“Early America” in The Open Syllabus Project

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 9.39.43 AMThe Open Syllabus Project (@opensyllabus) has collected “over 1 million syllabi” in the hopes of determining “how often texts are taught” and “what’s taught with what.” They hope their project will provide “a promising means of exploring the history of fields, curricular change, and differences in teaching across institutions, states, and countries.” The OSP has released a beta version of their “Syllabus Explorer,” which “makes curricula visible and navigable in ways that we think can become valuable to authors, teachers, researchers, administrators, publishers, and students.” Intrigued that the project claims to have catalogued the assigned readings from 460,760 History syllabi, I went through the list to find the most assigned works of early American history.

Obviously, the first question should be: “How did you define ‘early American history?'” My answer: loosely and unscientifically. If ten early Americanists were asked to go through the list and pick out the works of “early American history,” you would most likely end up with no two lists being wholly alike. Therefore, my attempt to do this is not meant to preclude others and unavoidably reflects my own perspective. The only main criteria I set were: no textbooks and, chronologically speaking, no books that did not touch on the 17th or 18th centuries (sorry 19th-century people).

And so I went through the list of the 2,000 most assigned readings among the nearly half a million history syllabi collected by the Open Syllabus Project. While neither the OSP nor my approach to it can even be loosely described as scientific, I would hope that it might give us a broad sense of what texts are being assigned and help kick start a discussion about how the field is being represented to students. Therefore, I will offer no further commentary on the list in this post.

Without further ado, here is the short-title list of early American texts found in the top 2000 texts assigned in history courses according to The Open Syllabus Project (the number is where they rank among texts assigned among all collected history syllabi):

8. Paine, Common Sense
14. Franklin, Autobiography
23. Tocqueville, Democracy in America
32. Turner, The Frontier in American History
35. Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution
37. Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
40. Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier”
42. Cronon, Changes in the Land
58. Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
63. Anderson, Imagined Communities
66. Declaration of Independence
69. Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877
78. Taylor, American Colonies
79. Norton, “American History” (Signs)
87. PDG Thomas, The American Revolution
91. Wood, Creation of the American Republic
100. Stansell, City of Women
111. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom
116. White, Middle Ground
132. Ellis, Founding Brothers
133. Berlin, Many Thousands Gone
196. Demos, Unredeemed Captive
206. Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia
207. Gross, Minutemen and their World
227. Wilentz, Chants Democratic
229. Greene, “The American Revolution” (AHR)
253. Brown, Good Wives
258. Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
262. Wood, Black Majority
319. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom” (JAH)
326. Gutman, Black Family
349. Davis, Problem of Slavery in Age of Revolution
357. Kerber, Women of the Republic
389. Bushman, Refinement of America
390. Middlekauf, Glorious Cause
395. Holton, Forced Founders
402. Elkins, Age of Federalism
404. Dowd, A Spirited Resistance
407. Boyer, Salem Possessed
413. Countryman, American Revolution
419. Federalist Papers
432. Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith
449. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country
456. Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America
490. McCoy, Elusive Republic
514. Elkins, Slavery
539. Anderson, Crucible of War
553. Rakove, Original Meanings
554. Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address
561. Salisbury, “Indians’ Old World” (WMQ)
586. Brooks, Captives & Cousins
592. Royster, A Revolutionary People at War
605. Blackstone’s Commentaries
616. Richter, “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience” (WMQ)
627. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven
635. Breen, “Baubles of Britain” (P&P)
687. Bradford, “Of Plymouth Plantation”
707. Paine, Age of Reason
713. Hariot, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
716. Rodgers, “Republicanism: Career of a Concept” (JAH)
724. Young, Shoemaker and the Tea Party
725. Dayton, “Taking the Trade” (WMQ)
740. Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves
757. Maier, American Scripture
775. Ellis, American Sphinx
793. Rowson, Charlotte Temple
795. Ulrich, Good Wives
800. Axtell, Invasion Within
802. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness
808. Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes
828. Butler, Becoming America
839. Miller, The New England Mind
843. Page Smith, John Adams
845. Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom
849. Davis, Problem of Slavery in Western Culture
859. Clark, Roots of Rural Capitalism
866. McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum
885. Reis, Damned Women
886. Merrell, Into the American Woods
945. Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order
960. Charles Adams, History of the United States
963. Berlin, “From Creole to African”
986. Demos, Entertaining Satan
988. Hawke, Everyday Life in Early America
995. Richter, Ordeal of the Longhouse
997. Breen, “Narrative of Commercial Life” (WMQ)
1002. Sources and Documents of US Constitutions
1006. Maier, From Resistance to Revolution
1015. Bailyn, Origins of American Politics
1019. Berlin, “Time, Space, and the Evolution…” (AHR)
1036. Slaughter, Whiskey Rebellion
1038. Rorabaugh, Alcoholic Republic
1039. Warner, Letters of the Republic
1042. Langley, Americas in the Age of Revolution
1056. Usner, Indians, Settlers, & Slaves
1058. Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia
1065. Davis, Slavery and Human Progress
1073. Crosby, “Virgin Soil Epidemics as Factor…” (WMQ)
1087. Breen, “Empire of Goods” (JBS)
1095. Boydston, Home and Work
1100. Merrell, “Indians’ New World” (WMQ)
1107. Bailyn, Peopling of British North America
1109. Nash, Race and Revolution
1164. McGaughy, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia
1180. Shy, People Numerous and Armed
1184. Cornell, The Other Founders
1188. Jennings, Invasion of America
1193. Akers, Abigail Adams: An American Woman
1213. Young, “Cherokee Nation” (AQ)
1219. Breen, Tobacco Culture
1234. Breen, Marketplace of Revolution
1246. Nash, Red, White, and Black
1249. Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution
1271. Merrell, Indians’ New World
1273. Davis, Inhuman Bondage
1279. Wood, American Revolution: A History
1306. Franklin, Autobiography and Other Writings
1318. Kulikoff, Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism
1326. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the US Constitution
1347. Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts
1402. Rakove, James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic
1407. Equiano, Interesting Narrative
1421. Nash, “Hidden History of Mestizo America” (JAH)
1440. Jefferson, Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom
1464. Greene, Colonies to Nation
1477. Blackburn, Making of New World Slavery
1489. Foster, Coquette
1491. Quarles, Negro in the American Revolution
1507. Storing, What the Anti-Federalists Were For
1521. Hinderaker, Elusive Empires
1555. Cunningham, Jefferson v. Hamilton
1588. Morgan, Inventing the People
1614. Ellis, His Excellency
1651. Boorstin, Americans: The Colonial Experience
1669. Calloway, American Revolution in Indian Country
1724. Reinsch, English Common Law in the Early American Colonies
1735. Bailyn, The Idea of Atlantic History
1738. Freehling “Founding Fathers and Slavery” (AHR)
1760. Axtell, Beyond 1492
1780. Shields, Civil Tongues & Polite Letters
1880. Mackesy, War for America

