Journal of American History

“Pivoting the Center”: Diverse Surveys of American History

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser

Contributing Editors, Textbooks and Teaching

In 2001, in our first endeavor as editors of the “Textbooks and Teaching” section, we focused on the foundational course in our field, the American history survey. In a “virtual round table,” scholars from all over the United States, representing different generations and situated at a wide array of institutions, discussed the pedagogical strategies they used and themes they emphasized in the course.1 As they grappled with the place of political, social, economic, and cultural history in their surveys and reflected on the issues of audiences and course objectives, they consistently affirmed their intentions to make the American history survey at the opening of the twenty-first century implicitly, if not explicitly, multicultural. While often eschewing the word itself, they deliberately constructed their offerings in ways that addressed the diverse populations that constitute “the American nation.”

Now at the end of our term as editors, we return to thinking about the teaching of American history surveys, intentionally plural here, for this time we begin not with the emphasis on unum but on e pluribus. 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?

We asked five scholars to reflect on their experiences teaching those kinds of surveys. We wanted to know about their goals for their courses and how their courses “work”—periodization, pedagogy, audiences, and assignments. The results follow. In their essays, our contributors underscore the dynamism of the scholarship in their fields, as well as the challenge of synthesizing new research for presentation to undergraduates. Many enlist students in the project of creating new knowledge in their fields, encouraging oral histories and document-driven research projects. Our authors reflect on the choices they make about enrollment targets and about negotiating issues of authenticity and identity in the classroom. They also cite the impact of institutional context on how they teach about the history of race, class, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. They are unafraid to connect past and present.

Our authors illuminate the relationship of their courses to other offerings in American history at their institutions, demonstrating how, “by pivoting the center . . . new themes, approaches and questions become visible.”2 From their various perspectives, our contributors demonstrate how their efforts in the classroom have the potential to reshape the terrain of history teaching—and of historical scholarship. They suggest how their surveys might transform conventional approaches to teaching American history, changing themes, periodization, and subjects, and re-centering our understanding of the meaning of “nation” and of our collective past.

Ned Blackhawk discusses his experience teaching “Introduction to North American Indian History,” a one-semester survey at the University of Wisconsin. Allison Dorsey writes about the goals and methods of her two-semester sequence, “African American History,” that she teaches at Swarthmore College. Scott Kurashige explains how and why he teaches “History of Asian Americans in the U.S.,” a one-semester course at the University of Michigan. Pablo Mitchell reflects upon his experience teaching a one-semester Latina/Latino history survey at Oberlin College. Nancy C. Unger of Santa Clara University discusses her one-quarter course “Gays/Lesbians in U.S. History.”

We are confident that readers of the Journal of American History will find these “field reports” distinctive and stimulating contributions to ongoing conversations about teaching American history to undergraduates in the early twenty-first century.

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser are professors of history at Oberlin College.

Readers may contact him at gary.kornblith at oberlin dot edu and her at carol.lasser at oberlin dot edu.

1 Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser, eds., “Teaching the American History Survey at the Opening of the Twenty-First Century: A Round Table Discussion,” Journal of American History, 87 (March 2001), 1409–41.

2 Patricia Hill Collins, “Gender, Black Feminism, and Black Political Economy,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 568 (March 2000), 543. For another work that uses the concept of “pivoting the center,” see Bettina Aptheker, Tapestries of Life: Women’s Work, Women’s Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (Amherst, 1989), esp. 12, 20. For an even earlier use of the notion, see Benjamin Brawley, Social History of the American Negro, Being a History of the Negro Problem in the United States, Including a History and Study of the Republic of Liberia (New York, 1921). See also Earl Lewis, “To Turn as on a Pivot: Writing African Americans into a History of Overlapping Diasporas,” American Historical Review, 100 (June 1995), 765–87.

This article is reprinted from The Journal of American History 93 (March 2007), 1171–77.

© Copyright Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved.


Diverse Surveys in American History


Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser