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. 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.
 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.