Guest Post: Introducing “The American Yawp”

Today’s guest post comes from Ben Wright, a doctoral candidate at Rice University, who focuses on religious conversion and early American antislavery. He is the co-editor of Apocalypse and the Millennium in the Era of the American Civil War (LSU, 2013), the editor of the Teaching United States History blog, and co-editor of The American Yawp.

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 8.09.18 AMLike many of you, I find myself teaching the first half of the U.S. history survey this fall. The first few times through the course, I used a textbook and appreciated the clear organizational structure and built-in pacing. Teaching with a textbook felt like teaching with training wheels, and I certainly needed them for my first few laps. But as my confidence grew, so did my desire to assign primary sources, articles, monographs, museum catalogs, and other readings. While I am impressed with the quality of many texts – Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty, and Kevin Schultz’s HIST are among my favorites – I cannot justify assigning an (often outrageously) expensive textbook if it is not going to be the cornerstone of my course. But my course evaluations often include requests for textbooks, particularly among athletes or other students with serial absences. I have tried placing a textbook on reserve, but in the three semesters of doing so, no one has ever checked out the book. It seems like our discipline could use an affordable, synthetic safety net for students who would like one.

Enter The American Yawp, a free and online collaboratively built American history textbook.  For the past several months, Joseph Locke and I, along with a team of collaborators, have been experimenting with different means of digital collaboration. We have weekly writing sessions where several contributors all jump into shared Google docs and work to transform our lecture notes into prose and prose into coherent synthesis. Several contributors have taken to this curious writing experiment with great enthusiasm, finding it an energizing, dynamic experience, while others have been overwhelmed. Recently, we have been soliciting brief targeted excerpts from specialists that our editors have then begun integrating into the broader narrative. The overarching lesson of the project has been the essential importance of flexibility. Another, unexpected problem has emerged from the nature of the discipline. There are simply far more historians who study the twentieth century than there are historians who study early America. And indeed, our editorial team and list of contributors skews heavily toward the twentieth century. So I enclose the following call with the hope of convincing early Americanists to join our experiment as we democratize the American past for twenty-first century students.

Call for editors and contributors:

As technology advances and pedagogical trends move toward active-learning exercises, scholars are fleeing traditional textbooks. Yet many still yearn for the safe tether of a synthetic text, as either a narrative backbone or an occasional reference material. For them, The American Yawp offers a free, online, and collaboratively built American history textbook designed for college-level history courses. Unchecked by profit motives or business models, without owners or institutional prerogatives, and answerable only to the dictates of good scholarship and sound pedagogy, The American Yawp is a history textbook for the commons, a cooperative venture constructed by scholars for open use in classrooms at no cost to students.

A live prototype is currently available at The title (as better explained here) draws from an oft-referenced Walt Whitman line and represents our attempt to capture the multi-layered nature of American history while incorporating all the best of recent historiography into a clear and accessible narrative.

A star-studded corps of scholars has already joined (see the list here). Now we need content-builders. We invite university educators to join and collaborate with us as we craft a core text over the next nine months. We welcome all contributions, whether simple write-ups of research specialties, participation in joint, semi-regular writing sessions, submission of detailed lecture notes or favorite pieces of cite-able material, or editors, willing to synthesize the work of others. All are welcome.

Contributors are busy collaborating during the 2013-2014 academic year to produce text and images appropriate for college-level American history courses. A team of editors will then streamline material for an anticipated open beta during the 2014-2015 academic year, during which time the project will be open for use and users can offer feedback as they work through the project themselves. After another round of editing, the Yawp will be “published” in time for the 2015-2016 academic year. Text and visuals will be available online at and offline as a free, downloadable e-book. A second, concurrent phase will then launch to broaden the project by incorporating additional media, interactive materials, and pedagogical resources, allowing for a “living” project that engages emerging pedagogical trends while harnessing the collaborative potential of twenty-first century scholarship. If you are interested in participating or have further questions, please email me Ben Wright ( or my co-editor Joeseph Locke (

2 responses

  1. Great to see some legitimate collaboration among historians towards public history. I have a few questions. Who owns the intellectual property right on this project? The contributors or American Yawp? How is this financed?

  2. Thanks for the questions. We are taking collaboration so seriously that individual contributions will blend to a degree that makes it impossible for individuals to carry the rights. The American Yawp retains all rights but freely shares them with all contributors and the public at large. We encourage the completely open distribution of our content. As for cost, the editors are paying the small IP hosting fee.


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