Making It Different: Teaching Early American History Honors at a Community College
Brad Massey, March 2011
A few semesters ago I volunteered to teach an early American history honors survey course. The course had not been taught at my college for many years. As the newly appointed honors program director at my campus, I hoped to use the opportunity to attract the college’s best students to the program, which had just recently been resurrected and reorganized, and get the word out that classes in the honors program were different, challenging, and involved more than just extra readings and work. At community colleges the mission has long been to “meet the needs of every student,” and well-run and respected honors programs can work to improve retention and graduation rates for a community college’s best students.1
After agreeing to develop and teach the course, I was immediately confronted with several challenges and questions. What should the course “look” like? In what ways should it be different from my “standard” course? Must I teach the same content? Should I use a traditional American history survey textbook? How should I assess the students? Creating an early American history course that attracted and challenged students from diverse backgrounds is not easy, but I was eventually able to create a course that gave me hope for the future.
When planning the course, I first decided that it must be radically different from my standard survey course, and I wanted to make this clear to the students even before they set foot in my classroom. To do this, I realized I needed to change both the readings and content of the course. By selecting different books for my course, students—both those enrolled in the course and those buying books for the standard survey course—would realize that the course was unique. But what books? It is obvious why textbooks are used in community college history survey courses. For a diverse student body composed of keen history buffs as well as those who cringe at the word history, textbooks efficiently—albeit sometimes lifelessly—provide outlines of major historical trends and events. I decided, however, that I would forgo using a traditional survey text and use monographs, reasoning that the students would find these more engaging. The problem, however, was that I needed not supplemental texts, but books that covered and synthesized the broad themes that compose the backbone of the survey. Although I was convinced that the course needed to be radically different, my honors course also needed to cover a broad set of historical events and trends. Ultimately, I decided on three books that use a variety of different sources and techniques: Daniel K. Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country, Lawrence W. Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness,and Harry L. Watson’s Liberty and Power.2
Richter’s Facing East tells the story of European exploration and settlement of North America, from roughly the late 1400s to the 1830s, from the American Indian perspective. This book covers the largest period of time of the three I selected, and offers a new approach to understanding the complex relationships between American Indians and Europeans. Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness is over 30 years old, but I chose it because I knew it would provide an opportunity to discuss the myriad sources historians use to understand the past. Levineuses songs, folktales, jokes, and other artifacts that students in survey courses often do not think of as historical sources, in an attempt to understand African American culture and consciousness. Levine’s work also introduces students to the nuances and techniques employed in writing cultural history, and is thus an excellent vehicle in which to introduce and discuss historiographical trends.3
My final choice, Watson’s Liberty and Power, is more conventional in its approach. It is a political history chronicling the transformations American politics underwent between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Liberty and Power examines the angry and radical political rhetoric spawned by the Market Revolution. Watson describes 19th-century Jacksonianism, socialist movements, Know-Nothings, and the venom of anti-Masonry, and I hoped my students would see the parallels between these past political ideals and movements and America’s current inflammatory political rhetoric and political realignments. Coupled with various online primary source documents and short essays, these three readings formed the foundation of my course.
Once the readings were chosen, I had to decide how to construct the course. I decided that I would not lecture more than 25 percent of the time, so I had to devise a strategy to compel the students to take ownership of the course. I decided that the best way to do this was to give the course an online component. On the first day of class, I told the students that they would be responsible for leading class discussions and posting to an online discussion forum. During one of our first meetings, I asked the students what they were most interested in learning about and to circle the days on the syllabus they would like to lead the class discussion.
After a little schedule shuffling and negotiations among students regarding the days they would be assigned, I gave them the discussion instructions. They were made responsible for writing and posting at least five questions to the discussion board five days before they were to lead the in-class discussion. Their classmates were required to post their answers before the face-to-face class meeting. I told them that their questions needed to be thought provoking and tailored to spark discussion and debate. I prohibited questions that could be answered with one word, or a quick “yes,” “no,” or “I agree.” Some protested the daunting nature of this task, which I assured them was certainly not easy and was, in fact, something I too found challenging. To assuage their fears, I told them that I would post the questions for, and lead the first two discussions, and that after that I would aid them in writing their questions upon request. Although I was as apprehensive as they were at first, after a few weeks of trial and error, my students soon got better at writing thought-provoking questions, and by the middle of the semester, I was able to give up lecturing all together (although I admittedly did dominate some of the discussions in an attempt to provide context). The exercise proved worthwhile, and the course was soon defined by discussion and debate.
Writing discussion questions, leading the discussions, and answering the questions were the primary course assignments, but I did feel that the course needed one extra component. At first I considered a traditional exam (essay, short answer, and/or multiple question), but realized that would be unsatisfactory. I could tell by the discussion assignments that the students had a good grasp of the material. Thus, an exam seemed redundant and pointless. What I really wanted was a unique writing component.
After the first month, the class was coming together nicely, and often the students would be discussing the readings with each other before I arrived, so I wanted to create an assignment that would advance the communal nature of the group. I decided then that what I really wanted them to do was teach each other, something they had been doing somewhat informally already. I told them that they would all be responsible for teaching a class (30–50 minutes) on an early American history topic of their choice. What they chose was entirely up to them, but I encouraged them to do more than just give a standard lecture or presentation. I wanted debate, discussion, and perhaps even reenactment.
This assignment was broken into multiple parts. For part one, students had to complete a lesson plan that included an abstract or justification for their chosen topic. Although they could teach anything they wanted, I wanted them to defend their choices. Next, they had to outline the learning outcomes they wished to accomplish. I also required them to compile and turn in a list of their sources. The final piece of the assignment was a self-assessment. One week after they taught, they were required to turn in a one- to two-page critique of their performance. I told them that their assessments must discuss what they believed they did well, as well what they thought they did poorly or could have improved.
I was pleased with the results. One student had the class debate the merits of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (he required that we all read the document beforehand).Another student had us debate Andrew Jackson’s military invasion of Florida. Both students did an excellent job preparing and leading their classmates. Other students did well also, often thanks to a little help and compassion from their peers. In the end I thought the assignment proved to be successful and a good use of class time.4
By working to make honors survey courses unique and intellectually challenging, history teachers at community colleges can create intimate learning environments that will attract talented and driven students. This can help two-year colleges retain and graduate their best students. Relying on monographs to teach the survey is certainly not unique, especially at four-year colleges and universities, nor is having students give presentations, lead discussions, or teach. However, at community colleges, textbooks and the traditional exams that often come along with them tend to be standard fare. By breaking away from textbooks, lectures, and exams, teachers of the honors history surveys can create dynamic courses that enhance the reputation of both the college and the honors program.
Brad Massey teaches history and is the honors program and humanities department coordinator at Polk State College-Lakeland. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Emily Sohmer Tai, “Teaching History at a Community College,” Perspectives (February 2004).
2.Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Harry L. Watson, Liberty and Power (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006).
3. The edition of Black Culture and Black Consciousness I use contains Levine’s original 1975 preface and an updated preface. I have the students read both, and have found this a great way to spark discussion about the fluid nature of historiography.
4. This class was particularly small. I had fewer than 10 students, but would still use the assignment even if I had more. I would just put them into groups of two or three, based on their personal interests. All honors courses at Polk State are capped at 20 students.