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Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

A Modest Proposal:
Less (Authority) Is More (Learning)

Michael Zuckerman

It is easy to denounce the lecture format. It is not so easy to dismantle it or to give it up.

Lecturing to hundreds of very smart young people is a heady experience. I talk, they duly note what I say. I stand in the spotlight, they sit in the shadows. I dazzle, they defer to my brilliance. It is gratifying. I like adulation as much as the next guy.

But the lecture does not do nearly as much for my students as it does for me. It keeps them from an active, participatory engagement in their own education. And by my lights it does not do anything desirable for society, either. It confirms my students in their understanding of themselves as consumers and of their society as founded upon the star system.

I have always been aware that I have more than enough control of my classes. I have always experimented with ways of sharing that control with my students. I am under no illusion that I can abdicate authority. If nothing else, I still assign the grades at the end of the semester. But I have become more and more convinced that I can give some of my control away and still have enough left and that I can give my students a lot more voice in their own education when I do.

About a dozen years ago, I instituted my first major change. In all my alleged lecture courses at the University of Pennsylvania--courses with enrollments of a dozen, or twenty-five, or forty students--I began dividing the class into groups of three or four or five, making each of those groups responsible for the conduct of an entire class session. I arrange the syllabus so that we discuss a set of readings every week. The group conducts the discussion on Tuesday, and I respond to the group's presentation on Thursday. I try to tie things together or take things apart. I add to or subtract from what the group said and what the class said.

I emphasize to the students that they are welcome to present the texts as inventively and vivifyingly as they can. Still, they always astound me. When I began, I thought they might stage debates or role-plays. Over the years, they have concocted multimedia extravaganzas, composed and performed original music, created their own videos, taken the class on location, staged sound-and-light shows, conducted polls, performed costume dramas, had the class fingerpainting, mounted parodies, prepared food, invited confessions, and much else.

The exuberance and daring that my students display is just a part of the pleasure and the power of the group presentations. There is more.

In my classes, students see their fellow students create interpretive matrices richer and denser than their professor does. They come to respect one another's intelligence in the formal setting of the classroom as they already do in the informal settings of college life. And there is more.

Pretty consistently, students prepare more conscientiously for class--and participate more thoughtfully in it--when the groups teach than when I do. They know that the group counts upon them to be responsive, whereas they assume that I will manage even if they are not. They know too that one day they will be part of the group and depend on the others. And there is more.

Several times a semester, students complain wistfully that the class they conducted was anticlimactic. Such students do not lament that the class went badly. They lament that it went so swiftly and that there was so much still to say. In an hour and a half, it was over. These are students in groups that truly caught fire. They grew accustomed to long hours of intense disputation with one another as they prepared their presentation. Only after it was done did they realize how much more they had learned in preparing than in performing, and from one another in the wee hours of the morning than from me the following Thursday. And there is more.

The authority that a group holds for that hour and a half on Tuesday lasts at least a semester, if not longer. I know because I read my students' final papers. Routinely, those papers embrace, or play with, conceptions that the student presentations set forth and that I thought I had refuted. In a democracy, I think it may matter that several of them said it while only I said nay. In a meritocracy, I think it may matter that they often said it in a more dramatic and vibrant way than I said nay. And in the forum for free thought that I fantasize I create, it may be that the mere fact of multivocality fosters freer thought. Think of Solomon Asch's experiments on conformity.1 If all of the experimenter's accomplices say that a shorter line matches the standard one, a large percentage of the true subjects of the experiment do too. But if just one of the accomplices chooses the true match, virtually every single true subject does too. It is possible that, sometimes, I truly think the shorter line the true match. It is possible that my teaching groups enable my students to say that, however ingeniously I argued otherwise, the shorter line is shorter. When authority is pluralized, the range of permissible truth on student papers is extended too.

But all of this is just a start. It gets students into the classroom as teachers. It does not get the class out of the classroom itself. Community service does that.

About a half-dozen years ago, I instituted my second major change. I began sending the students in my course in American national character into the schools of West Philadelphia. We still meet for an hour and a half every Tuesday and Thursday. But now they spend an hour or two--or three or four--working in the community each week as well.2

The specific arrangements change every year. The informing purpose remains constant. I get the students out of the cocoon of the university and out of my control.

On Tuesdays as well as Thursdays, I set the agenda. I choose the readings; I decide the framework that the readings elaborate; I have a heavy hand--on Thursdays--in the subjects we discuss and the turns our discussion takes.

In the city schools, I determine none of this and influence almost none. The students go according to their own schedule, not mine or our common one. They generally work with different teachers, and they almost always work with different students.

I do not even set my students their initial assignments for the community work. I confess that I have tried to do it and that I still think it would be grand if they were all engaged in a common endeavor. Every year, my Penn-based collaborator, the schoolteachers, and I come up with something: school-to-work, or the mayoral campaign, or the new journalism charter. And every year, most of my students opt out. They find other assignments they prefer to the ones we have devised, sometimes even at other schools than the one in which we are working.

