Monday, August 29, 2011

First Discussion - The History Games

The History Games

The buzz all around San Diego is The Hunger Games and follow-up books by Suzanne Collins. North America is now home to several districts that must have their young people battle for resources and food. I haven't read them (probably will this winter break), but they got me thinking. Could I have my first discussion (which is usually my fun way of assessing what they know, what they think, and what they don't know) into some kind of group competition where elements from the past become tools in present struggles.

In the past, I would hand out a note card and ask a set of questions like: who's your favorite president from the time period? What person was most important? What invention was most important? Where would you want to have lived and why? Then students would discuss this with a neighbor, and then share their answers. I'd find out, usually, that Ronald Reagan, JFK, and Bill Clinton were very popular. The cell phone usually comes right next to the light bulb for new technologies/inventions. And, my personal favorite was when a student-athelete explained to me that swimmer Michael Phelps was the "most important person" from the past. Sure, why not :).

For Thursday, I'm going to try and make it into an "assessment games". I won't call it that, because I don't want my students thinking I'm trying to figure them out. Perhaps I'll call it "The History Games" and devise some questions like, "if you were stuck on an island with 2 notable people from our time period, who would they be?" Then I could imagine a scenario where the separate islands join in combat over scarce resources. Or perhaps a question like, "if artificial intelligence takes over the earth and sets out to destroy all humans, or use them as an energy source, what goods would you want with you?" Sound crazy? Probably, but it also might get them thinking more creatively about the past, what they know about it, and how it impacts them today and in the future. (and I'd be tapping into their Survivor and The Matrix sentimentalities)

On Wednesday, I'll report back about the first lecture. Oh, and the picture is JFK at my favorite spot in Ann Arbor, Michigan; where he announced plans for the Peace Corps.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Checking out each other

Ed's first day of class sounds like mine, only better executed. He actually takes a picture of the kids!

In my opening session, I do have them look around at the physical appearance of the classroom, something they have been doing for the previous ten minutes anyway. Then I show them an image of the Chicago Philosophy Club from 1896 (we're in Chicago), demonstrating how things have changed between the late 19th century and the early 21st. Then I show them pictures of the signing of the Immigration Act of 1924 and of 1965, and say that these things might sound boring, but they are one important reason why the class we're in today doesn't look like the Philosophy Club.

More of the same follows. On the nature of work, leisure, communications, and transportation. On prayer, on school, on domesticity. And on family, which allows me to say that, while lots of things have changed between now and then, kids' sex drives haven't, so in the late nineteenth century most of them would have been married with children by now.

They sometimes laugh.

The first time I did this I realized that for me to teach recent American history successfully I need to: (1) tell great stories; and (2) use it to explain the present, or at least what came next. There are all sorts of pitfalls about treating history in this way, and I'd be curious to hear them if any of you have experience in this. I'd also be curious to hear what has worked with your students.

Teaching with Blogs - Gale Kenny Joins Us

This post comes from our friend Gale Kenny, the author of a tremendous book on American abolitionists in Jamaica, one of the incredible graduates from Rice University's history department, and an American Council of Learned Society New Faculty Fellow at Barnard College. We hope to hear a lot more about this class.

As I was working on a syllabus one Saturday morning in August, an idea flashed across my mind: what if I had each student create and maintain their own blog? My second thought was that this is probably the caffeine talking because tracking and evaluating as many as twenty individual blogs could rapidly descend into a semester-long nightmare. Worse, what if the students didn't participate beyond the bare minimum requirements? After mulling it over for a few days and discussing the idea with colleagues, my inclination toward pedagogical experiments overcame my doubts. I should note that I have regularly used class blogs (in seminars as well as in lecture courses with 70+ students), so I am not new to the world of teaching with technology. This experiment, however, requires much more from the students than merely posting a weekly comment on a class blog. My sense is that students tend to perceive class blogs as "my space" in which they are merely temporary visitors. When required to create their own blogs, they will have to claim responsibility for design and content, and I hope this will ultimately increase their engagement with the class more generally. While I wouldn't try this for any course, I think it will work in this instance because:

First, the course in question, Religion and Humanitarianism in the 1800s, is an weekly seminar of no more than 20 students. The topic attracts students with a personal stake in humanitarian activism, and, if past experience is any guide (a tenuous assumption, I know), the course's students were highly motivated and very engaged in the seminar. In fact, since some of them have gone on to do humanitarian work (Teach for America, the Jewish Service Corps, AVODAH), I emailed them to see if they would periodically check in and comment on the class's blogs, and several enthusiastically agreed.

