doomed to distraction

Tag: US I

Civics 101 in History 130 & 131

My friend Virginia introduced me to the New Hampshire Public Radio-produced podcast Civics 101 earlier this year.  She was on the board of NHPR and rightly-proud of their new venture. I’ve enjoyed listening to host Virginia Prescott (a different Virginia) interview a different guest each week – including many professors – on topics like “Party Whips,” “Emoluments,” and “The IRS.” In some cases, I’ve listened more than once in order to take notes. Yes, I’m talking about you, “Federal Courts.”

As soon as I started listening, I started thinking about how to integrate the podcast into my classes, and I’ll be doing so this fall. This isn’t wholly a response to the political turmoil, though. Even though many of my students – certainly those from Connecticut – took a civics class within the last five years, they often struggle to understand the contemporary structure of the U.S. government and the ideas behind it. This makes it hard to teach the history and evolution of those structures and ideas, not least because students sometimes can’t see just how different things are.

I’ve gone through and selected episodes that pair up well with different days on the syllabi of both my US I and US II classes, and I’m offering students the chance for some extra credit if they listen to the podcast and give a short presentation on it on the relevant day. They then have to write a brief thinkpiece on how the contents of their podcast help us understand what we’re talking about in class, and how the content of the class might counter or reshape the podcast’s interpretation of the issue.  For now, I decided to keep this as an extra credit assignment, partially because the longer-term project in US I is also podcast-based, so stay tuned for a description of that here or over at TUSH.

I’ll admit that it was harder to pair up episodes of the podcast in US I, mainly because the podcast is aimed at contemporary concerns and takes its inspiration from listener questions. It’s remarkably responsive in that sense, which makes it such great listening, but I couldn’t really slot in any episodes for the first six weeks of US I. In US II I had the opposite problem: not only is every episode relevant, but there are several episodes relevant for certain clusters of the semester, notably the dawn of the nuclear age and the Watergate controversy. In this case, I had to make some sacrifices.

Some episodes appear in both classes. Episode 27, “How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court,” is paired with the lesson on Indian removal in US I and with the lesson featuring the Warren Court decisions in US II. Episode 42, “U.S. Territories,” which focuses on Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is paired with the lesson featuring Hawaiian annexation, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American War in US II, and with a lesson discussing Manifest Destiny and the political and social ramifications of creating territories and states between the 1820s and 1850s in US I.

This last pairing speaks to one of the things I hope my students will do with these episodes: critique them. The guest on the U.S. territories episode repeatedly speaks of the Spanish-American War as the “beginning” of U.S. imperialism. Given the way I’ve paired the episode in both classes, the students who end up listening and presenting should be able to think and talk about why that framework is problematic and why it’s also unsurprising to hear it in the episode, even in 2017.

The episodes are short, fifteen minutes or so, and the host speaks with one guest, so the podcast isn’t complete, nor is it perfect. There are episodes, like the U.S. territories episode, that have moments or even entire interpretive frameworks I find frustrating. And this isn’t just because not all of the guests are historians; nothing Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh say in the “Church and State” episode is wrong, per se, but their choices about what to talk about and how to talk about them aren’t precisely the ones I would have made. But I think that’s good. The exercise would be a waste of time if it replicated my own teaching, and my hope is that my students will see the differences between my interpretations and those in some of the episodes, which might lead to some productive conversations on interpretation itself.

I’m also hoping the podcast, in attending primarily to the structure and mechanics of the government, might leave space for and lead students to be more confident in talking about ideas. That’s the stuff that I struggle with the most in my teaching, and my hope is that by seeing differences in how the government has worked over time, my students will be able to consider why those changes took place and what the different ideas behind a given body or policy or interpretation of the Constitution meant to the people who held them.

