Teaching History Without Chronology

Most history courses follow a relatively simple formula: take a geographic space X, select a time span from A to B, add topics, and you’ve got yourself a course. It varies, of course, but works for both introductory courses, where you might survey the political, social, and cultural development of the people living in a geographic area, to upper-level courses with topical focuses. As a field whose primary concern is change over time, that formula makes sense. That consistency also means that students expect it from their high school and college history courses. And how else would you organize a history course?

I found out last semester.

As part of a new general education curriculum at my university, I created a course called American Lives, which uses autobiographies and memoirs as a way to study history. The course fits into a subdomain of our gen ed program called “humanities,” which for this purpose is defined as “the study of literary, artistic, or philosophical texts.” So rather than working from the perspective of a geographic location and a set of themes over a period of time, the course uses the source base itself as the focus.

For the first iteration of the course, I chose four autobiography/memoirs with which I was already familiar, works by Mary Rowlandson, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, and Melba Pattillo Beals (the syllabus lays out the details). These are iconic works from American history that are often used in survey courses—I should know, because I’ve used them myself. I designed the course so that each autobiography was a self-contained historical unit, with the conversation and questions about sources flowing through, but a new historical context, new supporting documents, and new historiography for each. I was aware, therefore, that I was skipping a few decades to a century between each unit as I put the syllabus together. To compensate, I made sure that each unit started with a lecture/discussion setting the historical context as broadly as possible for the autobiography under consideration.

What didn’t strike me fully until the semester was underway was how jarring that process was for me and even more so for the students. As a group of all-first-semester freshmen having enrolled in a history course, they found it difficult that we were leaving behind King Philip’s War in favor of the trans-Atlantic egomania of Franklin, then jumping to the antebellum South and discussing slavery, then fast-forwarding an additional hundred years into the era of the Civil Rights Movement. (Though I would note that the last two books complemented each other particularly well thematically.) For me, the process was more about discomfort. I’ve grown accustomed to the pace and rhythm of the traditional survey, and moving away from that to a model where the chronology literally didn’t matter was disorienting. To be more concrete, both the students and I felt like we were missing something by not ever discussing the American Revolution, but for different reasons.

All that said, I don’t think the course was a failure for the lack of chronology. In fact, one of the revisions I’m considering is shifting around the autobiographies so that they’re no longer presented in chronological order. The more pressing reason to do so is that students find Rowlandson to be a difficult text to read, which makes it less fruitful as a way to open the semester’s conversation about first-person narratives.[1] But it would also reinforce that the course is concerned with what we can learn from such a source rather than how we move from point A to point B. And in any case I found the struggle to be worth it for me both as a teacher (I spent the semester thinking more deeply about sources, what we can do with them, as well as what we can’t) and as a writer and scholar, for largely the same reasons. To what extent those considerations seep into my more chronologically inclined courses, however, remains to be seen.


[1] More troubling is that students seemed not to like Franklin’s Autobiography. Please don’t ask me how I’m going to resolve that one.

15 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Joe. I teach a similar (and similarly structured course) called Legendary Americans, which also jumps around quite a bit. The key for that class has been to have a strong set of overarching questions (I call them The Big Three in this course) that can anchor students when we are jumping around. The disorientation is also lessened in this case by the fact that we use secondary sources, which provide some historical context each time. I’ve attempted a survey once that was centered on autobiographies, and it was challenging for the same reasons you describe. I think I underestimated how difficult reading primary sources of that length and complexity is for beginning students. Maybe that’s where the real source of disorientation lies?

    • Thanks for sharing those syllabi, Caleb. I think I too underestimated the degree of difficulty of some of the primary sources (in particular Franklin, whom I’ve always found very readable). I did try to build time into the syllabus for that, giving 2-3 class periods of 2 hours each to discussing the unit autobiography. But it’s something I’ll need to think about carefully as I revise the course.

  2. This sounds like a great course. I’m glad you’ve discovered the joys of chucking chronology–I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to teach colonial North America AND stick to a chronology, so I go thematic rather than rigidly chronological. I also think focusing on individual lives is a really cool approach–autobiography is usually a very effective hook to lure them in: “It happened to me.”