Second, the class includes common readings focused on nineteenth-century Anglo-American abolitionists, missionaries, and women's rights activists, but students also conduct ongoing independent research on contemporary humanitarian groups, and much of the research begins with the Internet: organizational mission statements, appeals for donations, current missionaries' blogs, newspaper and magazine articles. The blogs will allow students to link to their sources. Also, the class's themes frequently intersect with current events and the students' own activities, and I think the blogs will provide a way for students to write about these connections. For example, last semester, students regularly emailed me newspaper articles and campus events related to the class, and one student who saw The Book of Mormon prompted an ongoing discussion of the musical's representations of missionaries and race.

Logistically, each student will set up a blog on Wordpress, and I will link to her blog on the course's webpage. ( I recommended that the students opt to "hide" their blogs from search engines, so only those who know the exact address will be able to access them. Each week, students will write two posts, and one must be on the class's common readings. They also will comment on at least three other blogs and respond to any comments on their own blogs. In terms of evaluation, I have borrowed a colleague's idea to rate each students' blog on a scale of 1-4. While I will visit all of the blogs regularly, I will only evaluate 2-3 each week, on a rolling schedule. I also plan to send periodic emails to students to update them on their current standing and ways they might improve, if needed. The blog will count for 30% of their grade, and the rest will come from hard copies of papers (three short papers and a longer final paper).

The advantages:
Unlike having a common class blog or even a class wiki, the individual blogs give students a sense of ownership over their own writing. They will also learn how to create and maintain a blog. I think this will prove to be a valuable experience since so many academics, lawyers, political pundits, and humanitarians participate in online network, and those who plan to go on to graduate school will get a taste for the digital humanities. Students will also have a chance to keep a journal, of sorts, of their independent research, effectively building pre-writing and a writing process into the semester.

Because I am requiring them to comment on their classmates' blogs, they will also be members of a community. I am interested to see if the blog community will become a modern-day approximation of the nineteenth-century activist communities we study in class. After all, Garrison, Douglass, Stanton and Anthony, and all of the Protestant mission boards published newspapers in which they wrote their own articles and reprinted pieces from their friends' (and enemies') newspapers. My hope is that the students will see their blogs as a kind of newspaper, and they will use them to "narrate, curate, and share," to borrow from W. Gardner Campbell.

The questions and possible drawbacks:
Will students care enough to build a blog community? The success of the experiment depends entirely on the students' interest and willingness to participate.
Will I be able to monitor all of these blogs and contribute to them? Will the students be able to keep up with each other? (Fingers crossed!)
How will the students deal with competition if some blogs have many more visitors than others?
How will the discussions on the blogs transfer to our weekly seminar meetings? Will they say all that they want to say online?

Since I can't predict how this will work, it is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Fortunately, one of my colleagues is doing something similar in his course on Islam in the post-colonial world, so we will be able to compare notes (and possibly despair) as the semester progresses. I plan on submitting updates here throughout the semester, and I might ask for students to comment on their experiences, too. If anyone has tried something similar, I'd appreciate any suggestions!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

First Day of School!

Lecture #1: That Was Then, This is Now … for Now

Time to get out your camera - the first day of school is here (for us, it's next Tuesday). Here's what I do after rolling through the syllabus and addressing any "crashers" - the name we have for students who want to add a class that is already fully enrolled; I've decided upon a firm policy - no crashers, no questions. If you're a senior and you haven't had time for this survey class by now, then tough luck. Oh, and by the way, there are other sections available; you don't want to take any of them ... sorry Charlie). 

The first picture begins with a snapshot – digitally. I take a picture of the class (more on this later!) and then juxtapose America then with America now. What was the United States like around 1860, and what is it like today? If I can get my students to see that the nation has changed dramatically, then how the changes happened may interest them. I focus on three P’s: People, Products, and Places. And if you notice anything missing or just plain wrong, please let me know.


