At the U.S. Intellectual History Conference a couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with Jonathan Scott Holloway and Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen on teaching U.S. intellectual history so I thought I would share some of their insights and a few of my own approaches.
I spoke first and focused on two aspects–how I approach the class differently when teaching it at different levels in the curriculum, and practical considerations that inform my teaching. When offering the course as an upper-level one in the history department I take a fairly traditional approach, using David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s American Intellectual Tradition, along with a couple monographs. The students wrote book reviews and one textual analysis paper on Paul Finkelman’s book Defending Slavery. Nearly every class session was roughly half lecture and half discussion and my goals were to reinforce the reading and writing skills students would have started to learn in our introduction to historical research class while also pushing them to become more effective communicators of their ideas in class discussion.
I have also offered the class as a general education one that consisted of students at all levels. This was a large lecture course with 110 students, as opposed to the 30 I had the first time around, and it consisted of only 1 history major. I assumed this would be the case going in so decided not to use Hollinger and Capper and to jettison the monographs in favor of a couple Bedford primary source editions on creating an American culture, manifest destiny, and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. We had many fewer discussions but those we did have focused largely on developing their skills at identifying arguments, reading critically, considering the many ways that ideas manifest themselves in society, and discerning how social context influences intellectual life.
Jonathan Scott Holloway had offered a graduate seminar on African American intellectual history from the WWII era to the present. He chose to go with an extremely spare syllabus that just contained the readings for the week. Instead of including supplemental readings he had the students leading the discussion come up with those and they often chose something out of the box like paring Langston Hughes’ poetry with St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis, a social scientific study of black life in Chicago. With this approach the students themselves have an active role in building the syllabus out from his bare bones model.
In Holloway’s graduate course, all the readings are primary sources, while Ratner-Rosenhagen takes the opposite approach, focusing on the literature of the field. She recommends a Quaker-style discussion format where everyone sits silently until moved to talk. This can make for an awkward discussion or two at the beginning of the semester but produces great discussions where students speak more to each other than to her.
Ratner-Rosenhagen has some very useful assignments. The first is having grad students do an annotated syllabus instead of an historiographical essay. In this they explain why they chose certain readings and assignments, and their syllabus has to be related to their research interests. She noted that many students end up coming to a dissertation project through this exercise. Another interesting assignment was a project where students build their own institution–a John Dewey gas station, or a Jane Addams lending library–for example. Here the goal is to get students to understand that ideas are all around them and are not just natural. And lastly, she mentioned having undergraduates write an NPR transcript of a conversation with a particular thinker, which helps students channel voice and learn the ideas more efficiently. This last assignment also has the benefits of helping you get to know your students better than you can with more traditional essays.