Teaching Resources for Tough Times

I’ve spent a good deal of time this summer thinking about how to structure my US history to 1877 survey course–composed almost entirely of non-majors–to address the pressing issues of the moment.  Here are a few things I’m planning to do:

  • start out on the first day with an explanation of why they should care about history, specifically early American history (jump to my list below)
  • also on the first day, set out some ground rules on how to respectfully participate in class discussions (jump to that list)
  • have students read both the Declaration of Independence and John Dickinson’s speech against it, then assign them to opposite sides to debate for and against declaring independence.  I’m hoping this will overturn some teleological thinking about the Revolution as inevitable, push them to hear some opinions they’re not accustomed to, and make them think critically about why and when people revolt against their governments.
  • read and discuss Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to understand the history of non-violent protest (inspired by discussion at the SHEAR panel “Teaching in the Age of Trump”).  Especially teaching just outside DC, where there are quite frequent protests, this will provide helpful context.


The relevance of history

History helps us understand:

  • How did we get here?
  • Where did we come from?
  • Has something like this happened before? How did people handle it?
  • How does radical—or even small—change happen? How do new movements form?

Early American history helps us understand:

  • How did the United States end up being so big and diverse?
  • Where did notions of race and racism come from?
  • Why do Native Americans live on reservations (like Standing Rock)?
  • Why were women excluded from politics?
  • What made colonists decide it was worth fighting a war against their mother country? What were they fighting for?
  • These “founding fathers”…what exactly did they envision for the country?
  • Why is Andrew Jackson in the news this past year?
  • How did we end up with a two party political system?
  • Why is the American relationship with Mexico so messy?
  • What was the Civil War really about? Why does it seem like we’re still fighting it?
  • What do American values like freedom and equality mean?

Ground Rules for Class Discussions
(Source: University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching)

  • Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
  • Listen actively and with an ear to understanding others’ views. (Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.)
  • Criticize ideas, not individuals.
  • Commit to learning, not debating. Comment in order to share information, not to persuade.
  • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Allow everyone the chance to speak.
  • Avoid assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.
  • Be courteous. Don’t interrupt or engage in private conversations while others are speaking. Use attentive, courteous body language.
  • Support your statements. Use evidence and provide a rationale for your points.
  • Share responsibility for including all voices in the discussion.  If you have much to say, try to hold back a bit; if you are hesitant to speak, look for opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
  • Recognize that we are all still learning. Be willing to change your perspective, and make space for others to do the same.
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