Even though I’ve left this as an extra-credit option, I have no doubt most of my students will take me up on the offer. If it works well, I’ll think about rolling it into both courses as a permanent assignment. Who knows, maybe some students will want to listen to the podcast all on their own, and will bring up things that they learned whether there are points attached to it or not. Mostly, though, I hope the exercise helps my students understand how meaningful the past is to our present experience and gives them a little more confidence in engaging with that present experience.

can’t leave well enough alone

Last summer I wrote that I was going to try to come up with new projects for my US I and US II survey courses. I did, and they were…fine. But they weren’t spectacular. So I’m trying something new again, while trying to rejigger one of the things I did last semester for use this semester

In my Fall 2016 US I class, I had them read Sean Wilentz’s 2015 NYT piece “Lincoln and Douglass Had It Right,” Peter Sagal’s letter of response to the Times, and then two more responses drawn from periodicals and history websites, and try to figure out A) which argument they bought, and B) whether everyone was even arguing the same point. Put bluntly, B was so slippery and challenging for students that the answers to A weren’t as well-considered as I wanted them to be. But given that historians are still arguing (and often arguing past each other) on this point, maybe my hopes were misplaced.

In my US II class, I had my students watch the first half hour of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, and read about a dozen articles on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, all drawn from major newspapers and magazines. Since we had explored 1980s culture through the lens of Daniel Marcus’ Happy Days and Wonder Years, they were tasked with thinking about the memorial in the context of nostalgia and remembrance. It worked well, but not as well as I hoped. I’m revamping it to use as the project in my one day a week US II survey this semester.

For my other two surveys, a US I and US II that are both MWF classes, I’m going with something new, still in the planning stages. Given that much of the work my students do with primary sources is a weird form of annotation, and given that the public writing my women’s history students did last semester was, on the whole, very successful, I’m looking to combine those two things.

What I’m going to have my students do is annotate one primary source each, using, for the public.  I had a great experience using it in my Civil War class last spring semester, and I’m excited to use it again. Things I’m thinking about:

  • I don’t want them having to search for primary sources available online, mostly because I want the sources to be comparable in difficulty/length. My goal is, therefore, to give them a curated set of sources to pick from.
  • To that end, I have to figure out how to host the documents themselves. The easiest way seems to be to create a blog, make each source excerpt a post, and let the students annotate there. I am open to thoughts on how to do this better.[1]I should note that my university does not provide public digital spaces for students that could be used here.
  • Unlike the women’s history blogs, where the draft process was public, I want these students to draft their annotations with my help and the input of their peers offline, before publishing them.

I’ll be getting them started on source selection and initial analysis soon, and I have a bit of time before I need to have the mechanics worked out. I’ll update on the progress of the project; given that I’ll be contributing to Teaching United States History as well, there’ll probably be a post about it over there at some point.



1 I should note that my university does not provide public digital spaces for students that could be used here.

Who tells your story, or, how Hamilton is and isn’t changing my teaching

The experience of being a historian of Early America[1]This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” … Continue reading during the moment of Hamilton has been a complex one for me, and it’s brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the surface.  Looking back over my summer, and the goals I had for my research and teaching, I realize that Hamilton emphasized and amplified some ideas about history that exist in popular culture and among academics. Now that I see the effects those ideas have had on me, I want to put them down explicitly, first in a post about teaching, and at some point, in a post about scholarship.

Hamilton – like every popular book about a president or a war or a “founder” – reinforces lots of ideas about hierarchies of knowledge in the study of history, even as it is subversive in other ways. In plainer language, so much popular history presents specific kinds of people and topics as the foundations of historical knowledge. The stuff you have to know, if you know anything at all. The stuff people expect you to know.

When you study Early America, and something like Hamilton happens, all of a sudden your friends (hi, Corinne!) and your students start asking you about political things in the late 18th century and you realize you don’t know the things they expect/want you to know.  You know outlines, contours, arguments, historiographical debates, and the bits and bobs you include in your survey classes. And some people respond to your lack of specific knowledge of Hamilton’s views on credit with thinly-veiled skepticism about your qualifications to teach history. And you start to think that you don’t teach enough political history, and that you don’t know enough about these people who are so important to the lay audiences you interact with.