41 responses

  1. there are only two people of color – Equiano (primary source) and Quarles (whose book was published in 1961). this is not surprising at all, sadly.

  2. Thanks for doing this, Michael – it’s an interesting window on the field and the way it’s taught (as noted in the other comments).

    As a curiosity, I went in and added English as a discipline to see what would happen. I anticipated that the order wouldn’t change much, but that doing so would highlight the primary sources a bit more. That turned out to be true, though it brought some new ones to the fore, as well as a few contemporary novels with historical subjects. Here’s what I ended up with, taking your definition (with apologies to Twain and Hawthorne):

    19. Franklin, Autobiography
    26. Toni Morrison, Beloved
    34. Paine, Common Sense
    40. Shakespeare, The Tempest
    43. Declaration of Independence
    50. Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
    102. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
    125. Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle”
    142. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
    144. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
    179. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
    181. FJ Turner, “The Frontier in American History”

    That gets us down to #200, anyway, just to give a flavor. All of the above is to suggest that the syllabus explorer might be an interesting tool for comparing how early Americanists approach the field from the perspective of the various disciplines.

  3. While the race and gender disparities are glaringly obvious, the list is also weighted more toward older works than recent scholarship/monographs. (NB: That is a dynamic that also played out in our first Junto March Madness tournament). It would certainly seem to be useful to think about why that is, what it says about how we teach the field, and what it might say about the value (or usability) of more contemporary monographs in the classroom.

    On those questions: Obviously it takes time for newer works to achieve a degree of widespread adoption in undergraduate courses, but, seeing the number of works covering broad topics or broad chronological periods, I wonder if the specialization of contemporary monographs hinders their widespread adoption in undergraduate courses (particularly surveys). Also, the list seems to suggest that, overall, we teach the field in a way not very different than I suspect it was taught twenty years ago (or more), at least in terms of the texts we are using.

    I would like to see a similar project done focusing only on graduate course syllabi, which I suspect would look radically different.

    • Please do one on graduate syllabi! I think it would be extremely enlightening to see whether there is substantial difference between undergrad/grad syllabi. Despite my fondness for a great many books on this list, I suspect (hope?) there would be. Also interesting to consider the economics behind this–I for one am more likely to make grad students shell out for those new still-only-in-hardcover books than I am to ask undergrads to pay for them. The older, long popular books are more likely, of course, to be in paperback and thus oft used for undergrads. Along the same lines, interesting to consider how this breaks down by publisher. But apropos of this analysis you’ve done here: brilliant work, Michael–thank you!

