Sometime in the 1990s, NBC decided to promote its usual lineup of summer reruns with the tag line, “if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” I’ve thought about that line occasionally since I started grad school, and came to it again this week as I’m working on syllabi (including, yes, a belated book order) for the fall semester. The problem I’m facing is a familiar one: how to balance the desire to engage in discussions of the newest work on a given topic—in this case the American Revolution—with the fact that they haven’t yet encountered some of the classic arguments.
It’s a balance that I’ve been trying to strike in my syllabi since I began teaching, and it’s an issue that comes up regularly in discussions about pedagogy in general and about preparing for the job market in particular. Some departments emphasize teaching the new as a general rule, enough so that I was once asked in an interview about why I had assigned an essay by Alfred Crosby because it was from the 1970s. (Tip for job marketeers: you can defend yourself if you have a reason. I assign the article, which I got from a colleague, but it works at the beginning of the survey course and offers a super-clear argument.) In other cases, historians emphasize that a bit less so, in particular for fields that have odd temporal disjunctions in the historiography where everyone turned away from a topic for twenty or thirty years.
In particular at the moment, I’m thinking about whether to assign Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic as part of my American Revolution course. As our readers probably know, it’s an incredibly important book, but it was published in 1980. Does that mean it’s off-limits and I should be assigning something from the past ten years?
At the risk of arguing with a straw man, I would say no, for precisely the reason that NBC was pushing about reruns of Seinfeld, Friends, and Mad About You. My students may have heard the term “republican motherhood” in their survey courses, but they haven’t fully engaged with Kerber’s argument and evidence, and so it is indeed new to them. That’s an experience I think students should have, to confront revolutionary arguments in their original contexts. Now, I don’t want to do that completely at the expense of newer scholarship, and if I do assign Kerber we will also likely read some number of essays that build on or confront her arguments. But when students engage with that more recent scholarship, they’ll then do so having read and understood Kerber.
Considering Women of the Republic as new scholarship is also a bit ironic based on my experience with the book in graduate school. For my cohort in our first year (I started in 2004), it was one of a number of books that had almost mythical significance. We heard about it as pathbreaking, trailblazing, and any number of other compound adjectives to describe how innovative it was and the ways in which Kerber opened up new lines of inquiry as we read scholarship from the previous fifteen years or so, that is, after 1990. But that had a curious effect. When we finally got to read Women of the Republic, several of us had the same reaction: “this is it?” Because we were first-year graduate students, it took us three days to realize that we had already internalized all of her arguments by reading other scholarship. “Republican motherhood” was no longer new to us, and by having read out of order, we ended up initially reacting to her work as a matter-of-fact statement of what we already knew.
It’s a Friday teaching post, so I’ll conclude by throwing it out to our readers: when you’re preparing a course, what classic works stay on the syllabus? How do you strike the balance?
 I also often assign a chapter from Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution on the classic side, but rest assured there are plenty of 201X works in the pipeline.
 Pun very much intended. It’s Friday.
 I have heard of some graduate faculty and students who organize their field reading in historiographically chronological order. There’s something to that idea, kids.