    Students do have a hard time with Rowlandson. I don’t know if you’re using a Readex copy of the original, or a modernized text like Neal Salisbury’s Bedford edition (which is very good). My students in Colorado are, to my mind, way too obsessed with the elongated medial S in colonial publishing. Instead of assigning it “S” value and moving on, they seem to be unusually put off by it. Something else many of my secular students have a hard time with is the religiosity of the document. But then your students have a hard time with the secular, ironic Franklin too–so I don’t know what to tell you! I thought this generation, raised on Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, would be hipper to his sense of humor.

    Another captivity narrative that I frequently use is Elizabeth Hanson’s God’s Mercy Surmounting Mans Cruelty (1724 or 25, I think). It’s short (40 octavo pages!), she’s a Quaker, not a Congregationalist, and she has a baby who is baptized Catholic and a teenaged daughter who converts & marries a French man, never to return to New England. This presents an effective contrast to Rowlandson’s story, which is very stuck in the Anglo-American vs. Native American binary. Hanson is also alert to more information about Native families and how they’re organized, so it’s a richer ethnographic source than MR will ever be.

    • For Rowlandson I use the Salisbury Bedford reader, which has not only a very good edition of the text itself, but a great set of documents to complement it. And I have the added bonus of proximity to Lancaster, Mass. Several times that I’ve taught Sovereignty and Goodness of God I’ve had a student who grew up in Lancaster and attended Mary Rowlandson Middle School. They do always struggle with the religiosity (I’ve taken to bringing a Bible to class on days we discuss Puritans), and miss references, but they can at least get the general gist.

      As for Franklin, I think they simply found him overwhelming. His narrative style is entertaining, and they enjoy that most of the stories in the Autobiography are really just about how awesome he is. But in trying to focus in carefully on the Autobiography they had a hard time grappling with all of the various topics he covers, the level of knowledge about the nitty-gritty of eighteenth century politics, science, and culture he assumes in his readers, and the fact that he bounces from topic to topic with no warning.

      Thanks also for the recommendation – I’ll take a look as I think about how to revise for next time!

  3. This approach is similar to Charlotte Mason’s approach to teaching history. To get around the discomfort of not having chronology as the foundation, she recommended the students create their own timeline, dropping in information as they learned it, sort of like a puzzle.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I have done some timelines in other classes, and even did (haphazardly) in this course, but it’s something that may make a great deal of sense as a built-in component of future iterations of the course.

  4. This was a very interesting read! I’ve had non-chronological history courses before, in my last two years of high school (IB program), and it worked out well. We didn’t approach it from a particular book, but from a country standpoint — the Arab-Israeli Conflict, then Latin American dictators, then Vietnam, then North African independence movements. Although, writing it out now, within each of those topics we worked mostly chronologically, the overall topics were not organized in chronological order within the course.

  5. Pingback: Teaching History Without Chronology – musnadjia423wordpress

  6. My Japanese Womens History course has similar issues: I’ve used autobiography (and ethnography) heavily, but to look at these sources in depth means skipping over lots of stuff. This tends to lead to ahistorical thinking, looking for deep culture continuities where none really exist (exacerbated by the tendency to do that to Asian cultures anyway) as well as an assumption that whatever we’re reading must be of such historical importance that the author must be the first person to articulate or experience whatever it is that they’re talking about.

    I’m trying to alleviate that a little bit by doing a survey-type text first (I found a new book on women in Japanese religions that covers a lot of social history along with cultural/religious history) before going into the in-depth sources. It’s a technique I’ve used with some success in a few other courses.

    • I encountered some of the same difficulties with essentialism that you describe. Further, because we focused in on the individual and his/her historical context, I had a harder time than I would have hoped drawing out some of the questions about how self-narratives are useful as sources and how we might historicize them as a genre, i.e. what has changed about self-presentation over time.

