Tracing the Trends in U.S. Regional History

Carl Abbott, February 1990

United States regional history as an instructional field in American colleges and universities dates to the last decade of the nineteenth century. The Johns Hopkins University reportedly offered the first university course on the history of the South in 1896. The definition of western history was contemporaneous, as a young and ambitious Frederick Jackson Turner offered the first course at the University of Wisconsin in 1895–96. Nearly a century later, regional history remains an active academic enterprise. Books on regional history have long been a specialty of leading university presses such as Yale, North Carolina, Louisiana State, Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. Journals of regional history and regional studies cover New England, the South, the Middle West, the Great Plains, the Southwest, the Northwest, and the West. Historians can attend meetings of regionally based historical organizations, participate in conferences on regional history, and read new essay collections on the history of various regions.

Despite its roots, regional history occupies an ambiguous position within the larger field of United States history. Over the last generation, the application of approaches and insights from a wide range of social sciences has revolutionized the study of United States history. Much of the intellectual excitement in the discipline has involved thematic fields such as social history, family history, or urban history and the analysis of processes such as class formation, labor force socialization, or the definition of gender roles. The usual arenas for testing hypotheses are specific localities or the nation as a whole rather than traditional multi-state regions.

As part of a larger interest in region as a category of analysis in American social science, I sent questionnaires about the teaching of regional history to 500 departments of history in U.S. colleges and universities listed in the 1987–88 edition of the American Historical Association's Guide to Departments of History. I mailed the first questionnaire in the spring of 1988, followed with a postcard reminder at two weeks, and sent a second questionnaire to nonresponding departments at five weeks. Seeking the fine line between an increased response rate and annoyed colleagues, I omitted the third follow-up recommended for standard mail survey procedure. Sixty-two percent (309) of the departments responded. The substantive results are validated by the close match between the proportions of responses from the different parts of the country and the geographical distribution of all schools in the AHA Guide.

The Prevalence of Regional History Courses

A total of 187 schools, or 60.5 percent of respondents, identified regional history offerings. Roughly one-half offer courses on a single region, another third on two regions, and the remainder on three or more.

The propensity to offer regional courses can be analyzed by institutional characteristics (Table 1). As might be expected, the likelihood increases with size and with the presence of graduate programs. Schools west of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon line and Ohio River offer regional courses with much great frequency than do schools in the national core region. Public institutions also report a much greater likelihood of offering regional history than do private colleges and universities (a difference that remains significant after controlling for size).

The most common reasons for an absence of regional courses involve scarcities of resources. Eleven departments reported dropping such courses after faculty retirements. Twenty-one referred to their small size, service role, or lack of interested faculty. Several others reported that they allocated available faculty to state history rather than regional history. Another ten departments replied that regional history is now of limited interest to the profession and prefer to examine social trends or specific groups rather than regions.

Types of Regional Courses

It is no surprise that the West (130 schools) and the South (112) are by far the most popular regions for regular course coverage. The Southwest, with its clearly identified ethnic character, distinctive landscape, and rich historiography, is the most popular subregion (26 schools). It is followed by the Pacific Northwest (13), the Great Plains (13), and New England (8). The list also includes six regions specified within an open-ended "other" category—Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Tennessee Valley, colonial Louisiana, the North Pacific, and the Sunbelt.

As might be expected, subregional courses are taught primarily in that region or its bordering states (Table 2). Western history is taught outside the West and southern history outside the South in nearly the same proportions. The high local interest in northwestern history compared with the history of the Southwest is somewhat puzzling, given the salience of current policy issues relating to the ethnic dimensions of the Southwest. It may also be surprising that only 68 percent of southern colleges and universities teach a southern history course. If the South is subdivided, the proportion increases to 75 percent for the Confederate states and drops to 41 percent for the border states.

Trends in Regional Courses

The survey elicited usable data about 432 individual courses (including multiple offerings on the same region, such as "Old South" and "New South"). To facilitate statistical testing of differences among regional categories, the courses in most cases were grouped as South, West/frontier, and other.

There is a weak relationship (significant at .12) between the course groupings and changing levels of student interest, with a slight tendency toward increasing interest in courses on the West and a somewhat greater increase of interest in courses on the smaller subregions. In addition, there is a pronounced difference in the length of time that different sets of courses have been offered (significant at .001). The West/frontier is clearly the most established region in college and university curricula, with 86 percent of such courses having been offered for at least eleven years. Nearly half of the "other" courses, in contrast, have been implemented in the 1980s. It is important to note that the survey did not obtain information on regional courses that may have been deleted in the last decade. However, specific comments suggest that the greatest erosion has come in western or frontier history with unreplaced faculty retirements.

