films, or letting debates about how progressive the progressives were run a muck (and usually I was doing most of the debating). The result was that I rarely got past Vietnam or Jimmy Carter.

And the truth is, my students care more about the recent past than they do the Civil War or the age of segregation or the Cold War. They want to understand why 9/11 happened, whether Ronald Reagan really was as great as their parents say he was, and is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as brilliant as Bill Gates.

If I spend 2 weeks on Reconstruction (as I did when I first started teaching, because that’s what my dissertation focused upon) or had them understand exactly how each character of The Wizard of Oz represented someone from the 1890s (Toto as teetotaler … I was the only one who found it funny), then I didn’t have time to get to the present. Developing the schedule first, and then committing to it, let’s me get to the present.

I start with the “must haves.” Reconstruction – a must, because my students need to know how and why the white North and the white South reconciled after killing themselves for four years and how racial justice fell by the wayside. Industrialization – that’s a must too. We were farmers once; now most of us aren’t. What happened? Economic development helps to explain the nation’s rise to global prominence in the twentieth century and the world they inhabit. Progressivism’s a must, because it changed local, state, and national government so much.

The Great Depression and the New Deal are crucial – how else to understand Social Security deductions on their paystubs. The Cold War’s gotta be there and so too the civil rights era. The 1970s didn’t offer much in the way of music, but it certainly sets up the Reagan Revolution and economic and military conflicts with the Middle East. Finally, rise of the Digital Age, the “war on terror,” and the election of Barack Obama seem like nice end points.

So the musts I have are:
1. Reconstruction
2. Industrialization
3. Progressivism
4. Great Depression and New Deal
5. Cold War
6. Civil Rights and Johnson’s Great Society
7. 1970s
8. The Reagan Revolution and Clinton’s Third Way
9. The Digital Age

That’s nine main topics for 15 weeks, and I need time for exams, holidays, and presentations at the end of the semester (more on that in a future post). Each section basically gets one week. So what gets left out? A lot. The Populists, if they get mentioned, fall into Industrialism. World War I fits as part of progressivism, but mainly as a final gasp of the era and I gloss over it pretty quickly. WWII gets thrown into the end of the New Deal and beginning of the Cold War, but doesn’t get it’s own week. In fact, I’ll probably spend as much time talking about Top Gun and The Matrix as I do WWI. Watergate and Vietnam – crucially important wars – get lumped into the end of Johnson’s Great Society and the beginning of the 1970s, and my students will spend just as much watching clips from Saturday Night Fever (and I am not a John Travolta fan … but I love watching him buy a coat on “lay-away) as they will hear about the Tet Offensive.

Some of you are saying, “how dare he?!?” How could he barely mention Vietnam … it’s the only way students can understand the politics of the 1970s and 1980s (and Vietnam syndrome continued well into the 1990s, if not beyond). How can relegate world wars to secondary status. I agree. I agree. I confess it’s worse than you may think: I don’t even explain the differences between the Knights of Labor and the AFL. I just don’t have time for it all … and, sigh, when I’ve tried to cram all of it in, students learn very little, we don’t get anywhere near the present, and I’ve bored my students so tremendously that they tune out even if I’m talking about 1980s cartoons (which I do – if I get there).

What am I missing? Where do you begin and end? Do you think it’s imperative to get as close to the present as possible, or do you stop your history class at the 1970s or 1980s? When do events of the past become “history?” What am I leaving out that, you believe, so ruptures the course material that I’ve got to include it? I’m all ears.

I’ll post again on Wednesday with the syllabus and my rationale for the textbooks I selected (look out Kevin Schultz; this is where I get to plug Hist; and look out everyone, that post will show the self-promotional side of this blog with Major Problems in American History).


  1. Ed,

    This is an interesting blog you created. Hopefully, it will generate some creative ideas for teaching the second half of the U.S. survey.

    Where to end the modern U.S. survey is a little bit of a challenge, and I explain this to the class before the last lecture. I know students are greatly interested in events that took place during their lifetime because in an end of the semester survey last fall, several of them complained that I did not examine the 1990s in greater depth.

    The last lecture on my syllabus, "From the Cold War to the War on Terror," I examine two topics from the past twenty years: the War on Terror being one, and the shift to a post-industrial economy being the other.

    For the post-industrial phase of the lecture, I start by showing Eminem's "Beautiful" and discuss the imagery in the video in relation to deindustrialization. From there, I move to Timothy McVeigh (attributing the rise of the militia movement to deindustrialization), the digital revolution, Bill Clinton the "New Democrat," and the federal debt.

    Interestingly, I last gave this lecture a couple of weeks ago at the height of the debt ceiling crisis, which allowed me to discuss post-industrialism in relation to an event that could not have been any more current.

    Since most students in the history survey may never take another history class again, I emphasize the past as a lens to understand the present. Therefore in discussing the Populist movement, I have them compare the Omaha Platform and a Mary Elizabeth Lease speech to the Tea Party Platform and a Sarah Palin speech. While I want students to understand Populism historically as an agrarian protest against industrial capitalism, I am more interested in having them understand populism as a recurring political phenomenon with current-day manifestations.

    Wayne Ratzlaff

  2. Wayne,
    Those sound like great ideas - especially the Eminem video and the like the comparisons with the present. How do your students do with the cross-time comparisons (Populists of 1890s versus Tea Partiers of the 2010s)?

    Could we do a comparison between _The Matrix_ and Edward Bellamy's _Looking Backward_, for instance?

  3. I posted study questions for those readings asking students to identify the specific class of people both Lease and Palin attacked, the solutions proposed by each, as well as the regional critique use by Lease. I also asked them to consider the demands placed on government in both the Omaha Platform and Tea Party Speech.

    Overall, the responses indicated they grasped the elementary idea of change over time: Populism was a revolt of farmers in the South and West and the nature of populism's us vs. them discourse.

    As far as a comparison between "The Matrix" and "Looking Backwards," I must confess that I have never seen "The Matrix." I am curious, how do you use it for a classroom discussion?

  4. That sounds like a great juxtaposition of sources. For the Matrix, you'll have to wait until week 13 or 14 when I lecture on it ... but I have a whole section on The Matrix, the Terminator films, and Inception. - E