Textbooks and Teaching
This Web site serves as a companion to the “Textbooks and Teaching” section published each year by the Journal of American History. Here you may find syllabi and other supplemental material from authors who participated in “Textbooks and Teaching,” as well as the full text of the print articles.
Online education is a booming industry, with an array of vendors promising that their technological tools will solve many problems facing higher education. Declining enrollment? Online courses provide access to higher education for students who live too far away to commute but who cannot afford to live on campus. Falling retention rates? Online courses can reach students whose family and work circumstances have made it inconvenient for them to be on campus regularly and who have had to drop out as a result. Need more flexibility for students studying abroad or interning, or for those who simply enjoy learning in the digital world? Online is the solution. Such calls for online history courses are only the latest chapter in a longer story of how technology transforms the way we teach history. Not long ago faculty were urged to transform lectures into PowerPoint slides with images and Web links. Few history faculty members or departments remain untouched by the growing push for infusing technology into courses and for developing online courses and degrees.
Debates over what belongs in U.S. history textbooks have long reflected conflicts over whose stories belong at the center of the national narrative. Especially for K–12 textbooks, those conflicts have mirrored concerns about the cultural and political cultivation of young citizens. Ideas about inclusion or omission carried “the significant undertone of what sorts of social, cultural, religious, and political implications this would have on students.”
“Town and gown”: the phrase typically evokes distinct communities in shared or contiguous space. Since the medieval origins of the university, these communities have often existed in tension, typically surrounding the different sorts of economic, social, and cultural capital they represent. Today, virtually every college and university exists within a community with histories of its own and organizations devoted to preserving and telling those histories. Public historians have long been accustomed to recovering and telling these stories: sometimes from within the academy, where they teach in departments of history, but more often through historical museums, archives, and other institutions that connect a broader audience to the local past. However, the gap between academic and public history is narrower than we might think—because our students have their own connections to the places where we study and teach, especially if they attend college not far from where they have spent most of their lives. Our students’ experiences afford opportunities to bridge the town-gown divide.
“Think like historians”: the phrase describes an objective of many college history curricula in an academic world where “learning outcomes” often begin with the acronym SWBAT (“Students Will Be Able To”). But what does “think like a historian” mean, and at which points in the curriculum do students encounter it most explicitly? As Lendol Calder has argued, the first-year survey course affords an opportunity for “uncoverage,” where we can “expose the very things hidden away by traditional survey instruction: the linchpin ideas of historical inquiry that are not obvious or easily comprehended; the inquiries, arguments, assumptions, and points of view that make knowledge what it is for practitioners of our discipline; the cognitive contours of history as an epistemological domain.” Commentators on collegiate history education and practitioners of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) have devoted frequent attention to the survey, perhaps because it is our moment of first contact with the greatest number of students unfamiliar with our practice. Other key moments in a history curriculum have received less systematic scrutiny, although they are no less significant in the intellectual trajectories of students who select history as their major or minor.
Over the past decade, the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) has encouraged historians to scrutinize our teaching with the same rigor that we apply to our research. Unlike top-down, administratively driven models of assessment, SoTL emphasizes discipline specific approaches to evaluating and reimagining our pedagogical objectives and practices. What do we wish students to accomplish in a history course, or in a history major? With what questions and tools can we measure that accomplishment and thereby evaluate the effectiveness of our teaching? Ultimately, how can we close the loop: refine or redefine our practice to achieve the objectives we have articulated?
Teaching American history outside the United States poses a special set of challenges but can also create unique thematic and pedagogic opportunities. In this section of “Textbooks and Teaching,” instructors in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, and the Middle East share their personal experiences with teaching U.S. history abroad, illustrating some of the instructional obstacles they faced and explaining how they took advantage of often–unexpected educational moments.
Reimagining the history curriculum, rather than merely clearing away “dead” courses and updating descriptions of “living” ones, requires significant collective endeavor across fields and periods of specialization. But as this section of “Textbooks and Teaching” suggests, the endeavor can pay rich dividends for departmental culture as well as student learning.
Who are our students, and what and how do they think about history? Analyzing what we do as teachers and why we do it might usefully begin with understanding what our students bring to the history classroom. What do our students imagine when they consider the American past, or the study of history more broadly? And how might we answer those questions as historians, applying to teaching the same sorts of analysis that we bring to our historical scholarship? This section offers three attempts to address those challenges.
What happens when we make a group other than straight, white, Euro–Americans the primary focus of a survey? What is the result when we move the distinctive histories of African Americans, Latinos/as, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Lesbian/Gay people from margin to center? How does such teaching change our perspective on the relationship of previously underrepresented groups to our national narratives?
How do we teach American history? And what do our students learn? In the 2006 “Textbooks and Teaching” section, historians present reports from the field, exploring what happens when historians self–consciously study their classroom practices.
“The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth”: Writing, Producing, and Using College–Level American History Textbooks
The 2005 “Textbooks and Teaching” section examines how college American history textbooks are written, produced, and used.
The 2004 “Textbooks and Teaching” section discusses the role of testing in the teaching and learning American history. The editors solicited articles from three prominent scholars of trends in American education, each with experience bridging the academic and policy–making realms in contemporary debates over curricular content and pedagogy.
The 2003 “Textbook and Teaching” essays address the question of how best to employ digital technology in the service of teaching college–level American history.
The 2002 “Textbooks and Teaching” section examines efforts to expand the teaching of college–level history courses beyond traditional classroom formats and boundaries. K–12 social studies classes have long included excursions to local museums and historical sites to help make history “come alive” for younger students. What is happening at colleges and universities to deepen students’ appreciation of, and connection to, the past? What are the best practices in modes of teaching history that move us “outside the box”?
Teaching the American History Survey at the Opening of the Twenty–First Century: A Round Table Discussion
In 2001, “Textbooks and Teaching” focuses on the teaching of the American history survey, the task that probably has the broadest impact of any professional service regularly performed by readers of the Journal. The contributing editors for “Textbooks and Teaching” hosted a “virtual round table” using e–mail and an electronic listserv as the modes of communication. Over the course of five weeks, eleven participants exchanged views on the means and ends of teaching the survey.