      • Thank you, Zara! I suspect a graduate list would look VERY different in almost all respects including a broader range of topics as well as broader coverage in terms of the demographics of both the subjects and the authors. Most importantly, I suspect it would also be weighted more heavily toward more recent works than older ones (at least, more than this list). That only points out something that we all know intuitively, i.e., “early America” looks very different to graduate students than it does to undergraduates. That, of course, raises a host of other questions…

  4. We historians are SUCH an unimaginative bunch. YES to all of the above points: it’s too old, as well as way too male and too white (both in terms of the historians and their subjects.) I would also like to point out that these books and articles are focused almost exclusively on Anglo-American peoples and colonies, with only a few token books that focus on Native peoples, and none on the Spanish or French colonies, etc.

    Thanks for compiling this list, Michael. It’s a great service to us, and SHOULD serve as a kick in the a$$ for a lot of us to mix it up a bit and rethink our priorities when teaching early America.

    • You’re absolutely right, Ann, with regard to the focus of the texts. Riffing off our conversation a few weeks ago about the survey model, part of the problem surely is that many of the survey courses are designed not as “early America” or “early North America” but as “United States history” (it is at my university, even though the United States doesn’t exist until Week 10 of the course). Even under the requirements of the last, I think you’re right that we need to push the boundaries of how we think, but it does have a gravitational pull toward Anglo-American sources.

      • Joe, your point about “definition bias” is spot-on. But…even if a course is defined as “United States History,” though (as the one I’m currently teaching is), I’d suggest that we do our students a disservice if we don;’t interpret that label as “areas that become part of the US one way or another eventually.” I’ve argued elsewhere that teaching the survey as eastern-seaboard-marches-West is teaching history as teleology, which doesn’t do anyone any good. There are a number of ways the survey course as traditionally conceived falls short of reflecting how we “do” history as scholars. I think undergrads would be interested in, and benefit from, an approach that incorporates more of our newer ways of understanding “Early America.”

        That said, please forgive the shameless plug, but I am pondering a SHEAR proposal that takes on the topic of alternative pedagogical models for “Early America” and the survey. Anyone interested? Tweet me @thetattooedprof

  5. Michael et al, did you read the NYT op-ed (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/opinion/sunday/what-a-million-syllabuses-can-teach-us.html) in which the leaders of this project argue that frequency of research showing up in the database could be a “new publication metric” or “teaching score”? This seems ill-advised at best, since 1) As in teaching evals, there is a clear bias towards white males and 2) sometimes books are not assigned based on whether they’re “good” by other metrics. Problematic books make great teaching tools, as do syntheses or over-simplified works that don’t say much new or important. Many, if not most, of the books on this list are great, but I still wouldn’t want to use this data to measure scholarly effectiveness.

    • Cassie, I did see that piece (though after I had already compiled the list). Thank you for including the link. And you are absolutely right that this list says something primarily about a text’s “assignability” or usability in the classroom NOT its “scholarly effectiveness” or even its general acceptance within the field. Wood’s Radicalism is a perfect example of that. It is the highest-ranking secondary work on the list after Turner, and I am sure I like most people use it because it is a book that is relatively easily critiqued by undergraduates. Of course, there are a litany of explicit caveats that could (or perhaps should) go along with a post like this, but I trust most readers will have a sense of the complexities and uncertainties of a project such as this.

      • Yes readers here certainly will–what I worry about is university administrators looking for ever more data points. I’ve been hoping somebody (preferably senior and tenured) would write a public rebuttal of the NYT piece…

        • You’re right. Sadly, it is important to consider how any new data might be misused for evaluation by administrators. As Joe noted below, the Project itself makes clear the limitations of the data. You would hope that would be enough to scare away the administrators, but alas…

  6. I’d add that the numbers would probably look significantly different (and possibly more skewed in favor of “unimaginative” historical scholarship) if we examined the number of students assigned each text, rather than the number of syllabi on which they appeared. In other words, even within the traditional genre, far fewer students probably read Bailyn and Wood than read any of the textbook authors (or something more broad like Taylor’s American Colonies). The project group doesn’t look at the data that way so it’s impossible to tell, but I’d guess that would skew the data even more heavily against anything that’s non-traditional.

    • That might very well be the case. But in that situation, the list would be dominated by textbooks (even more than it already is). Absolutely the list tells us more about the faculty assigning the texts than the students being assigned them.

