Thoughts on teaching the US History survey for the first time

A year ago, when UH-Downtown first offered me a position in its adjunct pool, we had agreed that I would be teaching World History (I may be a Europeanist, I may have more experience teaching (and taking) Western Civ, but let’s be honest, World History should be the primary survey-level history course at the tertiary level of education*). However, when I walked into David Ryden’s office on July 2nd (at the time, David was in charge of scheduling adjuncts for the department), he informed me that he’d also penciled me in to teach a section of the second half of the US History survey.

Naturally, as an adjunct, I don’t turn down people looking to double my income, so I agreed to that, even though I hadn’t taken a US History course (survey or upper-level) since my senior year of HS–and while I appreciate Marjorie Pessel now, having just come back from my exchange semester in Germany, I only cared enough about that class to get a 5 on the AP US History exam, which I did without putting forward a ton of effort or paying much attention.**

That 5, of course, tested me out of the entire year of US survey courses at OU, and as a history major, I skated through my US requirements at the 300 level with Diplomatic History since 1945 (taught by Norm Goda, a German historian) and History of Ohio 1851-present (actually a really bad idea, for reasons I won’t get into). Those were both in 2000, so I showed up at UH-D without having a single bit of formal US history training in more than a decade.

I knew that I could handle the 20th century really well (there was enough crossover after 1918 that I could spend a day a week talking about the US and the rest of the world, which I did), but I leaned pretty heavily on a few books to get me through the domestic stuff. In particular, Paul Boyer’s AVSI to American History (anyone who’s seen my bookshelf knows how much I love VSIs, with 25 volumes in hard copy, plus another ten or fifteen on Kindle) and Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation were absolutely vital, with Thomas Bender’s A Nation Among Nations and Erich Rauchway’s Blessed Among Nations helping to connect my World History knowledge with the United States. I read those, along with the UH-D required textbook (Visions of America) over about a 4-week period in July and August, and worked out a general plan for the course (aided by liberal doses from the Mental Floss History of the United States, which was how I kept my lectures interesting).

Now, those with whom I’ve discussed pedagogy know that I hate giving students textbooks–which is a problem when the department required Visions of America. VoA isn’t a bad book, per se, and it would be a great choice if it were $20–but as far as I’m concerned it’s a crime to make students who are working to make ends meet purchase a $100 textbook that doesn’t have 4 $20 bills tucked inside at critical junctures in American History.*** My course, as always, however, was going to be document-based, and finding a reader was a pain too. I had the hardest time getting exam copies in the 3 weeks between being assigned the course and having to submit my booklist to the bookstore.

In the end, I went with WW Norton’s For the Record. But for the record, while FtR isn’t a bad readings book (oddly arranged), Norton never sent me either an exam copy or a desk copy, even though I requested one three times. I ended up buying my own copy of the book in the bookstore.**** That, along with the existence of a previous edition that students kept buying made me want to change books for the spring semester, so I switched over to Oxford’s Reading American Horizons. RAH was much better, for the most part: the price is right, readings are shorter excerpts, and it had most of the readings I wanted, although it also had some weird choices (and the quality of readings really declined toward the end of the book–memo to OUP, no student in 2014 cares what The Economist thought about the Clinton impeachment, and when you’ve included really good excerpts of speeches by nearly every president of the 20th century, omitting the two elected in the 21st seems questionable). As with world history, though, until I have the time to create my own readings book, I’d probably go with RAH again (unless something better comes out, and the published deigns to send me a copy).

That said, both courses went really well–as my wife will tell you, I worked harder during the fall semester than she’d ever seen me work (that includes the dissertation, BTW) writing the initial set of lectures. Those sufficed in the spring, with minor revisions to take the new readings book into account. As with my previous courses on world history and western civ, I organized the course around several big questions:

  • What is the United States, who is an American, and who makes those decisions?
  • How should American society be organized?
  • What is the role of the United States in the wider world?

As I told my students, you can take just about any document in the reader and find that it answers (if obliquely) one or more of those questions. That’s pretty much what I asked them to do on their essay exams, too. I prefer what you might call a quasi-flipped classroom, with short intro and closing lectures along with a group and class discussion period in the middle, often focused on comparing viewpoints in the documents, and I thought that worked really well (I had several students who also really liked this style, and made sure to tell me that–we’ll see what the evals say).

That worked, as did the readers, as did the general approach–I got through the material, I never felt completely overwhelmed in class, and the students all learned something. I may have leaned a bit too heavily on my comfort zones, foreign policy and immigration, but on the latter, more than half of my students were Hispanic or Asian, so I think that’s defensible. There are a few things I wish I covered a bit more: I’m not much of a high-politics guy (elections are boring) so I glossed over those, while labor history, while I think it’s important, never quite fit in. Art, culture, literature were all completely MIA; in a survey course the other stuff is just a bit more important. If I’d had one more day, I probably would have gone deeper into civil rights; in a semester running from 1877 to the present, the ’50s run pretty quickly into the ’70s.

Overall, it was a good experience. I enjoyed teaching the material, I enjoyed the students, I thought they learned something (we’ll see on the finals). However, if I never again get the chance to teach the US survey, I can’t say I’ll be that disappointed.


*It should also be a 3 or 4 semester sequence, but that’s another argument.

**A little-known fact about the AP exams–skills are more important than content, and writing is way more important than any other skill, and you can’t cram writing. There’s a really good reason that SHHS students score a ton of 5s, too. Arguably, speed is more important than skills on standardized tests too, but that’s also debatable.

***Yet another argument: which four moments in American History are so important for students to understand that we would pay them $20 to read that section of the textbook?

****You want to really p*** off an adjunct? Make them buy their books at bookstore prices. Desk copies are just about the only perk of this job (well, that and the hours), and if you can’t even provide that, you’re going to get yourself boycotted. I’ll probably go back to considering WW Norton books sometime around, oh, 2018 or so.

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