  7. Joe: Bravo to you for thinking deeply about what’s happening in your general education course.

    The concept of teaching history without a chronological continuum interests me greatly. I have just published a new history of America’s revolutionary era (1760-1800) that attempts something similar, though (I confess) it is in some ways less ambitious than your general-education course.

    My new book, HEROIC VISION; A STORY OF REVOLUTIONARY ART AND POLITICS retains the narrative political outline of the years 1760-1800, but simultaneously introduces a new and unusual dimension. The political narrative, focused on a dozen leading politicians, gives the study enough of the familiar chronology to hold it together for readers who have a general knowledge of American history (from, say, a high school history course). The second dimension, the fine arts, argues that a brand new set of sensibilities appeared in all American fine arts disciplines–Painting (portraiture), Architecture, Literature, and Music composition–at exactly the time of the Revolution. The confluence of art and political stories allows me to explain the energy and power of republican ideology in these years.

    My training in American history was under the tutelage of Carl Bridenbaugh and Bob Middlekauff, at Berkeley. My dissertation (published as Artisans for Independence; Philadelphia Mechanics and the American Revolution), had an uphill battle against the Marxists and the “from the bottom up” historians. I had no quarrel with the findings of these talented scholars, but I was (and remain) pretty sure that Philadelphia’s artisan class acted more like a bourgeoisie than a proletariat. These Philadelphians were, after all, citizens of the city owned and operated by Benjamin Franklin!

    I didn’t pursue my beginnings as a scholar, because I switched my career path to academic administration (serially, as Dean of the Faculty at Barnard College, Dean of Parsons School of Design, and President of the League of American Orchestras). My work in these organizations kept me close to the arts, and over many years I developed the fund of knowledge that now lies within HEROIC VISION.

    By way of background, I was also a student of the great European intellectual historian, Carl Schorske, both at Wesleyan and at Berkeley. I learned from him how to use ideas as informed historical building blocks. In Heroic Vision, I make the case that republican ideology, visible and audible in the arts, and always present in political discourse, was the defining essence of what made American independence revolutionary. You can see and hear that essence in the arts.

    Now, back to your course: As a trained and engaged historian, you have the intellectual tools to pursue almost anything in a course like the one you describe–science, economics, philosophy, art, religion, civil discourse, even non-highbrow stuff, like pop culture, entertainment, comedy, etc.–and to give such subjects cultural grounding. think of your historical experience is liberating, not confining. You’re not training graduate students, you’re trying to teach undergraduates how to THINK. Historians think in a particular way that involves the elapse time. Your job in a general education course, it seems to me, is not to be persnickety about the historical continuum, but to use the discipline of history to expand students’ mental horizons, to suggest to them new and creative ways to look at the world.

    I believe courses like yours are the very essence of undergraduate liberal education. They give (or should give) undergraduates permission to cast a wide intellectual nets, to pull together ideas and experience from inter-disciplinary and non-disciplinary sources, to be creative, even at the risk of disappointment. And they allow teachers to use their academic talents in unusual ways that can give teaching huge energy.

    Yes, I know, working hard to develop general education courses won’t contribute much to your tenure or promotion portfolio, and if you build a non-disciplinary reputation, there are establishment academics lurking in the hierarchy who will criticize you. But don’t give up! It is possible to win on both battlefields, and those who do are saints among sinners.

  8. Pingback: Chronology, “coverage,” and other pointless wastes of time for historians. | Historiann

  9. You could do the same with buildings. Pick four important structures (or so) and examine them in relation to events and the people who used built or used them. Or four natural features of the landscape, like rivers, or mountains. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto writes about history taking the perspective of a single year, or looks at civilisation in terms of agricultural development according to soil types and climate.

    In my undergrad degree in the 90s our course surveyed important events or developments in Western history. One semester we looked at Homer, then another the symbolism of cathedrals, or the Romantic movement.

  10. Nice post. I have a very similar post (Franklin, Abigail Adams, and Olaudah Equiano) also for a recently revised gen ed program. We use autobiographies of Franklin and Equiano and Holton’s bio of Adams. My students also complain about Franklin, that the reading is too hard (what?!) and like Equiano’s writing the best.


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