Tag Archives: Teaching History

Designing a syllabus for Native American history

The final assignment in my Native American seminar was to develop an undergraduate syllabus for a course on some aspect of Indian history.  I decided to design my class around early American history, since it’s what I’m most familiar with.

I felt pretty confident going into this project.  Having spent several years doing adjunct gigs before going to back to grad school, I’d designed my share of syllabi.  And since I’ve done a fair amount of reading on colonial America and the early frontier, I knew of quite a few Indian-related books that I could assign.  As you might imagine, though, it turned out to be quite a bit harder than I expected.

In fact, there was a sense in which my background was actually a handicap, because it had predisposed me to think about early American history in particular ways.  As I’ve mentioned before, we tend to conceptualize the history of early America in simplistic terms of geographical and temporal progression.  You’ve got your Spaniards in Latin America at first, then your French around Canada and the Mississippi Valley, and then it’s Anglos moving from east to west from there on out.  Once the English get settled in at Jamestown, there’s a tendency to ignore everything west of the eastern seaboard until more colonists start pushing into the interior.  For too many of us, vast swaths of America don’t really have a “history” until Anglophone settlers show up.

If you’re trying to frame history from a Native American perspective, this simply won’t do.  Indian societies had been rising, falling, and coalescing across the continent for centuries before white settlements appeared in North America.  And over the course of the many decades it took Anglophone settlers to make their way to the Appalachians, the Mississippi, the Rockies, and the West Coast, history wasn’t at a standstill.  Native people in what we vaguely think of as “the West” had been encountering, trading with, fighting against, and living alongside Spanish and French settlers (and each other) during all that time.

I’m ashamed to admit that I forgot all this when I started picking readings for my syllabus.  My first slate of assigned books all dealt with Indian-colonist relations in the eastern U.S.  It didn’t occur to me to break out of that mindset until my professor gently reminded me that I was ignoring a good two-thirds of the continent.  Oops.

Periodization also proved trickier than I anticipated.  I knew that I didn’t want to cover all of Native American history down to the present, but every cutoff date seemed to present difficulties.  I thought about stopping with removal, but that sort of implies that Indians were no longer around or ceased to be a factor in American history after their relocation west of the Mississippi.  Bringing things forward to the end of the Indian Wars presented the same problem.  I knew I didn’t want to try to cover everything up to the present day, but I didn’t want to turn it into a syllabus for an early American course that happened to focus on Indians, either.  I finally settled on a rough cutoff date of ca. 1850.  It moved things past removal a bit, but without getting bogged down in all the tumultuous events that happened in the late nineteenth century.

With my end point in hand, I began accumulating a small pile of possible books to assign.  I wanted to avoid the mistake of geographical limitation I’d made with my first proposed reading list, but I also needed books accessible enough to assign to undergrads.  Here are the selections that ended up on the final syllabus I submitted to my professor:

  • First Americans: A History of Native Peoples, Volume I by Kenneth W. Townsend and Mark A. Nicholas.  Whenever possible, I like to have a main text around which to organize a class.  This book seems to hit a lot of the important sub-topics, and it’s concise enough to allow for plenty of supplementary readings.  Luckily, the first volume also ends at the exact same cutoff date I’d chosen for my course.  (Well, to be honest, the fact that this volume ends in 1850 played no small role in my decision to use that date as my end point.)  I therefore decided to use First Americans for coverage of the material and then set about looking for monographs and shorter readings for “uncoverage” of important issues.
  • What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680? edited by David J. Weber.  One of the biggest problems I ran into was a shortage of accessible, concise books on the early Southwest.  This collection of essays filled a geographic void, and I also liked the idea of a collection of essays by different historians debating the cause of an important historical event.  I made this book the basis of a writing exercise designed to get my hypothetical students to consider history as an active process of answering questions and weighing contested explanations.
  • Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America by Daniel K. Richter.  After whittling down my list of books on the early history of eastern North America, this outstanding book was the last one standing.  Richter takes the conventional narrative of early American history and flips it around, keeping Indians at the center of the story.  It’s a great read, and it engages so many important topics that this one text effectively replaced three or four of the books I had on my preliminary list.
  • The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent by Kathleen DuVal.  Here is where trying to create an “Indian-centric” course with its own geographical perspective came into play.  DuVal looks at the American interior before its penetration by Anglophone settlers, showing how there were places where Indians maintained control of the terms of contact and exchange well after the arrival of Europeans.  If you want a corrective to the notion that Indians had to retreat ceaselessly before the vanguard of colonization after 1492, this book will do the trick.
  • Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 by Theda Perdue.  I had this book on the list from the get-go, and it stayed there.  Perdue covers Cherokee acculturation and change over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, demonstrates why these processes had a unique impact on women’s roles and prerogatives, and does it all in a very concise and readable manner.