If you look at my aspirational list of primary sources I want to be familiar with, you’ll notice Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is there. There’s a million things I haven’t done, and reading that is one of them. Nor have I read anything from The Federalist since college, though I at least own it (and a pocket Constitution, which I had before it was cool.)  Nor had I read a lot of Lincoln’s writings recently before I prepped my Civil War class last year.[2]As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a … Continue reading Even now, it feels dangerous to admit that publicly.  We have a hard time admitting that we haven’t read a classic piece of secondary lit (though maybe it would be cathartic if we all publicly admitted one), and to admit that we study Early America and haven’t really read much by “the founders” makes us feel ashamed. And it doesn’t make a difference to say, in response, “Yeah, but I’ve read a lot of Orestes Brownson…”

In teaching, the only thing I am ever challenged on by students who (as a result of my gender and age) don’t know if I’m really qualified to teach is my knowledge of political history.[3]And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars When a student who was particular skeptical of my qualifications quizzed me on some really arcane stuff about the Tyler administration, I couldn’t really say “I don’t know about that and it’s not a priority for me to know about that right now.” But I was thinking it.

It shouldn’t be surprising that students expect me to know political history and don’t even know to care whether I know lots of other things about history. Whether we like it or not, our popular discourse of American history reinforces the idea that political history is the basic framework, and our teaching often reflects that. We don’t stop the survey at 1877 for no reason, but we also don’t stop it because that was the year of the Nez Perce flight to Canada or the year of the Great Railroad Strike.

My resistance to getting to know and love Hamilton stemmed partly from this knowledge. Honestly, I just thought “Great, another thing about a founder that emphasizes that the stories of these dudes are the most important things to know.” And then, as I got to know and love it, I started thinking that I was maybe not a good historian because I didn’t talk enough about politics in the US I survey. That maybe I was not a good historian…because I didn’t know enough about political history.

When I looked at my course, though, and I looked at my lessons and documents and what they cover, and I pondered what I would remove in order to insert a more detailed discussion of the Adams administration[4]Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language, I realized three fundamental truths at the exact same time.

  1. I don’t know that lots more political history would help me make the argument I want to make in my US I survey. The argument I choose to make is an important one to me, and I don’t want to lose it.
  2.  I would only be able to devote more time to political history because it has been populated by men who had privilege and access to write like they were running out of time and, leaving aside the burning of those papers, have that writing preserved and made accessible. We get to know them as individuals in a way that we don’t with millions of other people, and that makes their voices and personalities louder. Something about that makes me uncomfortable, but I’ll leave that for my subsequent post on Hamiltoneffects on my research.
  3. I actually teach plenty of political history! You know what things I don’t teach enough about in the US I survey? The history of women and gender. Environmental history. Agricultural history. Labor history. The history of free black Americans. The history of immigration. The history of the Southwest. The history of the Midwest. The history of lots of native groups. The history of utopian communities. Latinx history. The history of Swedish colonialism. The history of French/British Canada. Sylvester Graham. The history of the Caribbean. Nicholas Biddle. The history of religions. The history of ideas. The history of sex. The history of medicine and diet. Whatever the heck happens in British North America in the first half of the 18th century (this is a joke but also maybe not?) Rarely does anyone complain that I’ve not taught enough about these things. I have even gotten complaints that I teach too much about religion and slavery, and if anything, I know I don’t teach those things in proportion to how important they were to the people we’re looking at in the past.

And so, I decided not to put any more in my class about that bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman. He’s in there, just as he’s always been. So is the general, the Pride of Mount Vernon (and that time when he led his men straight into a massacre), and Thomas (you simply must meet Thomas!), and America’s favorite fighting Frenchman. And we’ll still read Bacon’s Declaration and the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and the Declaration of Independence and a letter between Washington and Morris. And we’ll still talk about partisan fighting.

But Hamilton has changed my teaching, and will continue to do so, because it’s made it even clearer to me that teaching American history at the college level has to be meta. We have to talk with our students about the narratives of American history they know, even without knowing that they know them, talk about what work those narratives do, and talk about what work those narratives can prevent us from doing if we think they’re sufficient. I used to do this incidentally; now I’m going to do it consistently.

So, sure, we’re going to talk about why every other Founding Father’s story gets told, and whether that’s even true.

We’re going to talk about what happens when they try to tax that whisky, from the perspective of the people whose whisky was taxed.

