This is the time of year when academics begin revising their courses to get the teaching materials loaded on to VLEs or handbooks off to the printer. I teach a survey course in American history from (as the title of the course says) ‘Columbus to Civil War’. It’s an interesting exercise to check that what I’m actually teaching are the most important and relevant topics.
It’s one of the most exciting parts of being a lecturer and an area of our job when we really get to act in an autonomous fashion. We have the power to choose which topics our students will study over the coming year.
Of course one of the first considerations must be for the available materials. If the university library or the internet cannot provide enough books or articles or primary sources for the students to look at then, however much you want to study that topic, it will simply not be possible.
But once that caveat has been addressed what is important for students to know about American history? What will whet their appetite and encourage them to take your units later in their university career, or even to do an American history dissertation?
I think most of us would agree that first contact, slavery, the revolution and the decent into civil war are inevitable topics without which students will not understand the US. But that still leaves plenty of topics to decide especially if, like me, you run on a year-long system rather than the semester system.
What about big themes such as the role of women, the Atlantic system, religion, migration? What about specific events such as the Salem witchtrials or the Indian Removal? What about sessions on particular leaders such as Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln? How does a tutor decide what it is important to teach and what should be left out?
Of course there’s no right or wrong answer to this. Perhaps you have a magic formula that you’d like to share with the readers of this blog? I certainly don’t but I shall be exercising my mind with this question for the next week or so, before the excitement of ‘clearing’ dawns!