  • Then, the United States had just over thirty million people (and this doesn’t include Native Americans) in 33 states; now, it has about 300,000,000 in 50 states.
  • Then, about four million people were owned by other people, and that 4 million equaled the size of the nation’s largest state: New York. Now, California is the largest state with 36 million people (it had 380,000 citizens in 1861) and estimates suggest that there are 11 million individuals in the country illegally.
  • In 1861, the largest city was New York with 800,000 residents; New York City’s still the largest, but it has more than 8 million residents.
  • Then, fewer than 8% of American citizens lived West of the Mississippi. Now, more than 40% of the population lives West of the Mississippi River.
  • Then, “whites” accounted for more than 85% of the population; blacks about 13%; and Asian Americans about 1%. Now, whites make up 65%; Hispanic Americans comprise 16% of the population, black Americans hang at 12% and Asian Americans make up 4.5% of the population.
  • Then, you could expect to die in your 40s (if a southerner fighting in the Civil War – much, much, much younger); today, average life span is past the 70s.
  • Then, the main occupation was farming; now, retail sales are the number one employer in the nation. Then, there were 151 actors in California; now, well … a lot more!
  • Then, there were about 2.5 million Catholics (8% of the population) and at most 200,000 Jews (less than 1%). What everyone else was, including slaves, is difficult to determine, but it seems that Protestants dominated numerically. Now, Catholics make up about 20% of the population; there are slightly under 9 million Jews and Muslims and Buddhists stand at about 1.3 million.
  • In 1861, there were two presidents in the land we call today the “United States” and both were committed to keeping slavery where it was. Now, the President is married to a descendant of slaves and is considered black (here, a picture of Obama as Lincoln is shown; I expect someone, anyone, to laugh; no one does; I make a goofy comment about it hoping that someone laughs … again, silence).

  • In 1861, the nation had 33,000 railroad miles; by 2010, the nation had more than 4,000,000 miles of road and rail.
  • Then, most American rarely traveled more than fifty miles from home in 1860; now, many have accomplished this before 6 months old (my son Elijah is the example with cute picture here)
  • Then, agricultural products dominated exports: about 75% of all of them – led by cotton and wheat. Now, according to dollar value, the main exports are civilian aircrafts, semiconductors, cars, and medical goods. For imports, we take in fuel sources and chemicals. Not counted monetarily, but transformative of the entire world, are new social media technologies like Facebook, Google, and twitter. Most Americans then made goods at home, owned only a few sets of pants, or dresses. Now, one poll has shown that the average American woman owns 19 sets of shoes.
  • Then, main forms of entertainment were minstrelsy and baseball. Reading and church attendance were fun too, as was playing pranks and river travel.
  • Now, television, movies, and computer games (of various iterations) dominate, and football is the most popular sport.
  • I end this segment with a photograph of my young son … sporting a cute onesee. I have the class work through where his clothes came from, how they were purchased, how they are cleaned, who took the picture and with what kind of technology. Then I have them account for how the image is displayed, how they are viewing it (through glasses, contacts, and/or sunglasses) so they can think about how the entire material world has changed.

  • For this, I show images – drawings and black-and-white photographs from the 1860s and then images from the twenty-first century, including those taken from outer space and those taken with digital cameras. At this point, I take a picture of the class, upload it, and put it on the screen. The point here isn’t just how much bigger the buildings are or the stores, how racially diverse the people are, but also the speed, colors, and distances from which they’re taken. The United States looks profoundly different and how it looks at itself has changed.
  • The last slide is of the class itself under the title “Now and Future” and I use it to demonstrate how technologically things have changed so radically that in the course of seconds I can incorporate the image of them into the slideshow. I ask them to consider just how much life might change 20-30 years from now when they’re children may be sitting in a United States history survey class.
This juxtaposition of then and now is different from my first lectures years ago. Then, I began in 1861 or 1865 – either with the Civil War beginning or ending. I naturally assumed my students would be interested in the class. Shockingly … they weren’t. I also naturally assumed they would know that the nation had changed. Shockingly once again … they didn’t. At the end of the semester,  I’ll ask students to imagine how the nation will change over the next twenty years … and I find that’s a fun way to book end our time together.