We’re going to talk about who’s really doing the planting.

We’re going to talk about immigrants.

We’re going to talk about why Eliza has to put herself back in the narrative, and why we have to work so hard to put so many people back in the narrative.

And we’re going to put Sally back in the narrative.

And that will be enough.




1 This in itself is a problematic categorization. I study the 19th century, and I am most comfortable with the antebellum period, but my program conceived of me as an “Early Americanist” because I wasn’t doing modern U.S., and the categorization stuck.
2 As an undergrad, I was more interested in medieval history, and originally applied to grad school to do just that. The copy of The Federalist was from a class I only took because it was a requirement. That professor then turned me into secret Americanist.
3 And the history of battles, when we’re talking about wars
4 Lin-Manuel and I devote similar amounts of time to JA, though I use more polite language

Thinking about teaching 5a: new project for the surveys

As I mentioned yesterday, I want to revise the projects my students do in both of my U.S. survey classes and my U.S. women’s history class, all of which I’ll be teaching in the fall.

For my U.S. surveys, I’ve done two major  projects over time. I’ve most often taught U.S. I, and in it, I often had students do some sort of examination of historical newspapers. The one I really settled on was having students each pick a newspaper on their birthdate in 1848 (lots of good stuff to discover in that year), and explore it over the course of the semester. This past year, without Early American Newspapers, I used Chronicling America. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.

Last spring I tried out an experiment with my students in U.S. II using Timeline JS and thinking about categorization and periodization. It was not a success, and exposed to me how foreign historical thinking can remain at the end of a semester. I’d be happy to talk to anyone about it if they were interested.

In both surveys, I’ve also done a project across both surveys examining Wikipedia articles and their construction, as a way for students to understand something about historiography and the stakes of writing about history. It has worked well, though quite differently in U.S. I vs. II, but I think I’m ready for a change.

Like many historians, I feel like there’s a particular urgency in getting my students to be cognizant of the resonances between our contemporary moment and the recent and distant historical past. As I joked to my grad school friends as we talked about Brexit, my I think my training allows me to feel a level of existential anxiety that people in other fields might lack. But even our long term discussion of Hamilton, its use in the classroom, and how it shapes our students’ views of the past is part of thinking about the intellectual work history can do in making sense of the word.

Last fall, in U.S. II, my students always wanted to talk about Trump, and I asked them to think about Tom Brokaw’s claim that Trump’s plan to bar Muslims was un-American. At first, they were firmly of the view that this was not about American values, that we didn’t exclude people. And then one student said “Wait, what about the Chinese?” And then another student said “What defines American values, then, what is on paper or what we do?” It was an incredibly productive discussion, and I’d love to find an assignment that pushes them to really think about what it can do to see things through a historical lens.

To that end, I am thinking of collecting up a big list of some of the best public historical writing out there – articles and perhaps blog posts – and having students pick articles to read and present to the class across the semester. I’m not sure what sort of cap I want for it,  but maybe something where they have to find two other articles that are thematically related and write about how they relate?  I know people who’ve done more “current events” type assignments, having students pick out stories in the news that they think resonate, but I’d love to have them read historians and journalists explicitly talking about the past and making arguments.  I also see it as a way to expose students to topics that we might not cover in class, and to allow them to read new ideas.  If you have thoughts on such a project, especially if you’ve done it before, or have suggestions for articles I might use, I’d love to hear about them.

Thinking about teaching 5: priorities, people

So, it’s almost the end of June, the point where academics (at least those on a semester system) go “OMG school starts two months from now what have I been doing with my life?!” I had big dreams about fixing/changing my courses for the fall, and now’s the point where we get real about what’s possible. I decided it might be good to set one or two big goals for each course and work towards those, leaving other things for later.

