Teaching American History: My pre-20th Century Syllabus

31 Mar

The last few weeks have been somewhat busy: marking, writing a draft chapter of the thesis, presenting said chapter at our American History Workshop here at the university (which was excellent and very useful.) So, I have miserably failed in my aim of making at least one substantive post a week. Oh well. I’m sure my two readers will be most upset.

As I’ve mentioned before when talking about my 20th century syllabus, I currently teach on the highly regarded American History 2 (AH2) course here at the University of Edinburgh.(1) Lecturing is carried out by the senior academic staff, while the majority of tutoring is carried out by postgraduates (here referred to as tutors. The equivalent in the US and other countries would be the teaching assistant.) Although there is a broad structure set out for each semester, tutors are at liberty to modify this as they see fit and according to their own particular expertise.

This can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the freedom to arrange tutorials according to your own preferences and the needs of particular classes is great. On the other hand, it involves additional work when compared to other courses (although, it must be said, this is by no means an onerous workload.)

The creation of an engaging tutorial syllabus that will grab the attention of students and keep them engaged over the course of an academic year is an exciting challenge and something I have reflected on before. Of course, there are certain key topics that you must give due weight to: Ignoring the political, economic, social, and cultural matters that led to the American Revolution – for example – would be ridiculous. I do not in any way profess to be an expert in the creation of an engaging syllabus – my experience only extends to three academic years of teaching – but I very strongly believe that student input is important, even though you can not always give them exactly what they want.

For me, one of the key ways I find that gets students involved in the class is to transmit my own enthusiasm for the topics we are studying to them. Bringing up a little known anecdote about a given subject that sheds, perhaps, a humourous or controversial light on the subject often makes them more enthusiastic.

Varying the way the syllabus approaches topics also seems to be a workable approach. Although much of this will be old hat to more experienced teachers, I certainly find excitement and enjoyment in finding new ways to engage students. Use of varying types of source, from well known key documents to political cartoons (and even contemporary webcomics), breaks things up a little and stops each week being the same round of presentations, questions, and answers.

So, here’s what I offered for the colonial period, the 18th, and 19th centuries.

Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: Slavery in Pre-Revolutionary Colonial America

This is the second academic year that I’ve used this as the first tutorial proper in the course. It’s extremely useful in setting out some basics for issues that will become very important as the course progresses. Knowing the origins of the chattel slavery system, the conditions endured by slaves, the economic background to the system, and the differing ways in which slavery was justified are all key to our future classes on ante-bellum slavery and the Civil War.

Week 3: Liberty or Death: The Coming of Revolution

In short, why was there a revolution in the American colonies? For me it’s important to stress that the revolution should be seen in an Atlantic context, as more of a civil war than a war between states.

Week 4: A More Perfect Union: Founding Documents of a New Nation

Always a tough one! Cramming the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights into one 50 minute class is always going to be a hard game to play.

Week 5: Forging the Nation: The Early Republic

Out of all the early American subjects, it’s this one that I actually find the most interesting. This is mainly because I chose to focus on early foreign policy (up to the Monroe Doctrine) and the connections between that subject and the domestic situation. Obviously, the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 receive a bit of coverage here. Also, we look at how domestic and foreign policy were at tomes one in the same thing (the Louisiana Purchase being a good example.)

Week 6: Big Cheese: Jacksonian America

Jackson was famous for the huge blocks of cheese he had at his White House parties. Really. Giant blocks of cheese. Jackson is, if nothing else, a fascinating and somewhat terrifying guy. Bringing up stories about his duelling always seems to get people engaged. This class is always a good opportunity to bring the treatment of native Americans front and centre. The Indian Removal Act always provokes a good debate and I’ve found the work of scholar Francis Paul Prucha very useful in this regard. Prucha presents Jackson as a humanitarian with the best interests of the natives at heart. His work also provides an opportunity to discuss how an historian uses sources to construct their argument, given that Prucha draws deeply from the well of Jackson’s own writings. It also gives me an excuse to have the students look at these brilliant cartoons by the estimable Kate Beaton.

Week 7: The Peculiar Institution: Antebellum Slavery and Antislavery

Week 8: Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Save Girl

Weeks seven and eight form one large seminar, examining the institution of chattel slavery in the first instance, and the effects on people in the second instance. Last year we used Frederick Douglass as a set text, but this year we changed to Harriet Jacobs. Which, I think, was a good move. Jacobs provides an extremely useful and thought-provoking female perspective on the nature of slavery as an institution.

Week 9: War is Cruelty: The Civil War

The old “What were the causes of the Civil War?” discussion. It’s a crusty old standard, but a good one for a survey course. Primary sources are useful here and I used the 1861 inaugural address of Jefferson Davis and the Emancipation Proclamation as the two main sources for the class.

Week 10: Controversial and Misunderstood: Reconstruction

Nothing like ending on a complex and – as Eric Foner would say – misunderstood period in American history. The main focus of this class was not on simply analysing Reconstruction, but looking at the period through the lens of political cartoons. And what better cartoonist to use than the legendary Thomas Nast. I choose cartoons from the entire period of Reconstruction, encouraging students to analyse their content and commentary, hopefully gaining an insight into the very complex politics and issues of the era through a visual medium.


(1) The ‘2’ in the name is because it is a second year course, not because there is an ‘American History 1.’ Also, it was highly regarded way before I got here. My presence has little – if any – impact upon the height of any regard the course may enjoy!

2 Responses to “Teaching American History: My pre-20th Century Syllabus”

  1. wjmacguffin at 5:22 pm #

    I’d recommend adding the differences in colonial cultures and why they existed. The English who settled in the north were different than those who settled in the south, and this created cultural regions that still exist today (e.g. New England). Then again, you only have 10 weeks!

    Although it betrays my liberal tendencies, I think you can draw a great parallel between pre-Civil War society and the current one. Both feature wealthy Americans (the 1%) who have significant support from the working classes, especially in the conservative South region, where people decry the elite Northeastern liberals for their “assault” on liberty and economic freedom.

    • malcolmcraig at 5:35 pm #

      You make a very fair point. However, I think they get this in the lectures. The tutorials have to be pretty specific and look at one particular topic within the wider theme. Given the importance of slavery and the oppression of African Americans to the sweep of U.S. history, I think colonial slavery is a good place to start.

      And yes, I’m always for drawing parallels with contemporary America in order to engage the students a little bit more!

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