Academic Skills, history, Presentations, Research, teaching

Trans-historical Comparison Assignments: Great, or the Greatest?

Great Depression: man dressed in worn coat lyi...

Great Depression: man dressed in worn coat lying down on pier, New York City docks, or "how my students might feel after completing this assignment and explaining their complex comparison in the course of five minutes." - Image via Wikipedia

In my U.S. History classes we’ve finished up the era of imperialism and WWI, and are now moving into the 1920s and building toward the Great Depression and the New Deal.

As this is the first time I’ve taught through a U.S. History survey, there’s a lot I’m learning as I progress through each era and try out different types of assignments. One type of investigation and analysis I’d like to have my students do more of is working to understand how contemporary patterns, trends, and dynamics developed in and transformed from earlier eras. So, as I’m moving into this next topic, I thought it’d be an ideal time to work to get the students to explore the links between these present-day phenomena and parallel phenomena that occurred earlier in U.S. history.

To accomplish this goal, I set up a comparative (a trans-historical comparison, no less, the merits and perils of which I suppose we could discuss as well) assignment that gets the students to investigate certain themes and topics from the 1920s and then explore how those are similar to and different from the developments of the past decade. In framing this assignment, I’ve used economic downturns (Stock Market crash and the Great Depression vs. the “Great Recession“) as the focal points of the comparison.

As with any trans-historical comparison (or I suppose any comparison in general, but I don’t want to get to methodologically wonky here, which I probably just did by writing the words “methodologically wonky”), there’s the risk of fitting proverbial square pegs into round holes and seeing events and patterns from a past period as being similar to current developments. However, my goals with this assignment center less on the precision of the comparison, but are more about getting the students to employ their research skills, hone their presentation skills, and gain a fuller understanding of the contemporary history of the past decade.

In order to avoid re-writing the whole assignment sheet in this intro, I’ll cut myself short and go ahead and post the assignment I distributed to my students today:

The Roaring ‘20s and the Boom Years of the 2000s (or aughts, or whatever)

Purpose:The goal of this assignment is both to get us to understand the major developments, dynamics, trends, and events of the post-WWI period in the United States, and also to help us think comparatively.

This assignment frames our study of the 1920s as a narrative progressing to the 1929 Stock Market crash and subsequent Great Depression. However, beyond simply studying these events as constrained just to the 1920s, we’ll also be working on our skills of using the comparative method and thinking transhistorically by considering in what ways these early-20th century developments have parallels to the major developments, dynamics, trends, and events of the past decade. In order to facilitate the comparison, we’ll be viewing the 2000s as a narrative building up to the “Great Recession” of 2008-2009, which will enable us to look as the developments of the decade in a more-or-less side-by-side way.

Finally, in terms of sharing this information with your classmates, this assignment will challenge you to become more comfortable with and well versed in oral presentation aided by meaningful images. We’ll be using a slightly modified Pecha Kucha (pronounced “Pe-chach-ka”) format to make our comparison clear. In the course of this presentation you’ll be expected to convey the important points about both decades and advance an argumentative stance about the most significant similarities and differences in terms of that category.

In completing this assignment you’ll need to draw on your skills of saliency determination, categorical identification and analysis, research for pertinent sources, “crap detection” of those sources, use of the comparative method, and argumentative development and articulation.

Topics: (please note how I have oh-so-generously provided you with the page references for the topics on the 1920s. However, you’ll have to do to meaningful research for the information about the 2000s, and of course, do the heavy-analytical-lifting on making the comparison).

  1. Xenophobia in the decade prior to the decline (pp. 561-562)
  2. Domestic intolerance, persecution, and violence (pp. 562-563)
  3. Technological innovation and quality of life in the U.S. (pp. 563-564)
  4. Changing nature of business and industry in the U.S. (pp. 564-566)
  5. Transformations in real estate and property development on a NATIONAL scale
    (pp. 566-567)
  6. LOCAL Fort Worth city development and transformations of the 1920s vs. those of the rest of the nation (pp. 566-567)
  7. Communications technology and its cultural effects and ramifications (pp. 567-569)
  8. Religious dynamics and developments (p. 570)
  9. Immigrations laws, policies, and dynamics (p. 572)
  10. Race relations, culture, and civil rights (p. 572-573)
  11. Women’s rights, their role in moral advocacy, and other cultural developments (pp. 574-576 and pp. 581-582)
  12. Economic stratification and the condition of laboring populations (pp. 576-577)
  13. Relationship and connections between big business and the federal government
    (pp. 577-579)
  14. U.S. foreign policy and international involvement (pp. 579-581)
  15. Economic decline and collapse in major markets (pp. 583-584 and 587-589)

Learning Standards: The assignment will be evaluated on the following standards. Each of these standards will be evaluated on a 1-5 scale (5=Outstanding, 4=Good, 3= Competent, 2=Approaching Competency, and 1=Unacceptable).

  1. Assignment uses and properly cites (with a Chicago Style bibliography handed in with the presentation) at least TWO contemporary, legitimate sources, ideally from reputable newspapers, journals, and the like. Moreover the bibliography also includes a citation for the textbook.
  2. Presentation accurately conveys and explains the most important concepts, dates, events, figures, and other material about the 1920s pertinent to that topic.
  3. Presentation accurately conveys and explains the most important concepts, dates, events, figures, and other material about the 2000s pertinent to that topic.
  4. Pecha Kucha presentation employs pertinent images and adheres to the 20 slides x 15 seconds/slide format.
  5. Narration to accompany Pecha Kucha presentation offers meaningful interpretation and analysis that addresses  the most significant similarities and differences in terms of that category.
  6. Narration to accompany presentation also addresses the sources of the information for the material on the 2000s, explains its validity to the comparison, analyzes the authorship of those sources to explain the credibility of those sources.
Resources:
For the material about the 2000s, I encourage you to draw on Proquest Historical New York Times (accessible through our school library webpage), Google News, and Google News Archive. Those three resources should provide you with access to solid and reputable primary sources about the events of the 2000s, meaning you can likely avoid the treachery of AskJeeves, Ask.com, and Yahoo Answers.
I should note that I built the fifteen topics listed above from Gary Nash, et al’s The American People textbook, and the list effectively follows the structure and major topic headings of the chapter. I broke it into fifteen topics as I have fifteen students. Also, the modified Pecha Kucha format to which I refer is just a slightly condensed one — instead of giving the students 20 slides with 20 seconds for each one, I’m giving them 20 slides with 15 seconds for each one. This time condensation brings the total time for each presentation down to an even five minutes, which should allow us to cover all the students in the course of two 45 minute class periods.
It’s likely that I’ll be making minor (or perhaps major) adjustments and tweaks to the assignment over the next few days, so if you want to stay tuned in to the latest goings-on (and who doesn’t?!?) you can access the Google Doc of the assignment sheet.
If anyone has experience with a similar type of assignment — either in terms of subject matter, comparative structure, or presentation style, I’d love to hear what worked and what didn’t as my students embark on their research and on assembling their presentations over the next few days.
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