Tag Archives: college survey courses

Can you see Russia from your American history class?


An Iñupiat seal drag made ca. 1900, one of the objects in the exhibit.  After killing a seal, the hunter slit the animal’s jaw and looped the leather thong through the hole, and then attached the loop to a longer line to haul the carcass across the ice.

Right now the McClung Museum has a special exhibit curated by Christine Dano Johnson, a UT grad and former intern.  It showcases items made by Yup’ik and Iñupiat people of Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and developed out of Johnson’s research into the museum’s collection of Native Alaskan and Pacific Northwest material.  She came back to the museum this week to discuss her research with an anthropology class.

When I sat in on her presentation, it occurred to me that I don’t recall discussing Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, or the inhabitants of these places at any length in any history class I’ve taken or taught, from grade school all the way to graduate seminars.  I’d wager the same is true of most history classes.

Do history courses need Alaska and its Native inhabitants?  My Ph.D. adviser asked my classmates and I a similar question during the first meeting of an early America seminar.  We were discussing the geographic and temporal boundaries historians use to define “colonial America.”  Alaska, after all, was a Russian colony in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  My adviser asked us to consider whether we need to incorporate this into our understanding of colonial America in order to make sense of it and to do the subject justice.  It’s an interesting—and provocative—question.  Most people associate colonial America with the eastern seaboard, while historians with a more expansive geographical vision have been careful to point out that the thirteen seaboard English provinces weren’t the only colonies out there.  The borders of colonial and early America have opened up in recent years.

But Alaska?  I think it’s a rare study indeed that considers its colonial experience to be part of either colonial or early American history.  Alan Taylor’s especially expansive and inclusive overview of colonial America is, of course, a notable exception.

Changes in geographical perspective can lead to interesting chronological reconceptualizations, too.  It’s no coincidence that Taylor’s continental studies of colonial America and the Revolution have later chronological end points than other, more geographically restrictive accounts.  Alaskan history forces us to reconsider when colonial America ends as well as where it ends.  It remained a European possession a century after those British colonies gave their king a pink slip.

A broader geographic perspective also has implications for teaching the second half of the American survey, and can help us correct demographic and cultural oversights that tend to characterize the post-1865 or 1877 history course.  Note that the Iñupiat seal drag in the photo dates from around the turn of the twentieth century.  How largely do indigenous people figure in most survey courses after the lectures move past, say, 1890?  Native Americans didn’t just vanish after Wounded Knee, as if they were figures in Marty McFly’s family photo.  Indeed, members of Native Alaskan communities continue their traditions of whaling and sealing today, mixing older practices with more modern technology.  (In fact, part of Johnson’s work in our collection involved consultation with these communities in an effort to better understand the cultural context of these objects.)

My point is not that every history course “needs” to cover Alaska and its inhabitants, but rather that greater attention to places we dismiss as marginal can prompt us to think and teach about the whole fabric of American history more creatively and intelligently.  If we want to shake up the ways we conceive of geographical, temporal, and demographic boundaries, Alaska could be a good place to get started.  The next time you’re putting together a syllabus, a little subarctic air might just prove invigorating.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory, Teaching History


It’s been a summer of traveling for me: Virginia, Florida, and California, all within the span of a few weeks.  Just a few days ago, I visited the La Brea Tar Pits with a couple of friends of mine.  I think the tar pits are sort of obligatory for paleophiles who visit L.A.  

It’s got to be the most famous fossil site in California, if not on the West Coast as a whole.  It’s also a very recent site, as far as fossil deposits go.  Most of the specimens from La Brea date from about 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia.  In geologic time, that’s practically yesterday, and much, much more recent than the terrible lizards that really interest me.  Dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago, and flourished until the K-T extinction event killed off the non-avian dinos 65 million years before the present.  (I say non-avian because scientists now consider birds to be advanced theropod dinosaurs, the same group that includes the big carnivores.  T. rex is actually more closely related to a parakeet than to Triceratops.)  While checking out the exhibits at La Brea, I couldn’t escape the notion that all this stuff was really new.

Now, here’s the weird thing.  A few weeks ago, as you may recall, I was in Jamestown.  I’m fascinated by seventeenth-century colonial history, but my foremost historical interest is the American Revolution.  As an aspiring early Americanist who spends most of his time studying the end of England’s American empire, the founding of Jamestown seems almost like the Big Bang to me.

But when you consider that anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, 1607 isn’t that long ago.  Indeed, it’s not even particularly early in the history of European adventurism in the New World.  The Spanish had been making their mark in the Americas for more than a century when the English started building their fort on the banks of the James River.  And four hundred years is hardly worth noticing compared to the gulf of time that separates us from the animals that roamed Rancho La Brea in the Pleistocene.

