The United States in Thirty Hours

Can a US History survey module be taught in a single semester?

A quick internet search seems to suggest that the answer is no; throughout the Anglophone world, the year-long, bifurcated survey predominates. US History 1 and US History 2, American History to 1865 and American History since 1865. So prevalent is this trend that many textbooks and course readers have split along similar lines.

In those universities which maintain the term system, the result is much the same. The first-year survey of American history at the University of Warwick is taught in 35 hours over 23 weeks through 20 lectures and 15 seminars. In those universities which have switched to the semester system, such as the University of Glasgow, an equivalent number of contact hours is offered–29 lectures and 6 seminars. At both universities, students had complained that the module had moved too quickly, that they were not able to fully absorb the material and concepts presented. 200 years in 35 hours was simply not appropriate.

All this brings me to my current dilemma. My new position at Sheffield Hallam has offered me the wonderful and terrifying prospect of designing my own US History survey. However, as a 20-credit module, taught over a single semester, I am allocated a mere 30 hours. When 35 was far too few, how can 30 possibly suffice?

A crucial proviso must be put forth at this stage: American Crises is not meant to be a traditional survey. It is an upper-division module aimed at pushing students beyond simple knowledge retention through a close examination of six crises between 1783 and 1968. Yet, in the current programme structure, it will be the first university-level module on American History that my students will have embarked upon. The temptation, therefore, is dive headlong into an abbreviated survey and hope that something sticks.

On the other hand, there has been a great deal written on survey modules over the past twenty years; one of the most cited remains Lendol Calder’s ‘Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey.’ In it, Calder argues for the creation of modules that challenge and reshape existing knowledge (a practice oft-touted in pedagogical research) rather than provide information to a fictitious blank slate. Yet, Calder’s module deals with a relatively short and well known historical period, America since 1945. Could such a programme of teaching translate to the full chronology of the nation?

While the concept of uncoverage is tempting, perhaps equally as tempting as the abbreviated standard survey, I am equally dubious about its effectiveness. To critically challenge previous knowledge is an invaluable skill, but one which students find difficult to embrace except after long periods of study. To thrust it upon them at their first encounter with US History seems folly indeed. You don’t throw someone off a boat to teach them the butterfly stroke. Sure, they might not drown, but they might not want to go sailing with you again either.

I have therefore drafted a preliminary programme of lectures, which I hope will navigate the narrow channel between coverage and uncoverage, offering the grounding that all students (regardless of background) seem to crave, as well as the moments of critical exploration necessary to develop much needed skills.

Suggestions and critiques are very welcome. Except about the absence of Reconstruction. My apologies to Eric Foner, but reconsidering Reconstruction will have to wait.

Beginnings: America’s Struggle to Define Itself

The Revolutionary War

Drafting the Constitution

Antebellum: America’s Struggle to Unite Itself

Sectionalism, Slavery and the American System

The Civil War

Expansion: America’s Struggle to Grow

The Expanding Frontier

Overseas Imperialism

Freedom: America’s Struggle to Define its Values

Progressivism and Wilsonian Idealism

Economic and Social Liberalism

Globalism: America’s Struggle to Define its Place in the World

Isolationism and The New Deal

World War II and Post War Interventionism

Rebirth: America’s Struggle to Reconcile its Past and Future

The Great Society

The Silent Majority

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