Teaching the American History Survey at the Opening of the Twenty-First Century: A Round Table Discussion
Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser
Contributing Editors, Textbooks and Teaching
In our inaugural foray as editors of the "Textbooks and Teaching" section, we focus 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 this journal. Last summer we hosted a "virtual round table" using e-mail and an electronic listserv as our modes of communication. Over the course of five weeks, eleven participants exchanged views on the means and ends of teaching the survey. What follows is a condensed and consolidated version of this provocative on-line conversation.
The participants included junior and senior scholars who teach at a variety of colleges and universities spread across the country:
Charles W. Eagles is professor of history at the
University of Mississippi at Oxford, where he has taught since 1983.
A historian of southern race relations and the civil rights movement,
he earned his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina. His latest
book is Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement
Douglas R. Egerton is professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. He did his graduate work at Georgetown University, and he writes mainly on African American history. He is the author, most recently, of He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey.2
Karl Jacoby is an assistant professor at Brown University. An environmental historian who received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1997, he has just published his first book, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation.3
Pauline Maier is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She earned her Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1968 and has written widely on the causes and consequences of the American Revolution. Her most recent book is American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.4
Elisabeth Israels Perry originally trained at
the University of California at Los Angeles as a European historian
but now specializes in American women's lives and politics in the
Progressive Era. She is the author of, among other works, Belle
Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age
of Alfred E. Smith.5 She and
Lewis Perry together hold the John Francis Bannon Chair at St. Louis
Lewis Perry received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1967, and he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Indiana University, Bloomington, and Vanderbilt University before joining the St. Louis University faculty in 1999. His most recent book is Boats against the Current: American Culture between Revolution and Modernity.6
Joshua A. Piker also did his graduate work at
Cornell, earning his Ph.D. in 1998. He is an assistant professor
at the University of Oklahoma and a specialist in Native American
history. His research focuses on the Creek town of Oakfuskee, located
in what is now Alabama, during the eighteenth century.
Douglas C. Sackman is an assistant professor at
the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. He received
his Ph.D. from the University of California at Irvine in 1997, and
from 1998 through 2000 he taught at Oberlin College. He is writing
a cultural and environmental history of California from the 1860s
through the 1930s, centered on the citrus industry.
Virginia Scharff earned her Ph.D. at the University
of Arizona in 1987 and has taught for the last ten years at the
University of New Mexico. She writes fiction as well as history
and last year published her first novel, Brown-Eyed Girl,
under the pen name Virginia Swift. Her next scholarly book will
be Twenty Thousand Roads: Women's Movements and the West.7
William B. Scott is professor of history at Kenyon
College in Gambier, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in 1973 from the
University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he trained as an intellectual
and cultural historian. His books include, most recently, New
York Modern: The Arts and the City, coauthored with Peter M.
Maris A. Vinovskis has taught at the University
of Michigan at Ann Arbor since 1974. He did his graduate work at
Harvard University and has written numerous studies on colonial
and nineteenth-century America. His latest book is History and
The round table begins with an exploration of the participants'
main goals in teaching the American history survey to today's undergraduates.
While the participants acknowledge that comprehensive coverage is
impossible, their comments reveal important differences in priorities,
which range from teaching reading and writing skills and conveying
essential content to introducing students to the problems of historical
interpretation and instilling a passion for the discipline.
The second part of the discussion focuses on the structure and organization of the survey. The participants debate the centrality of politics as an organizing theme. Several advocate widening the definition of politics to encompass the struggles of groups long excluded from citizenship and governmental power. Although many express reluctance to advertise their approach as multicultural for fear of alienating their audience, all of the participants embrace an inclusive notion of who constituted the American people over time.
In the third and final part of the round table, the participants discuss pedagogical strategies. Many identify informal constraints on how they teach the survey, including student resistance to heavy reading assignments and competing pressures on students' time. Not surprisingly, class size proves to be a major factor in determining the mode of instruction, especially in influencing participants' reliance on stand-up lectures and student discussions. The utility of educational technology emerges as a point of controversy. Yet despite noteworthy differences everyone agrees that teaching the survey remains a critical mission for professional historians dedicated to educating the rising generation of college students.
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W. Eagles, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights
Movement in Alabama (Chapel Hill, 1993).
R. Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey
Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves,
and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley,
Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
(New York, 1997).
Israels Perry, Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise
of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith (New York, 1987).
Perry, Boats against the Current: American Culture between
Revolution and Modernity (New York, 1993).
Swift, Brown-Eyed Girl (New York, 2000); Virginia Scharff,
Twenty Thousand Roads: Women's Movements and the West (forthcoming,
B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff, New York Modern: The Arts and
the City (Baltimore, 1999).
A. Vinovskis, History and Educational Policymaking (New
The syllabi posted here are intended as a supplement to the
round table. The Journal of American History has neither
reviewed nor edited the content of these syllabi. They have, however,
been reformatted for display on the Web.