Michael L. Goldberg
Examines key events and problems in U.S. history from European-Native American contact to the end of the Civil War. Focuses on the practice of "doing history" by applying historical thinking skills to a wide range of primary documents.
This is a course that focuses on solving historical problems. A historical problem—or at least one worth exploring—provides the opportunity to delve into the past in order to learn important lessons that can be applied in different contexts, including our own time. A good historical problem is also one that tells us something about the process of understanding history itself—about the complexities of cause and effect, of continuity and change over time, of historical agency (who has the power to shape history?) and of contingency (what unexpected events occur to shape history?). American history is full of such problems, and I have selected a relatively few of them for exploration in this class.
We will be using a text that surveys the entire chronological period covered by the course, but we will be using the text to support examinations into specific historical phenomena around which our problem is framed. Themes include the interrelationships of the development of democracy, slavery and capitalism; the role of religion and free-thinking in reform; the changing legal, social and economic conditions of women and the relations between women and men; racial formations and hierarchies and their interrelationships with class formation; the development of capitalism and the role of innovation, immigration, and the state; the role of notions of “American exceptionalism" and “Manifest Destiny"; and the changing nature of citizenship. Sometimes we will examine a specific event—a relatively well-known one like the Boston Massacre, which provided the necessary tinder for sparking the American Revolution, or a relatively unknown one like the Stono Rebellion, whose failure made other slave rebellions increasingly unlikely. Or sometimes it will be a long-term process, like the experiences of the first Americans to work in large factories—young unmarried women from New England trying to make sense of the new opportunities and constraints they faced. In either case, we will learn to read between the lines of the archival evidence and move beyond obvious conclusions.
We will spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between culture, social structure, politics and economics—with some environmental forces thrown in as well. My focus in the course is on complexity—on the interplay between larger forces, specific institutions and groups, and individuals. We will build towards this more fully realized historical understanding by first exploring foundational historical thinking skills, emphasizing relatively basic analysis, and moving towards more complex interpretation, including historical evaluation and judgment. And we will do it in ten and a half weeks.
This approach allows us to emphasize critical thinking and historical methodology, skills and abilities that you can transfer beyond this specific class. You will have the opportunity to learn the skills needed to solve specific historical problems by analyzing and synthesizing different parts of the puzzle—from lectures, the survey textbook, and primary historical documents, such as diaries, paintings, letters, newspapers, census records, and oral histories. If you hope to do well in this course, you cannot simply repeat what you hear in the lectures and read in the textbook. Instead, you will need to put these pieces of the puzzle together and become an active learner. This course is designed to facilitate this process.
Student learning goals
Application of historical thinking skills within collaborative learning exercises and in papers and exams. Skills include compare and contrast,continuity and change, cultural similarity and difference, historical agency, evaluation and analysis of primary sources, historicity.
Basic command of historical content covered in the course.
Integration of secondary and primary sources to create a historical argument.
Improved problem-solving and analytical skills that can be transferred beyond a history course.
Collaborative learning skills, including participation in small group workshops and evaluation (including self-evaluation) of group members.
Understanding and appreciation of connections between past events and current societal conditions and challenges.
General method of instruction
Most days will begin with an introductory lecture to emphasize background from the text and introduce or reinforce historical thinking skills, and present the historical problem to be discussed. Students will then work in small groups to advance their understanding of the problem, and then report out to the class. The lesson will conclude by drawing larger conclusions and making connections to contemporary society. Because of the emphasis on group work, students are expected to attend most classes and come prepared for discussion. Students who do not think they can fulfill the expectations of group work should not take the class, as it is an important part of the grade.
NOTE: I have added a 3-week role-playing historical simulation game to the course.
Class assignments and grading
All assignments are individual; collaborative learning is done as part of in-class workshops. There will be several papers, including papers that allow students to use a number of creative options. Final take-home essay exam. Short comprehension and preliminary analysis exercises due for each class
Rubrics and sample essays will be available. Final grading will recognize improvement and final outcomes. Most assignments worth about the same except collaborative learning and final exam grades, which are worth slightly more.