Academic Skills, history, Pedagogy, teaching

Meshing “Standard” Coverage with Current Events

Seal of the President of the United States

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I’m in the midst of my first full year teaching the U.S. History survey course to a class of Juniors, which has been a fun, challenging, and intellectually stimulating experience. I’ve found a ton of good resources online (in particular see my tags on Diigo for American History and U.S. History [yes, I know, what absurd redundant titling!]) and have tried some new approaches and emphasized writing and argumentation a lot.

I’ve also been discovering what secondary and tertiary sources work well and which do not. This has meant at times that our class progression through the material is pretty linear as I learn what themes, trends, patterns, and historiographical interpretations I want to prioritize and emphasize to my students for the various different events and eras we cover. Of course, these discoveries will benefit my teaching of future classes more than the present (sorry current students 😦 [none of whom, I think, are reading this]).

At present we’re working through the post-Civil War settlement of the West and the simultaneous industrialization of the United States. This era isn’t not my personal research forte, so I’m learning a lot as we go along, but at times feel hamstrung by not knowing what precise resources, more concise readings, or how much time I should be devoting to these topics.

Today this challenge came up as I wanted to take advantage of the big national event that will bump many people’s preferred sitcoms, and assigned my classes to watch the State of the Union address. Not knowing the precise contents of the speech ahead of time, it was hard for me to anticipate ways in which I could connect the President’s message with what we’re learning about, say, the models of vertical and horizontal integration that Carnegie and Rockefeller used to build their monopolies. So, I’m left with the result of what is likely to be a less than seamless (a seamful? a seam-laden? Certainly not a seamy!) transition from the past to the present and back.

In any event, here’s a few of the State of the Union related things I plan to look at and discuss with my classes:

1) The Wordle of the speech

2) Robert Lehrman’s Christian Science Monitor article on the history of State of the Union Addresses.

3) The Christian Science Monitor quiz about State of the Unions.

Ideally, I’d like to find more ways to maintain frequent connections between the historical subject matter we study and contemporary events. I personally like to think about changing historiography and the influence of contemporary events on shaping our perception and interpretation of the past. However, finding good, clear, easily intelligible examples of historiographical overviews is a challenge (which could be solved, of course, if someone has a great cache of them sitting around. If that’s the case, please let me know!).

Thinking about this bouncing back-and-forth also makes me consider the practicality of teaching a broad survey course backwards — beginning with the contemporary themes, conflicts, and issues of the present day and then tracing those themes back and exploring their manifestations in earlier decades and centuries. Has anyone tried this or heard from others who have? What techniques and approaches worked? What types of resources (e.g. articles, textbooks, secondary source chapters, etc.) proved most useful?

In the meantime, I’ll see how many industrialization, changing economic realities, and role and scope of government concerns we can bring up that fuse Obama‘s remarks with our current reading, as I continue to contemplate the ideal way(s) to successfully blend the more traditional “march through time” approach with an emphasis on the contemporary world.

NB: Thanks to whoever suggested my blog for inclusion on the History News Network blogroll. I’m down there in the K-12 section. I appreciate the thought!

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2 thoughts on “Meshing “Standard” Coverage with Current Events

  1. Pingback: Teaching Carnival 4.6 - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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