  7. One thing to keep in mind (and I noticed the NYT editorial didn’t do much with this either) is that one of the biggest components one confronts when putting together a syllabus, especially at non-elite institutions, is COST. When I was teaching, I really tried to keep the book bill to about $100 per course. I would used a mix of slightly older paperbacks (with a good amount of used stock), public domain primary sources, articles downloaded from J-STOR and shared behind a firewall. When I read the NYT piece, that was my first take on why older and more “traditional” texts dominated the lists. I think a lot of instructors know their students are living on a budget, and try to respect that.

    • Once a book has been out in paper for 4-5 years, there are loads of copies available on the secondary market. Students can find even cheaper copies through online booksellers than in their uni and college bookstores, and as I always like to remind my students, LIBRARY COPIES ARE FREE, so I don’t buy the cost argument. IF you think the histories of women and non-white people and non-English speaking people are important, you find the books, articles, and primary sources necessary to discuss their experiences with your students.

      If you don’t think the majority of Americans are important, or you’re just lazy and unimaginative, then you reach for the titles and authors on the list above.

      • I rarely read comments on blogs, let alone offer them. But come on. You’re free to assume the worst about colleagues (and apparently say it in a public forum!) based on how you imagine they might approach these questions, but many of us can’t dismiss ‘the cost argument’ so cavalierly.

        It is completely impractical to expect students in, say, a 110-person class populated by working students on a non-residential campus to share a single text placed on reserve. There are even more hurdles if the professor is an adjunct teaching on more than one campus. We have uneven access to databases behind paywalls. Many of our students can’t go to a campus library in the evening and don’t have internet connections at home. Some take care of parents or siblings. Some have never taken American history before. I’d imagine most of our colleagues are doing our best to introduce students to a variety of sources and historiography at institutions that present their own unique challenges and offer a wide spectrum of support for teaching.

        Given those circumstances, dismissing colleagues – individually or collectively – as “lazy and unimaginative” strikes me as so wildly uncharitable and unfair that I can’t believe this comment wasn’t moderated.

      • I think it is going a bit too far to say that using works from this list implies that one thinks the histories of women, non-English speaking peoples, and the majority of Americans are unimportant. A look at the titles shows that about 40% address slavery, Native Americans, women, and class directly. That might not be many people’s preferred ratio, but, nevertheless, you could easily build a very engaging and worthwhile syllabus from this list that addressed only those issues. So I think it’s worth making the distinction between the inequity among the authors on the list and that among the topics in the list.

    • This point occurred to me too; paperbacks and books widely available used are especially tempting for large undergrad courses at public schools like mine. But that’s increasingly offset by online subscription services that make newer and nominally more expensive works available.

      Another factor touching some of the syllabi may be that faculty teaching courses outside their own area and/or with minimal time to prepare (as adjuncts, e.g., often have to do) may simply go with established works because those are the easiest to identify.

      I also wonder (as do others below) about the age range of the syllabi involved.

  8. I agree with everyone about that whiteness and maleness of the list. But it has me wondering if all the syllabi are recent. To amass the vast number of syllabi, are some of them old? That would skew the data more male and more white. Here’s hoping that’s part of problem here…

    • Greg, this is from the OSP website:

      How does the OSP get its syllabi?

      Primarily through the crawling and scraping of publicly-accessible university websites. We have also rescraped the links in Dan Cohen’s ‘million syllabus’ database from 2005-2006 utilizing the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine. We plan to continue our scraping efforts in 2016.

      Over time, the project needs individual faculty donations and access to institutional syllabus archives. At present, we have around 1.1 million syllabi, drawing predominantly from the past decade of teaching in the US. We think the total number of US, UK, Canadian, and Australian syllabi for the past 15 years is in the range of 80-100 million.

        • The “million syllabi” on which it’s originally based were collected 2002-9, it seems. On their “Share Syllabi” page they also say they are “especially” interested in syllabi from before 2000 (“Our collection is very thin prior to the early 2000s”), so perhaps some chronological/historical data will eventually be available.

  9. Many of the top books are also grand narratives–something we have less and less of. It is hard to assign a more narrow book that can only be used for 1-2 weeks of a course unless you play with unorthodox syllabi structures.

  10. Web Page Blocked

    Internet access to the requested website has been denied based on Fulton County Board of Education’s Internet Usage Policy. If you’d like a site unblocked for educational reasons, contact the helpdesk at 470-254-4357.


    URL: earlyamericanists.com/2016/02/08/early-america-in-the-open-syllabus-project/

    Category: entertainment-and-arts


    Greg Brooking, Ph.D.

    • 1-7 (as well as all missing numbers) were texts outside of “early American history.” This list was culled from the larger list of the top 2,000 assigned texts in the syllabi collected by the project.


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