Roundtable: Democratize the Classroom!

This is the final post in our series on Teaching Amid Political Tension (read Part I, Part II, Part III). Today’s post is by Sean Trainor, who teaches history, writing, and professional communication at the University of Florida. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, TIME, Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Junto, Early American Studies, and elsewhere. He co-hosts the weekly podcast Impolitic.

To be perfectly honest, the current age of turmoil has had a minimal impact on the content of my courses. Long before Donald Trump emerged as a presidential contender or Pepe the Frog became an absurd, menacing presence in Americans’ collective consciousness, I had been teaching a politically engaged curriculum that focused on the intersection of racism, sexism, inequality, imperialism, and jingoistic excess in American history. I had designed these courses as a kind of rebuttal to what I saw as the defining sins of American life, and insofar as Donald Trump gleefully embodies these sins, my courses have aged well in the era of his presidency.

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Books in the Early U.S. Survey

booksI’m teaching two sections of the first half of the U.S. survey this semester (which goes to 1877 here at BYU). I taught two sections of the same last semester. After nearly a five-year break from the classroom as I researched and wrote a dissertation, it was fun to be back in the classroom: to work with students, take a step back from the specifics of my own research, reflect on the broader themes and developments of early American history,  and to update my lecture/discussion notes and outlines with the vast amounts of excellent scholarship produced over the course of that five-year period.

I’ve changed quite a bit in the content, focus, and structure of the course, and updated both assignments and class policies to be more student friendly (fewer lectures, more discussions, making more effective use of technology, and experimenting with unessays, to name just a few such changes). One thing that has not changed, however, is the amount of reading I assign. In addition to their textbook, students read widely from primary sources (this semester features significantly more sources by and about women, thanks in large part to Sara Damiano’s January post here at The Junto). They also read four scholarly books over the course of the semester.  Continue reading

Women’s History, Primary Sources, and the United States History Survey

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Abigail Adams (Source)

“What did you find surprising about this source?”  It was Week Nine of the fall semester, when the students in my United States History to 1877 survey course were worn down by too many midterms and too little sleep. I was attempting to spark conversation about the day’s assigned primary source, the late-eighteenth-century journal of Mary Dewees, a Philadelphia woman who moved west to Kentucky. Surely, I thought, some of my students would have been surprised to read a woman’s firsthand account of crossing rivers and mountains as she took part in white trans-Appalachian migration and the resulting displacement of Native Americans from their lands. Continue reading

Monographs in the Survey: Strategies for Writing Across the Curriculum

fountain-penI am fortunate that in graduate school, I had quite a bit of guidance in writing across the curriculum pedagogy. I have since taught approximately a dozen designated writing-intensive courses. Most history courses are writing-intensive by default, and many history faculty do find themselves teaching writing and research techniques. Here, I am focusing primarily on the strategies I use in survey courses, with a short list of monographs that I have found work well for this purpose.

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America, the Series?

1676It took me a few days to realise my mistake. Around the third week of the semester, in this my first year teaching the “Foundations of American History” survey course here at Birmingham, I slipped up in a way I’d never have imagined. I was lecturing about Bacon’s Rebellion, and about Stephen Saunders Webb’s provocative, half-mad 1676: The End of American Independence. I found it odd that my students didn’t seem to see what was so funny, or at least glib, about Webb’s title. Those blank looks spooked me. So I said, “well, you know guys, because, 1776, right? That’s… when the Americans declared independence? Remember?” Continue reading

Making Utopia a Theme in Early American History

Utopia, 1516, frontispieceThis year I’m overhauling my early American survey course. Not only do I need to make it fit the schedule at my new institution, but because I’m planning to be teaching here for quite a while, I also want to build a course that carries my own signature, and where I can work out some of my own questions and ideas. Survey courses that I’ve taught before—like the one designed by Sarah Pearsall for Oxford Brookes University—have been themed around the violence of empire and slavery. Obviously, those continue to be both central concerns in teaching and the foci of cutting-edge scholarship. But in my search for something different, and for something that might capture the imaginations of my first-year students, I’ve chosen a different path: utopia. Continue reading

Triggers in the Past

Over the past few weeks, a discussion about trigger warnings has percolated across the blogosphere. Educators, op-ed columnists, and pundits have debated the use of these warnings about potentially upsetting content on syllabi or in the classroom (and leave it to the Chronicle to publish a disdainful mockery of the concept). As I’ve developed my courses, both at the survey and upper levels, I have confronted some of these same questions about the past: Is there anything in history from which we should shield our students? Or, to put it more broadly, how should we approach material that some of our students may find offensive, hurtful, or painful?

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