Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Constructing the 19th-Century West

The title of this post is a little misleading. I'm actually building a course, and have run into some thorny questions.

This fall I've agreed to offer a course I haven't taught before; an upper-level seminar on the American West in the 19th century. As I've conceived it, the course will cover roughly 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase) through the so-called "closing" of the American frontier in 1890. As for what will unfold between those bookends, it's largely up to me.

I want my students to read both primary and secondary sources, to discuss them, and to produce a significant research project at the end of the semester on a topic or idea of their choice.

I've been refreshing myself on the historiography, looking at other peoples' syllabi and reading lists, etc. in order to plan the nuts and bolts of the course. What I've found is that there are an infinity of ways to approach this (or any other topical) course in American history, and there isn't much consensus on the best way to do so.

So, perhaps as a way to provoke a conversation, I thought I would pose some of the basic course-designing questions I've dealt with to you all, and hopefully learn from your experiences.

1. When you design new courses, do you organize them along conceptual, thematic, or chronological lines? How do respect various groups and perspectives without privileging one over the other, or losing sight of the larger narrative threads?

2. How do you select and assign readings? What makes for "good" and "bad" reading assignments or class discussion?

3. What's the best way to assess student involvement and progress? In other words, how do you keep them accountable and involved in a seminar-type setting?

4. Are there better or more original ways to encourage a large research project than simply requiring a paper rooted in primary and secondary research?

Thanks in advance.


  1. This is the end of my second year and I've taught - in addition to the survey - 7 new courses. I've come away with a LOT of conclusions and even more questions about effective course design. Here are some of the insights that I am following as I design my courses for next year:

    1. I generally organize along chronological lines and subsume theme to chronology because I find that students have a really hard time with change-over-time or taking context into consideration. So in my Race and Slavery course this term I had 3-4 week thematic units that followed a rough chronology: Atlantic Slavery, Slavery in the U.S., Antislavery, The Slavery Novel, Slavery and American Memory.

    I also am learning to "let go" a bit when it comes to coverage so that we can really get deeper into key content (i.e. work with interesting sources) and work on key skills like analysis and writing. I let different units do different type of "work" - so I may not have every "group" in every unit, but some units are focused more in one direction than another so over the course of the semester I feel like we get a variety of types of voices and perspectives.

    2. Things that seem to generate really great discussion: first-person narratives (my religion class loved James Baldwin), a collection of 3-4 short primary documents to compare, and of course film. It is really hard to get them to read and engage with scholarly essays.

    One exercise that I liked: Having them each read a diff't document (we did this with reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin) and present on them, then as a class we talk about patterns. They really have to listen to each other. That was a good class.

    3. The most success I've had was with my Race and Slavery course where I had 5 graded source-based response papers (1-3 pages) over the first half of the term and in the second half they wrote 2 formal source-based essays (5-7 pages) and a final project. I saw dramatic improvement in their writing because we started out with comparatively low stakes less formal writing, but that I still evaluated.

    4. I'll let you know. I'm having my Race and Slavery students create a virtual exhibit for their final project. I'm curious to see how it turns out!

  2. These are useful questions to ask (and Sara's comments are fantastic), but every course is its own animal. How many students do you think you'll have? How often will you meet? How prepared do you think your students are? And how much work can you reasonably expect them to do? The topic is fantastic and should draw interested students, but I would assume your pedagogy will shift depending on how you answer those questions.

  3. Sara, thanks for the helpful comments. To the second poster, the course is capped at 25, but suspect enrollment will pan out at between 12-18. It meets three days a week for an hour per meeting. It's pitched to upper-level history majors, and I think they'll be fairly motivated to read and participate (I will build a participation element into their grade). I anticipate they'll be overwhelmed if I heap a huge reading load of multiple monographs on them; I plan to use chapters, articles, and primary source selections along with a book or two for their reading.