Where do you begin? What differences would you focus upon? Would you center on any similarities? Do you begin with music or images or films?

So Honest Abe has to wait another day to get assassinated. Sad to say, but great for drama, each time Lincoln enters that damn booth, Booth gets his moment.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Setting Up the Syllabus, IV

More on Assignments

 2. Exams (30%). This is where I hit my students hard about reading the textbook and attending lecture. I want my students to learn the material that they are to debate and discuss. The first half of the exam is straightforward multiple choice questions and True-False assessments. These questions often ask for direct answers about who authored which documents from Major Problems or when events occurred. The second half comes directly from Hist. Each chapter of Schultz’s textbook has a section titled “the causes why.” Students are asked directly to address one of those sections and to provide evidence for each “cause”. I find the A students clearly differentiate themselves here from the B, C, and D students (the E students rarely show up). Sure, my exams encourage rote memorization. And sure, that’s boring and probably they’ll forget much it the following weekend at a frat party. But I still think it helps to know for oneself (without having to “google it”) that there were black Congressmen during Reconstruction, that Woodrow Wilson was president during WWI, and that Native Americans, feminists, white college students, and a host of others pursued civil rights during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s too.

3. Participation (10%): This is where my grading has often fallen apart. My students have told me they know if participation is really a surrogate for attendance or just the ultra-subjective feeling of the professor. In the past, I tried to assess it based on attendance, how many times a student spoke in class, what they said, and if they worked in small groups.

To be blunt, this turned out to be all bunk. I hated taking attendance, because then I had to deal with absences. I have too many students to worry about who’s grandmother died this time. Also, I could hardly ever remember who participated well and who did not. Furthermore, shouldn’t active listening be a part of participation? But how could I assess that? Participation usually turned out to be who I felt positively about and who irritated the hell out of me.

Now, I’m going to use this blog to assess participation. I’m having students comment on this blog each week with what documents they liked, didn’t, and why. This will force them to be active, to engage the material, and to present their thoughts in public. Sure, it won’t be dynamic (I’m not going to ask them to respond to others … although I may do that in the future). But at least I and we can get a sense from them what worked for them to understand the material and engage their interests.

4. Finally we’ll have website creation (10%). I saw the Social Network movie and thought it was hilarious. All this drama about “friends” and “pokes.” I think Facebook pages are a total waste of time. Unless a friend is posting pictures of her or his baby, I don’t really care who went to see Harry Potter or why no one wants to date you (probably because you are complaining online about no one wanting to date you). But Facebook is awesome for easy website creation, and my assignment asks students to use it to create a page of historical background for a contemporary political figure, film, event, law, or television show (such as Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Inception, Glee, or California's Proposition 8).

This assignment lets me get students thinking about the present in terms of what we’ve done in class, and that’s how I hope they’ll live their lives after we’re done. More on this later.

On Wednesday, I'll post the notes for my first day/week of class - how I lecture on the United States then (1860s) and now (2010s ... as if you weren't aware of when 'now' was :).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Setting Up the Syllabus, III

Assignments, part 1

Grading can be the worst part of the job. Maybe for a semester or two as a TA I enjoyed it. There was that rush of power. Sitting at a cafĂ© with 60 bluebooks, I got to sit with an air of superiority. It nicely hid my overwhelming feeling of inferiority as a young graduate student. “Oh, c’mon Dave, you’re better than that,” I thought in response to that smart and talkative student who routinely neglected verbs in sentences. Or then later, “who is this person? Wow, she really got the material,” I remarked out loud when reading an essay from a student who has been so quiet that I didn’t even know who she was. But quickly, the joy faded. Grading came to feel like purgatory – not the hell of joblessness, but not the joy of discussion or lecturing.

Then I discovered TAs, but I don’t always get them. And this semester is one of those sad times.

I’ve tried a lot of different types of assessments. Students devised t-shirt designs to epitomize the Salem Witch Trials (“have any spectral spirit in you? … want some?” read one of the most overtly sexualized in an assignment that routinely moved from the spiritual to the sexual). I’ve tried advertising campaign assignments from the 1964 presidential election. One for Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson was hilarious for its sarcastic untruth: “He kept us out of war.” A nice play on Woodrow Wilson’s earlier campaign and a striking contrast between Goldwater’s pro-war willingness and Johnson’s militaristic build up later in Vietnam.

