Kevin Gannon has some worthwhile remarks on teaching Reconstruction. He notes that one of the reasons we fail to do the subject justice is the way we divide the two halves of the U.S. survey course:
The standard two-semester survey model, for example, can give short shrift to a thorough examination of the postwar era. How many times has Reconstruction been pushed to the last day or two of class because we get behind in the schedule? And many of us start the second semester of the survey with the assumption that students “got Reconstruction” in the first portion? But what if they didn’t? Or what about those students who haven’t taken the first half of the survey?
I agree. Cleaving the U.S. survey in twain at the 1865 or 1877 mark, as is customary, has consequences. If you’re teaching the first half and you’re running low on time toward the end of the semester, it’s easy to gloss over Reconstruction. And if you’re teaching the second half, you’re faced with two unsatisfactory options. You can pick up the story at the end of the war and launch right into Reconstruction, but that separates the subject from the context out of which it arose. Or you can leapfrog over Reconstruction and hope that whoever had your students the previous semester got around to it.
Of course, there’s an artificiality and arbitrariness inherent in any periodization scheme, and splitting the survey at any other point would create different problems. But one thing I’ve done in the past is to begin the second half of the survey with the debate over the nature of Reconstruction between Lincoln and Radical Republicans. That helps underscore what was at stake in the postwar period, and gets students thinking about Reconstruction as something other than an epilogue to Appomattox, a sort of post-credits scene after the main plot has been wrapped up.
I also think it’s useful to bring in historiography when dealing with Reconstruction in the survey. Have students read some excerpts from the Dunning School, and then follow up with some DuBois. This not only gets them thinking critically about the period, but also conveys a sense of history as a contest of interpretations and explanations.