Nearly all undergraduate history programs have a required capstone course for their majors, an opportunity for students to draw on the knowledge learned in their history courses and use research skills to produce an original piece of scholarship. At my university (a mid-sized public institution), our capstone courses focus on specific topics ranging from "The Era of the American Revolution" to "Modern China and Japan" to "Contemporary Latin America" and many more. Most faculty members teach these courses like research seminars - covering some topical material at the beginning of the semester and allowing students to pursue their own research projects through workshops and discussions for the rest of the term. It has taken me a few semesters to become acclimated to this style of capstone course, but after teaching three of these courses I believe I have developed a way to provide for the maximum amount of learning for the students and the minimal amount of stress and dissatisfaction for me.
At my institution, these courses have been a source of frustration for faculty and students, and I have certainly experienced this. In the past, when I taught capstone courses on "The American Civil War and Reconstruction" and "Slavery in America," my biggest mistake was trying to cover too much material. I overloaded the students with reading and writing requirements throughout the semester and left little time for them to conduct research and, most importantly, to contemplate their own historical interpretations. I also spent too much time lecturing about these topics rather than allowing students to learn by doing. Perhaps more important, I have learned that the first few weeks of class are the most important.
This semester I am teaching a capstone course on "The U. S. South," and for the first time in one of these courses I sense things are going right in the classroom. My first step was to give up the idea of coverage, much like Lendol Calder's well known 2006 JAH article suggested. I explained to students on the first day of class exactly what a capstone course was and that we would not be spending a significant amount of time learning the history of the American South. Rather, we would be spending our time learning how to write the history of the American South. For those students who had not already taken a lecture course on some topic related to southern history, I assigned both volumes of John Boles's textbook, The South Through Time. I told them to use those volumes as a tool to uncover a possible research topic. In addition, I assigned Jules Benjamin's fantastic writing guide, A Student's Guide to History.
The significant changes I have implemented this semester apply primarily to the activities we are doing during class time. Although this has been somewhat uncomfortable for me, I have given up the lecture completely. Instead, I have arranged various activities designed to teach them some particular aspect of engaging in a research project and writing scholarly history. For example, many students at the undergraduate level do not understand what historiography is. To remedy this, for several class meetings I had students engage directly with the historiography of the American South. I selected 5 historiography essays from A Companion to the American South, asked that each student read one of them, and broke them up into 5 groups based on which essay they selected. The students then discussed with their group these 3 questions: 1) Who are the most important historians who have shaped that particular field?; 2) What are some of the historical questions that have guided that particular field?; and 3) According to the author, what work still needs to be done in that particular field? After about 20 minutes, I brought the groups back together as a whole and we wrote some answers to these questions on the board. By the end of that class meeting, students understood not only the differences between fields and historical questions, but also how particular fields and topics evolve over time.
For the following class meeting, I asked students to read William W. Freehling's "The Founding Fathers and Slavery" (AHR, Feb. 1972) and F. Nwabueze Okoye's "Chattel Slavery as the Nightmare of the American Revolutionaries" (WMQ 1980). This, of course, represents an old debate about the effect of the American Revolution on the institution of slavery (and vice-versa). Despite its antiquated nature, this debate clearly illustrates interpretive differences in a way that makes sense to nearly every student. I go through these articles with the students in class, asking what each author's thesis is, what evidence each author uses, and what conclusions each author reaches. I also ask students to assess which argument is more persuasive based on the evidence provided.
By the next week, the students are analyzing primary documents in class related to this topic of the American Revolution and slavery. These documents range from an excerpt of Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia to John Randolph's explanation for why he freed his slaves to a Virginia law legalizing private manumission to citizen petitions to re-enslave free blacks. I ask them to use these documents to weigh in on this historical debate by developing their own interpretation of the effect of the American Revolution on the institution of slavery.
These types of exercises help students learn skills that no lecture of mine ever could. In a few class sessions, they come to understand historiography as well as how to use primary documents to interpret the past. The rest of the semester is dedicated to topic workshops, individual meetings, writing seminars, and project presentations. But the foundation is laid in those first few weeks of class when they learn by doing.