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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The Trouble with Global: Early Thoughts from an Early Americanist

mapofthenewworld-debryThis week, I’m wrapping up my survey course on modern global history (1500 to the present). It’s the first time I’ve taught this course. So I have opinions.

Let me just put this right out there: I had long been skeptical about global history as a standard survey course. It seemed too unwieldy, too shallow or spotty in coverage, and way too vulnerable to political ax-grinding. I assumed this course would reinforce old stereotypes: that history is an endless parade of random facts and dates and battles and names of elite men. Or else it would turn into pure theory, and thus an exercise in polemic. Either way, it would have little of the texture of lived experience, which is what I reckon makes history compelling to ordinary powerless students.

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