In the U.S. survey courses, my two goals are

1A) Figure out if there is a different way to present my flipped lessons that ameliorates the problems my students have, the frustrations with accessibility that I have, all while keeping the things that I like about the setup. Essentially, can I build some sort of e-book that my students can use, take notes on, but can’t just cut and paste? Currently, the lessons disappear when class begins, and my students readily admit that without that pressure, they wouldn’t keep up. I used to do quizzes in class to check, but I hate that and think it’s a waste of time. Yet I’m unwilling to abandon some external motivation to “keep up,” because without it, a flipped classroom simply doesn’t work, as we know from teaching a hundred discussion sections where students didn’t read. Lots of higher-ed activists would argue that if I can’t motivate students to keep up without this external motivations, I’m not doing my job. I would point out to them that if internal motivation to do what we know we should worked, society would be different and we wouldn’t all do Grafton Challenges all the time. N.B. No, I do not want to have my students buy an existing eBook, because that’s a ripoff, nor am I comfortable shifting them over the the American Yawp, which I love. My lessons make the argument I want to make about American history. I hope it’s not wrong to want that kind of control and structure in my teaching. 

1B) Come up with a new project. The ones I’ve done before – on Wikipedia, on 19th c. newspapers – aren’t working as well at UHart as they did at UConn (different culture, no access to Early American Newspapers, smaller classes). I have some ideas I might float out there soon for consideration.

In women’s history, my two goals are:

2A) Reconfigure the first few weeks of the semester. I had an introductory day with a little Joan Scott, a little Judith Bennet, an excerpt from Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist (a must-read), before moving into articles and book chapters. The first article we read was actually a chapter from Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs. That sequence didn’t work, for one major reason: understanding women’s history is much easier than understanding gender as Scott explains it, and it was unnecessarily confusing without providing the foundation for understanding Brown that I had intended.

2B) Rethink the papers, and by “rethink” I mean “replace.” I don’t mean that I’m giving up on the concept of paper writing, but I do think we need to be realistic about the fact that writing papers in history is a distinctly different skill, and since almost none of my students are history majors and have no training in that kind of work, I am thinking of different ways for them to explore and express what they’ve learned about change over time.

Three pieces of writing I’m chewing on as I think about these goals: Michael Evans’ consideration of active learning fails, (though I manage to fail with way less technology to blame), Kevin Gannon’s discussion of student blogging, and Debra Schleef’s piece on public student writing and identity, along with Jeff McClurken’s encouragement of public writing from our discussion.

Thinking about teaching 3

Having outlined my basic structure for my U.S. survey courses, let’s get down to it. What do I like and not like about how my courses work? (This is long, maybe take a break for a cup of tea in the middle.)

The lessons:

  • I love that the “flipped” structure allows us the time to talk through the material together. It’s not perfect, but I think students come away with a better understanding of the complexities of the past than they did when it was lecture-based. While some students absolutely loathe it, and would prefer a lecture/memorization approach, many have noted that this format has made them not hate history, which seems like a victory.
  • I like the daily reaction journals I ask my students to do after they complete the lessons. It means I go into class every day knowing what want to discuss, and it also means that they come to class having at least thought about what was interesting and confusing to them.
  • I love that the discussions involve them talking to each other. This has happened less at UHart than at UConn, unfortunately, because the classes are smaller, so the groups are smaller, which means 3 people missing class can really throw off the whole mix. But I still like that my students know each other’s names.
  • For better or worse, having the videos disappear when we begin class each day makes students keep up more than they would if there was a textbook. Moreover, it’s very clear in discussion who has done the reading and who hasn’t, day in and day out, which helps me figure out who needs help/attention/a pointed conversation.
  • I don’t love the format, still. I never wanted to use videotaped lectures, and the format I’ve chosen was explicitly to have students read. Initially I used Prezi, but switched to PowerPoint videos when I realized that Prezi pulled the text of your presentation and provided a transcript below. I absolutely know why they do that, but it meant that students were just copying and pasting that, instead of actually taking notes. Which leads us to the second major issue…
  • Note taking. Obviously having the lessons disappear is meant to incentivize good note taking, not to be punitive, but because reading, synthesizing, and writing are part of learning. I know that students come to school with vastly different ideas about taking notes and skills at doing so, and I know that means that students are taking really different notes which aren’t always capturing the things that are important for historical thinking. Some sub-issues:
    • When I was lecturing, I would always start with a few minutes of introduction – this is the frame for the day, these are the players, and this is the argument I’m making.  My students would watch and listen. Then, as soon as I said a name or a date, they would put pen to paper. Every so often, I would point it out, and sort of try to address it humorously, but it was a problem, and it’s still a problem. But it’s not just a problem with my course design, it’s a problem with what students think history is. They all tell me they hate names and dates, but then that’s what they copy down, with none of the connecting material. I often tell them they should never know a fact without knowing why they know it; what does that fact help you understand and explain? But how can I get that to stick? Can I frame/teach notetaking in a different way to help my students understand and value the arguments of history, rather than just the facty bits?
    • Some students really don’t take notes, and many of them realize a few weeks in that this is a mistake, which means that later in the semester, anything that connects back to those first few weeks is so much harder. I didn’t even know this was an issue because the journals were great, so I figured “Hey, they’re doing the videos, that’s great!” What I didn’t realize was that they watched, did the journals right away, but never wrote anything down. How do I make it really, really clear early on that notes are vital?
    • I work hard not to hold students too accountable for minutiae (while reminding them that putting a gloss on their notes during discussion is always a great choice.) But students often tell me they want that detail later, in a way that they never did when they were listening to a lesson rather than reading it. I think they’re more aware of what they didn’t write down after we discuss it the next day because they realize they made choices about significance that they now disagree with. Is the solution just making my own e-book somehow? Is it simply putting the lessons up again later in the semester? Is it building in some kind of collaborative glossing of notes? I’m really stuck with this one.