When I was standing within the reconstructed palisade of Jamestown’s fort a few weeks ago, I was thinking like an aspiring American historian, and it was like being present at the creation.  At La Brea, on the other hand, I was wearing my dino aficionado hat, and those 40,000-year-old mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats seemed like they’d been around just a few moments ago.

History classes tend to reinforce these skewed perspectives of time.  The world history survey is ostensibly in the business of teaching students what humans have been up to during our tenure on this planet, but most of human existence gets covered in the first lecture or two.  The rest of the course is about human history since the end of the Neolithic.  In other words, we devote only one class meeting to something like 98% of humanity’s past.

The American history survey distorts time, too.  The first half zips through thousands of years’ worth of pre-Columbian history in about an hour of lecture, and then spends months on the few hundred years between Columbus and the end of Reconstruction.  The second half devotes the whole semester to less than a century and a half.  There isn’t really any sense to the way survey courses split American history in two.

The way we define fields of specialization makes no chronological sense, either.  There was twice as much time from Roanoke to the Rev War as there was from the Rev War to the Civil War, but both Roanoke and the Rev War are the business of early Americanists.  The Civil War?  That’s for those nineteenth-century historians.

The passage of time defines what historians do, but I don’t think we’re any more astute than a random person on the street when it comes to conceptualizing time accurately.

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Filed under History and Memory, Teaching History

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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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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Down from the top shelf

I once heard my pastor (who also happens to be my uncle) quote another minister to the effect of, “The preacher’s job is to reach up and take it down from the top shelf, and put it in people’s hands.”  The preacher, in other words, must not only have a certain level of expertise in his subject matter, but also the ability to translate it into a usable form for people whose expertise is in some other area.  When I worked in museums, I used to see my job in pretty much the same way. The public historian’s job is to take it down from the top shelf and put it in people’s hands.

There’s an unfortunate tendency in academia to look down on public historians, as if curators, park rangers, and their colleagues at museums and other institutions are engaged in a less demanding enterprise than those who earn a paycheck from teaching and publishing.  But in many ways, the demands placed on the public historian are greater. The public historian, like his academic counterpart, must be able to conduct original research and make sense of the relevant secondary literature—to reach the top shelf. But his success will also depend on his ability to get that stuff down from the top shelf and into the public’s hands. That’s what distinguishes the public historian from the ivory tower historian.

A few days ago, however, it occurred to me that although I’m not in the museum field anymore, my job still consists of taking things down from the top shelf.  I make a living by teaching college survey courses.  My audience isn’t composed of colleagues or apprentices; it’s made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, each with different levels of interest and differing aptitudes when it comes to the study of the past.  I’ve therefore decided that teaching a college survey course is essentially an exercise in public history.

Wikimedia Commons

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Of individuals and their eras

Lately the historical Interwebs has been talking about the new Grant bio by H.W. Brands.  I read his life of Andrew Jackson several years ago and thought it was pretty good, even if the availability of Robert Remini’s one-volume abridgment version of his multi-volume work made another popular Jackson bio seem a little superfluous.

The Grant and Jackson books are both part of a series of biographies which will constitute a complete history of the United States, with Brands using each individual exemplifying a particular era.  It’s a pretty interesting idea.

I wonder if you could do the same thing for a survey course, organizing each lecture around the life of some historical figure.  Could students learn history just by getting acquainted with individuals whose life stories reflect their respective time periods or subjects?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Pocahontas for early colonial Anglo-Indian relations with her first encounters with the Jamestown colonists, her capture, baptism, marriage, and eventual death
  • Jacob Leisler for the evolution of the colonial-English relationship in the late seventeenth century
  • Jonathan Edwards for the intellectual/religious developments of the early eighteenth century
  • John Adams for the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, with the emergence of his commitment to independence and the development of his ideas on government
  • John Sevier for the trans-Appalachian frontier, with his career as Indian fighter, leader of a dissident separatist movement, land speculator, and state governor


Filed under Historiography, Teaching History

One of the reasons American history is hard to teach

…is because it keeps getting longer.

Of course, his lessons didn’t change on the day of the attacks, but once students started showing up who had completely forgotten about it — “18-year-olds who were about seven when 9/11 happened” — he knew he had to teach it. But there are only so many hours of instruction in the semester.

That meant he had to start making cuts in his lesson plans. Take Watergate. Once, he used to spend an entire lecture on the political scandal, but now, he covers it in 10 to 15 minutes. “The New Deal is another really good example,” he says. “When I first started teaching, I think I had three lectures on it.” Now he’s down to two, and that’s changed the way he teaches, too. “I try to do it differently so that I won’t overwhelm people with lots and lots of facts. And then they’ll be able to understand more history, hopefully, through only having to know a little less.”

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