Monday, August 8, 2011

Welcome to our new blog: Teaching United States History Surveys

This is an invitation to discuss and debate how best to teach survey courses in United States History. This semester, we’re focusing upon the second half of the survey (so roughly the Civil War to yesterday).

I started teaching United States history survey courses ten years ago. I’ve taught them in five different states, at public and private universities, to classes of 10, 25, 50, 150, and will (a year from now) lecture to a crowd of more than 300. I’ve assigned almost a dozen textbooks, co-edited a book of primary and secondary documents, and tried to integrate my research and new movements in the field into my courses

I’m amazed by how much has changed. Ten years ago, I taught what my mentors taught and how my mentors taught it. I spent at least a week on the Populists – because one of my mentors and one of his mentors had written books on those southern and western radicals. The class had an East Coast bias and African Americans were the primary (sometimes only) non-white group discussed. I used three novels and a textbook, because that was what we did when I led discussions as a teaching assistant.

For examinations, students wrote paragraphs identifying key concepts or people, and for essays they wrote three-to-five page thesis essays using lecture materials, the textbook, the novels, and a packet of primary documents. When lecturing, I showed basic PowerPoint presentations with 4 or 5 pictures and a whole bunch of statistics, quotes, and words many students would be unfamiliar with like “Dwight Eisenhower” or “perestroika.”

Now, my teaching style, technology, and content have changed. If YouTube or Google image searching existed back then, I didn’t know anything about it. Today, hardly a lecture or discussion goes by where I don’t incorporate a music video, a movie trailer, a speech, or a cartoon. I just can’t stop giggling every time I show the trailer for Tom Cruise’s Top Gun (“the most dangerous movie of 1985” so the trailer boasts). I have dozens of great images for any figure or event. The problem now isn’t a lack of visual sources, but how to make sense of them all.

Moreover, my own research interests, movements, and passions have driven me to new content. Ten years ago, religion never entered my survey classes – except with a reference to churches in the Civil Rights movement or the political importance of the “Moral Majority.” Now, I try to discuss the role of faith and spirituality in each historical moment. For instance, my students today read (or at least I hope they read) documents from the Canadian-faith-healer-turned-Hollywood-celebrity-preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, who helped re-create the cult of America’s “Christian nationalism.” Students analyze prayers to interpret how Americans experienced lynching, the Great Depression, and terrorist attacks.

Current events and my own movement to the West altered my teaching too. Ten years ago, I mentioned California in the Gold Rush, Asian Americans when discriminated against, and Native Americans struggling on the frontier. Now, the West has a prominent place in the political history of the New Right and the West is an emblem of multiculturalism and religious pluralism. All of this needs to be included somehow.

Ten years ago, I hardly ever reflected on how other nations and peoples viewed the United States, and Muslims never came up. Now, “America in the world” is a key part of my material, Islam is addressed (and not just the Nation of Islam), and Afghanistan gets mentioned on several occasions.

With the new content and presentations, I’ve developed new means of assessment. To the exam and essay, I’ve added website creations (which have given way to Facebook pages or blogs), visual or musical productions, and even t-shirt designs (can you come up with a better slogan for Barry Goldwater in 1964?).

Changes make for more changes. New content and newer assignments – religious or not, international or not – take time. I love to talk about Rebel without a Cause and the culture of the 1950s, but a trailer for the film and a discussion of it uses the limited class time we have. So I’ve had to make sacrifices. The Populists, for instance, have been one of the casualties in favor of James Dean’s teenage rage. My students now never hear of Mary Lease or the hell she wanted to reap in place of corn. I spend far less time on developing a thesis or clarifying topic sentences than I would like, but other creative productions that incorporate images and music are now part of the equation.

This blog – Teaching United States History – is an effort not only to describe, explain, and advance the changes that I’ve made, but also to open them up to others and for others. I hope to bring readers into my thoughts on preparing, teaching, and transforming the United States history survey. And since the technology allows for it, I invite other instructors and students to use this blog as a forum to speak their own minds, ask their own questions, and make their own suggestions. I want to know what works for you, what’s confusing to you, and what you think about my teaching ideas and decisions. In this way, maybe we can help each other teach better (or at least have more fun doing it).

For this fall, I’m teaching United States history since 1865. In the next entry, I’ll post my syllabus, discuss the course readings I selected, and address how the assignments will work together to teach the content and skills I see as most important. I hope to hear from you – what books you use and why, what kinds of assignments you give, and what skills you think are most important. When the semester begins, I’ll have my students post in the comment section with their questions, reflections on which documents most appealed to them, and how they understand the material. Please feel free to have your students chime in as well about materials or assignments from your class as well.


  1. I am really looking forward to our first class tomorrow as well as reading your blog entries. Here's to a great semester!

    Devin Walker