The think-alouds:

  • I absolutely love what they have done for me as a teacher thus far, and since I know they are continuing to teach me lessons, I am sticking with them.
  • I love that they make students read closely. For many of them, this is closer than they’ve read anything in a very long time. And I love that we can read one half page of text and talk for 50 minutes and still not get to everything.
  • I like that they lead into the exams that I assign. The two exams, which are worth less than 25% of the total course grade, present students with a brief primary source they have not seen and a series of questions about content, context, and larger historical connections. The second exam then asks them to compare and contrast the new document with one of the other documents we’ve read in the course, which is attached for them to read. I want the exam to test them on the exact skills they’ve been practicing, and they haven’t been practicing essay writing and IDs, so I’m pretty happy with how the exams are framed. Now, there are serious issues with in-class exams, and I recognize them, and I’m not sure how how to reconcile what I like about this assignment with anything approaching universal design.
  • Grading think-alouds is a beast, and I try to give very explicit feedback, and I know that many students don’t read it and continue to make the same mistakes and then tell me I’m not telling them how to get better. If they’re not reading the feedback, does it even matter how much I’m giving? I try to get students to take notes on their think-alouds during discussion, and one of the benefits to that is that if they’ve already written it down, I don’t have to comment. But again, if they don’t, what can I do? All of this leads to the biggest struggle…
  • Improving at these takes effort on the part of the student in a very particular way. The reflections they do help them identify what they personally need to improve on, and I try to impress upon them the fact that I can’t just tell everyone the solution to getting better. Some students have a bigger struggle with historical empathy than others, and they need to work on that before anything else. Others need to remind themselves to slow down and not skip parts that confuse them. I use the idea of being both the gullible and skeptical reader, and some students seem to naturally find one role more comfortable than the other. But they all need to look at their thinking and work to improve it.  One thing I’ve considered: would it be helpful for them to see me do this? I am afraid that modeling is intimidating, but maybe it’s instructive?
  • The last frustration is with the fact that the doing of history that I’m aiming for is really really hard. In particular, the thing that students struggle with so much is, as my friend Casey would put it, identifying and applying relevant information. When asked to tell me stuff from lessons that helps them understand the document, students are often unable to do so even in the final weeks of the semester. Without my students being able to make these connections, historical thinking is not happening the way I want it to. Virtually every semester, about six weeks in, someone pipes up “I just realized that the lessons of the week and the document for Friday are kind of connected!” I have, of course, been making that explicit all semester, and when I hear that I’m just thinking “Of course they are! I selected the documents carefully and then crafted bespoke lessons around them!” but for some reason, the thought of using their notes to help them understand the document is consistently foreign to them, regardless of the school I’m teaching at, the grade level, or the major of the students.  As you can see on the second of my think-aloud guides, I’ve tried to incentivize this through grades, which I don’t love, but it hasn’t made a bit of difference. Clearly I need to teach this skill better but I am stumped.