I still have fun with those types of assignments, but include them primarily as extra credit or participation. I’ll post about them throughout the semester. For this term, I’ve got four arenas of assignments.

1. Essays (50% of total): the three-to-four page, double-spaced thesis-based essay has been standard in history classes probably since the days of William Dunning. I do not have students search for primary documents (that I do at the upper-level). Instead, the documents from Major Problems provide the fodder for primary analysis. Lecture, the textbook, and the secondary essays in Major Problems provide the context and some extra bits of evidence. My students write two essays during the semester that address these questions: “what was so depressing about the Great Depression?” and “what was wrong about the Civil Rights movements?” Both questions allow them to grab and pick from a variety of chapters and to formulate any number of answers. They can be social, cultural, political, or legal historians (or some combination). I’ve used other questions of this nature, such as “was Reconstruction a success?” and “how gilded was the Gilded Age?” and “who would you have voted for in 1980?”

(next time, on exams, participation, and website creations)

Friday, August 19, 2011

On assessment...

I've always wondered about the best way to find out what our students know. How do I know what I know they know they know?

Over the course of this blog I hope we'll talk a lot about assessment. But as I'm putting up my syllabus I've decided on a strategy to make sure they do the weekly reading: homework. On the one hand, I treat my students like complete adults--I don't take roll, I call the cops not their parents if I have trouble with them, etc. But at a school where I lecture on Monday and Wednesday, the send the students to sections taught by TAs on Friday, I think it's only fair to everyone involved to make sure they do the reading.

What I've done, then, is this: give them a few bye weeks, but have as a rule that every week they are to do some of the online primary source reading found in the textbook. Usually these are followed up by a few basic questions--at least they are with the textbook I use (ahem...). Then I have the students email those responses to my TAs. The first year this was a disaster--the poor TAs got hundreds of unwanted emails a week. So now I've created an email address that students send their responses to. Using filters, the TAs can check who has done what, what discussion will be like, and, perhaps most usefully, have a way to say to that complaining student, "well, I see here you handed in your homework only twice, so you completely deserve the grade you earned..."

So far so good, but how do you assess?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Setting Up the Syllabus, Part II

Selecting Texts

There are three types of texts I have traditionally assigned: the textbook; the primary document or documents; and secondary sources. Let’s begin with the textbook.

My experience as an undergraduate history major and as a graduate student instructor was that everyone assigned a textbook, but professors never used it and students rarely read it. Two types of students read it: the ultra-dedicated and the absentee. Only the lone student who never came to class but turned in essays with copious references to the textbook seemed to get anything out of the book (but rarely passed the class since attendance was a huge factor). I saw textbooks purchased, toted, and then sold back by the hundreds. And, for my first years teaching, this was my approach. I boldly explained to my students that I was their textbook and that I assigned one for the students who wanted more information or for background for their essay assignments.

When I decided to be honest with myself, I realized three disturbing points about my teaching; (1) I had no good rationales for the textbooks I assigned; (2) I was inconsiderate about the money my students spent on the textbooks; and (3) I was failing to utilize an incredible resource, for when I looked into the textbooks, they were full of wonderful vignettes, ideas, and concepts.

So now it’s time for me to get it right with my students and a textbook. The first priority must be that they read it – and for that, it’s imperative that I build the textbook into discussions, examinations, and papers (more on this later about assignments). The second priority is that it be affordable. My students have a lot of bills – cell phones, car loans, rent, and Jamba Juice. They’re calculus book will probably cost more than $100; they’re history book shouldn’t. For this reason, I’ve selected Kevin Schultz’s Hist. The reasons are simple. It’s inexpensive. It’s short – each chapter is only 10 to 15 pages. It has a nice balance of political narrative with social and cultural history (for instance, we learn about comic book characters on several occasions). There are drawbacks to it, though, and I’ll be discussing those throughout the semester. I’ve tried lots of other textbooks, and they all have much to offer. Foner provides a single narrative. America: A Narrative History is a terrific read. Zinn packs a punch. But when it comes to cost and effectiveness, Hist is the book for me.

