Tag Archives: 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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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.


Filed under Graduate School, Historiography, 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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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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