So, in case any of my course design looked interesting to you, now you know what’s good and bad about it. Over the summer, I’m going to try to do some reading and thinking and float new ideas for fixing these issues, but I’m open to suggestions. Comments are love, as they say.

Thinking about teaching 1

As I mentioned earlier, I want to use this space to think about teaching, from course structure to reading selection to classroom management and approaches. This first post, and several subsequent posts, will be to establish the current structures of my courses, what I like, and what I don’t like. My classes are (if my students are to be believed) not terribly conventional – one evaluation used the term “eccentric” – so I think they need some explaining.

I have been teaching US I since Fall of 2011 and US II since Fall of 2013, beginning as a graduate student, always on a MWF schedule.* I started off lecturing two of the three days, but relatively quickly ditched that. Several things made me get rid of it, but put briefly, students were not getting out the lectures what I hoped they would, and there was no space to discuss the lecture material as a class and make sure everyone was on the same page.

I switched to a sort of flipped classroom style, using text- and image-heavy PowerPoints converted to videos.  (ETA: These PowerPoints are completely original and written by me. They make the arguments I want to make about the past.) In general, both US I and II feature two of these a week. They are 3,000 words each, give or take, and my students are expected to take notes on them before they come to class. The videos disappear when class begins so that there is some motivation for students to keep up and come to class prepared each day; if they don’t, class really doesn’t work, or the burden of discussion.falls on a small subset of the class.

In each lesson, as I call them, there are a dozen or more questions embedded throughout that form the basis for discussion in class.  For instance, students might be asked to think about questions like “What would change in the lives of people moving from farm labor into wage labor in factories?” or “How do these views of socialism compare to those of other Americans we’ve looked at earlier in the semester?” Each day we come to class and talk through the lesson, tying it back to earlier lessons, building timelines, and sometimes reading additional small sources. I also ask students to write a brief journal entry after they take notes on the lesson, reflecting on what was interesting or confusing to them, and I use those journal entries and their questions in class to guide the discussion.

One day a week, students engage deeply with one primary source, never more than two pages, often much shorter. With each source, they complete an assignment I’ve created called a think-aloud, based on some examinations of historical thinking in Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  All my friends from grad school know about think-alouds, but in my next post on teaching, I’ll explain them in case anyone other than my friends from grad school read this and are interested.

*As a grad student, I was teaching 40-person classes. My classes now are capped at 25.

It’s time to acknowledge the genocide of California’s Indians – LA Times

Between 1846 and 1870, California’s Indian population plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000. Diseases, dislocation and starvation caused many of these deaths, but the near-annihilation of the California Indians was not the unavoidable result of two civilizations coming into contact for the first time. It was genocide, sanctioned and facilitated by California officials.

Source: It’s time to acknowledge the genocide of California’s Indians – LA Times

One thing I’m planning on using this space for is talking about pedagogy – my own, mostly, as I rethink my main survey courses over the summer. This is a topic I touch on already in my US I class, but I don’t think I talk about it enough. I’ll be honest – as a native New Englander who has spent her entire personal and professional life on the East Coast,* I have tried to push my survey away from the East Coast bias that is, in turn, an Anglo-Protestant bias.

I’d like to really overhaul the projects my US I and US II students do, and by overhaul I mean “completely ditch and start again.” Something I’m considering is trying to have students take advantage of all of the really great history writing that shows up in popular outlets, articles like this one. I’m not quite sure what direction I’d like to go in, but I think the projects would take distinctly different shapes in US I and US II. This is the sort of piece I’d love to use in US I. Honestly, US II could be “Read the ‘CIA admits involvement in such-and-such coup’ article of the week.”

*I did live in New York for a bit, and worked at Governors Island in its first years as a national park.

© 2023 Erin Bartram

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