Next, primary documents. These are crucial, for they’re the “stuff” of historical research and writing. I need my students to be able to analyze primary documents so they can learn to “think for themselves.” Also, it was reading primary documents that led me to love history – that I could actually “see” something others had not. In years past, I assigned a few novels, such as Bread Givers (a tremendous novel about Jewish immigrant life). I found that these longer primary texts had limited appeal. Some students read them, but many never bothered to break them open. Also, works like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or All God’s Dangers were just too long. I found that if a book was too thick, students were immediately turned off by it.

Now, I use Major Problems in American History because it combines primary sources and secondary ones. You’re probably familiar with this series, but basically these books have a set of 8-10 primary documents and then 2 scholarly articles making big claims about the discussed era. The set of documents gives me easy access to texts of the past and short descriptions so students can know what they’re looking at. The scholarly essays offer digestible historical analysis so that students can situate their arguments within the context of historical debates. I use the Major Problems documents and historical essays for their thesis papers. When they write on “what was so depressing about the Great Depression,” they use the primary documents here and the secondary sources. Throughout this semester, I’m going to have students discuss here on this blog which documents worked and which ones did not (the discussion will be part of their grade!).

For secondary sources, I rarely assign a monograph. I find that they take too much time for the short semester and that students rarely read the entire book. Of all the monographs assigned to me as an undergraduate, I read only one in its entirety: The Kingdom of Matthias (and I only read that because it had a lot of quirky sex going on). All the others, I stopped reading once I had enough material for the assigned essay.

Finally, some honest disclaimers. Both of the books I assign are published by Cengage; I’m the co-editor of one of them; Kevin Schultz is the author of the other and I count him as a friend. I have professional, personal, and financial incentives to assign these books.

But, to be truly honest, I used Major Problems before I was an editor and assigned Hist before I even knew Kevin. In addition, throughout this semester, I plan to be as critical of them as I would of other textbooks or sources. I have lots of bones to pick with both of the books and in this blog we’re going to discuss what doesn’t work, what doesn’t make sense, what’s flat-out wrong, and how these books (and others) could be improved. I hope this blog, in fact, will help improve both books significantly. And when bundled together for sale Hist and Major Problems in American History are quite affordable (my students are always thrilled by how little they spend for my class).

What texts are you using this fall and why? If you forego a textbook, how have your students responded to that? How do you come up with primary texts to use? In short, what’s worked and what hasn’t?

Monday, August 15, 2011


--(I honestly meant to get this posted before Ed posted his second installment, and now I see I am too late. The lesson: never try to be as productive as Ed--it's too tall a task.)--

I'd like to thank Ed for setting up such a useful site, on how we teach the survey. Because I too am teaching second half of the US survey this semester, Ed and I are going to play a game of back and forth, on what works and what doesn't. We hope you'll join us.

I was just going over my syllabus again and I have what we all have in the first section: what are we/you doing here? In dept of ed language, it's called a "learning objective" or more broadly a "course description." For me, this is always the most fun part of the course, and the most challenging. What I have now is this:

The study of American history is more than an exercise in self-congratulation and nostalgia. It is more than politics and diplomacy. It is more than a passive absorption of facts, dates, and names. This course — the survey of American history since the conclusion of the Civil War (which happened, you should know, in 1865) — focuses on the human consequences of the politics, policies, ideologies, and wars (declared and undeclared) that comprise our history.

The lectures and readings will introduce you to a wide range of historical actors, examining in particular: (1) economic development, (2) race relations, (3) the laboring classes, (4) reform movements, (5) the interior of everyday lives, (6) the changing conditions for success and survival in the culture that Americans shaped, and (7) the emerging role of the United States as a world power. The idea is to have you feel like you are standing in the shoes of those who came before you. We hope you will come close to understanding the past from the perspective of the men and women who experienced it, to gaining some insight into the daily lives of Americans, to understanding a bit better their work and their leisure, their cultures, and their ideologies, their relations with one another and with the political and economic system under which they lived, and which they passed on to you and me, for better or for worse.

No matter where we trace our ancestry, the fact that you are sitting here means you live in the world they created. It is better to know about it and understand it than not.

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).

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.