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.

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Favorite Sources in the Survey

Teaching the survey, I have found, can be a blur. Events, people, and places zip by—on Monday, you’re at Jamestown in 1607, on Wednesday, Plymouth in 1620, and by Friday Cotton and Increase Mather are angling for a new charter for Massachusetts. (Okay, I don’t move quite that fast, but it’s still quick.) And in the meantime students deal mostly with brief snippets of texts in a document reader. Someday I may ditch it, but for now, it does the job.

One of my favorite parts of the course, therefore, is working with students a little more deeply on select texts, and getting to practice the craft of the historian more fully. So today I’ll share one or two of my favorites with you, offering no claims to originality.

I’ll start with my absolute favorite, which will come as no surprise to my friends: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Continue reading