The survey did seek systematic data on the faculty members who currently teach regional courses. Western/frontier courses are most likely to have been taught by the same instructor for more than a decade (significant at .05). This stability of instructors is paralleled by a weak relationship between regional specialty and age of instructor, which shows a disproportionate number of western history instructors over age 55 (significant at .10). It is also possible to compare the age of teachers of western/frontier, southern, and southwestern courses as reported in the survey with the year of highest earned degree for faculty claiming specializations in southern and western/frontier history in the AHA Guide. Faculty with expertise or interest in the West are somewhat older in both calendar age and academic generation than those specializing in the South (Table 3).

Additionally, the survey and the AHA Guide both help to measure the extent to which teachers and/or specialists in a particular region received their highest degrees from universities in the same region. Teachers or specialists in the Southwest and Great Plains are most likely to have done their graduate work in the same region (75-82 percent on various measures). Specialists in the more comprehensive regions of South and West show a moderate 60–40 tilt toward graduate training in their region of interest. Teachers of New England and Pacific Northwest history are likely to have received their degrees outside those regions.

Interpretive Themes in Regional Courses

The survey asked about recent changes in the geographical scope of regional courses. Reflecting a strong consensus on the definition of the South, only two responses noted changes in the coverage of southern courses. However, seven schools have changed the coverage of western subregional courses and ten have changed general West/frontier courses. There may be a general westward tilt in courses on western American history, with relatively more attention now being given to the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast states (5 cases), Hawaii (4 cases), and Alaska (8 cases). In addition, there is increasing interest in placing the development of the American West within an international context that spans the Canadian border (3 cases), the Mexican border (2 cases), or the Pacific Ocean (3 cases).

To explore the interpretive and theoretical structuring of regional courses, the survey asked whether each course emphasizes certain books as essential to understanding the history and character of the specific region. It also asked whether each course introduces students to key books or theories for understanding the general character and role of regions within the development of the United States.

Few respondents distinguished clearly between the two questions (Tables 4, 5). Both for the South and for the West and its subregions, the authors most commonly cited are the historiographic heroes of previous decades or generations—Frederick Jackson Turner, Walter P. Webb, H. E. Bolton, and Henry Nash Smith for the West, C. Vann Woodward, Wilbur Cash, and U. B. Phillips for the South. It is important to note for balance, however, that at least one-third of the cited authors have published their major work in the 1970s and 1980s, with examples such as Donald Worster, Patricia Limerick, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and Joel Williamson.

The converse of sustained attention to a long historiographic heritage is limited interest in current theory and analysis in related disciplines, especially among southern historians. Southern historians cited only three books by non-historians—John S. Reed's The Enduring South, V. O. Key's Southern Politics, and Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's Time on the Cross. The latter two books were conceived and developed in historical terms.

Western historians are somewhat more open to past work in other disciplines, citing Merrill Jensen's edited symposium on Regionalism in America, Carl Kraenzel's Great Plains in Transition, Edward Spicer's Cycles of Conquest, the work of geographers Carl Sauer and Donald Meinig, and regional planner Frank Popper's idea of a continuing frontier. Among broad theoretical approaches, four western historians referred to spatial models of economic development such as staple theory and dependency theory. Two referred to the importance of natural resource endowment as mediated and modified by human activity. Two referred to international comparisons of developing resource regions. Seven referred to aspects of group definition or interaction within the larger regional context, with specific reference to ethnohistory and feminist scholarship.

The survey data convey a general impression that southern history remains a lively but relatively self-contained field. There appears to be continuous generational renewal of faculty as well as strong monographic work whose interpretations are regularly incorporated into course content. At the same time, the field remains set within long established spatial and conceptual boundaries with limited attention to other social sciences.

Western history is somewhat less settled. Faculty teaching about the West are somewhat older than those teaching about the South. Courses retain an intense focus on the old but eminently teachable ideas of Turner and Webb. At the same time, many western specialists look outside old historiographic boundaries for ways to understand the experiences and interactions of different types of westerners. Such references to new theories and interpretations suggest that the field may be positioned for significant redirection or revitalization by a younger cohort of scholars. In particular, western history may take the lead in incorporating the insights of both American cultural studies and regional economic analysis. By so doing, it has the potential for moving regional history beyond narrowly interpreted frameworks and placing space and spatial relationships alongside class and gender as an important analytical category for American history.

—Carl Abbott is professor of urban studies and planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University. A full report and analysis of this survey will appear in the May 1990 issue of the Western Historical Quarterly. To acquire a copy of the Quarterly and/or membership information in the Western History Association, contact William D. Rowley, Department of History, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557.