I supplemented these books with additional short readings: primary sources, excerpts, and scholarly articles.  First Americans is pretty skimpy on pre-Columbian material, so I included some chapters of Alice Beck Kehoe’s America Before the European Invasions on the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods.  I also incorporated some of the primary source selections from Colin Calloway’s First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, a few doses of ethnographic observation from Coronado and John Smith, some other short secondary readings, a viewing of the Trail of Tears episode of We Shall Remain, and a trip to the McClung Museum’s excellent exhibit on Native Americans in Tennessee.

Looking back on the finished product, I was surprised at how different it was from my first sketchy outlines.  It ended up taking a much wider geographic perspective, incorporating a lot of new ideas, and leaving out a lot of material on Indian-colonist relations that I’d planned to use.  But I think the final version was a significant improvement.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to use this syllabus in a course of my own, but the assignment made me stretch some historical muscles I’d never used, and it was a heck of a lot of fun.

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Teaching what you know

Anybody who’s taught a history class can probably sympathize with the points raised here and here.  In some ways, it’s harder to teach the material you know really well than it is to teach material outside your immediate area of expertise.

As John Fea says, when I’m teaching the stuff I’m really into, “I always leave the lecture hall frustrated. As I walk back to my office I often obsess about everything I did not have time to cover.”  When you’re passionate about a particular topic, you want to give it the coverage you know it deserves.  Of course, this is usually impossible, especially with a survey course.  As a result, you leave the classroom feeling disappointed with yourself, and then you start wondering about whether you’re teaching any of the material adequately.

The lectures I’m most content with are the ones where my understanding of the subject falls into a sort of middle zone, where I’m familiar enough with the material to be comfortable but not so thoroughly schooled in it that I’m conscious of how much I’m leaving out.

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Some Tennessee lawmakers want to change the history curriculum

Looks like they want to see a greater emphasis on American exceptionalism, textualism, and white people:

House Bill 1129 would require school districts to adopt curriculums that stress the “positive difference” the United States has made in the world and “the political and cultural elements that distinguished America.” The measure also deletes a current guideline that encourages teaching about diversity and contributions from minorities in history classes.

The state Department of Education opposes the measure, saying curriculum decisions should be left to the State Board of Education and local school boards.

Backers of the legislation, a version of which has passed the Senate, say it remains a work in progress. But its main sponsor in the House, state Rep. Timothy Hill, conceded Wednesday that the measure is meant to leave students with certain beliefs, such as the view that the wording of the U.S. Constitution leaves no room for interpretation.…

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking in terms of we live in the greatest state in the greatest nation,” said Hill, R-Blountville.

And a-one and a-two and…

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative…

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Eric Foner on teaching history

He talks about his mentors, teaching content vs. teaching method, and the need to have a passion for the subject.

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Neat visual aid for history teachers

If you’re a history or social studies teacher, check out the Periodic Table of the Presidents.  It’s got lots of historical information in an easy-to-use format, and you can get it in poster form to hang in your classroom.

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So less somehow equals more?

Tennessee officials are floating a proposal to combine geography and history.  This approach will supposedly “give students a deeper grasp of both subjects and free up more time for teaching language skills that are measured on standardized tests.”  I would’ve assumed that shoehorning two subjects into one class would mean students would get a much shallower grasp, so I’m a little perplexed here.

Of course, my perplexity is beside the point, because this isn’t really about giving kids “a deeper grasp” of history and geography, is it?  This is about marginalizing social studies to make way for math and language arts, because with the Common Core standards you live and you die by math and language scores on standardized tests.

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Textbook prices going into the stratosphere

Think the cost of health care has been going up?  Check out the cost of college textbooks.

Maybe we should all think about replacing our usual textbooks with something like Robert Remini’s A Short History of the United States.  Students would still be getting their background and context from a distinguished and reputable historian, but at a fraction of the cost of the glossy, illustration-heavy volumes put out by textbook publishers.  They’d also save time and money that could be spent on other reading material, material which would demonstrate what historians do and how they do it.

Or maybe we should ditch the background, textbook-type reading completely.  I’m gradually becoming convinced that survey-level history texts aren’t just overpriced—they’re a little superfluous.  When I teach survey courses, I spend most of my time lecturing on important historical trends, covering critical events, providing context, and so on.  In other words, I’m doing the very same thing the textbook is doing, except I’m doing it verbally.  Is the textbook really necessary when it does nothing but elaborate on the same material we cover in lecture?

In the past, I’ve tried to save my students’ money by replacing the supplementary source reader with material from the Internet History Sourcebook or another online primary source collection, and assigning the main text as the only book to buy.  Maybe I’ve been doing it backwards.  Perhaps we should all ditch our textbooks instead, and assign a good primary source reader along with an accessible monograph or two.  Thus we’d have lectures for background coverage, and assigned reading to learn interpretation and historical thinking.  Some professors have been doing this for a long time.  Is it time to take that approach mainstream?

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