More than that, my students inevitably come at their diverse community assignments with diverse attitudes. Some of them do as their teachers tell them to. Others do as their ingenuity invites. They have organized an elementary school co-ed soccer team so successful that it inspired the creation of an entire league. They have instigated a school newspaper so successful that it became a community newspaper. They have created a "girl talk" program so successful that it spread to other high schools. They have formed jazz clubs, taught neighborhood history classes, and started an after-school gardening program that now sells its harvests to local restaurants.

Whether they innovate or just help out, they confront their own problems and venture their own solutions. We do devote a part of class each week to talking about the challenges they face, but I do not lead, and generally do not even intervene in, those discussions.

Students from University City High School sell their produce at the Powelton Farmers' Market at Drew Elementary School in West Philadelphia

Students from University City High School sell their produce at the Powelton Farmers' Market at Drew Elementary School in West Philadelphia. UCHS senior Charles Martin finds that Bright Lights chard can sell for $3 a bag. Photograph by Danny Gerber.


A student "teaching assistant" presides over them. Each year, I ask a student who took the class the year before to coordinate community service. She and I speak often, both before and during the course, but I assure her that she is to treat the community service component as a course within the course and that that course is hers, not mine. My assistants have initiated routines of journal keeping, journal sharing, and weekly e-mail postings for the students. It is, I think, a measure of their triumph that, in their e-mailings as in our class discussions, students soon stop speaking to the assistant and speak directly to one another.

The real point of the community service work, beyond the service itself, is to authorize the students. For the final paper for the course, I ask them to synthesize the reading that we do on contemporary West Philadelphia and their own experience of the neighborhood. I ask that they treat the two sources of information and ideas as coordinate and that they recognize the primacy of their own expertise in their fieldwork.

And they do. Again and again in their papers, they ponder the implications of their experience for the books that they have read. Sometimes they argue that, in the slice of life they have observed, things are not as bad as some of our authors allege. Sometimes they argue that things are even worse. And sometimes they get past that polarity and argue more ingeniously. But always they are empowered to argue with what they have read. They do not depend passively or reactively on Jonathan Kozol or Elijah Anderson, John Wideman or Carl Nightingale.3 They have had an immersion of their own in a life that had, before, been alien to their experience. They have needs of their own to make sense of that experience.

Students from the University of Pennsylvania cultivate eggplants with students in the Urban Nutrition Initiative Summer Camp at Drew Elementary School in West Philadelphia

Students from the University of Pennsylvania cultivate eggplants with students in the Urban Nutrition Initiative Summer Camp at Drew Elementary School in West Philadelphia. Photograph by Danny Gerber.


Of course, I do eventually get to set some of my own views before them. I do get those four Thursdays over the last third of the course. But by the time I begin, they have been in their schools for a couple of months. I try not to preach at them when we get to that concluding segment on contemporary America. But even if I fail, they have had the better part of the course to figure out where they stand before I even begin speaking to their immediate experiences.

Some months ago, David Brooks caused a stir with a piece in the Atlantic Monthly on "The Organization Child." Like William Whyte half a century before, Brooks hung out with his subjects--in this case, students at Princeton University--and observed them sharply. He found a lot to like in those young people, or at least a lot to admire. But he also found that, to them,

the world they live in seems fundamentally just. If you work hard, behave pleasantly . . . you will be rewarded with a wonderful ascent in the social hierarchy. . . . There is a fundamental order to the universe, and it works. If you play by its rules and defer to its requirements, you will lead a pretty fantastic life.4

My University of Pennsylvania students come from the same elite families in the same elite suburbs that Brooks's Princetonians do. They went to the same elite high schools, and they will go to the same elite law schools and ultimately join the same elite firms.

But very few of my students come out of History 443 believing that the world is "fundamentally just." Scarcely a one deludes himself about his "wonderful ascent in the social hierarchy." More than a few come out tormented by the disparity between their prospect of "a pretty fantastic life" and the bleak outlook of the students at West Philadelphia High School. Nearly all come soberingly to see that they are where they are by an accident of birth. If they read Brooks, nearly all would reach the disturbing realization that he is wrong on one crucial thing. They are not ascending the social hierarchy. They will--if they are good enough and lucky enough--do no more than maintain their parents' position. But for the grace of their privileged birth, they would not be at Penn. Had they been born black and poor, they too would have gone to West Philly and not much further.

I do not teach my students any of that. They learn it by themselves, for themselves.

Michael Zuckerman is professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Readers may contact Zuckerman at <>.

1 Solomon Asch, Studies of Independence and Conformity (Washington, 1956).

2 Michael Zuckerman, "The Turnerian Frontier: A New Approach to the Study of the American Character," in Connecting Past and Present: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in History, ed. Ira Harkavy and Bill M. Donovan (Washington, 2000), 183-202.

3 Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools (New York, 1991); Elijah Anderson, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (New York, 1999); John Wideman, Philadelphia Fire (New York, 1990); Carl Nightingale, On the Edge: A History of Poor Black Children and Their American Dreams (New York, 1993). For some specification of the sorts of things my students write, see Zuckerman, "Turn­erian Frontier."

4 David Brooks, "The Organization Child," Atlantic Monthly, 287 (April 2001), 40-54, esp. 50. William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York, 1956).