TMI: Overloading the US Survey

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            Every summer around this time I revise my syllabus for US History I: 1600-1877. I teach three sections of the course during the fall semester and it is, hands down, the syllabus I wrestle with most. I blame the struggle on the fact that two of my least favorite historical topics to teach are at the core of the course content: the American Revolution and the Civil War. Truth is, when it comes to these two monumental events in our national history I’m overwhelmed by what content should stay and what should go in a survey course.

             The struggle has not always been so real. The first teaching position I had as I finished graduate school was at a small liberal arts college where the survey was not offered. Instead the history curriculum was a series of courses each covering a few decades. A course on the United States during the era of the Revolution, for example, began in the 1760s and ended around 1800. I had the entire semester to cover approximately forty years. We read memoirs, considered numerous primary sources, watched films, and, of course, studied the historical narrative. When the semester ended I felt confident that our examination of the period was thorough.

   Teaching the US survey for me now-a-days is a mad dash from one era to the next to the next to the next. Those historians who teach the world or western civilization survey have an even greater challenge. For a modern Americanist like myself, never is the internal pressure so great to get as much content as possible across to students as when I am teaching the American Revolution (the Civil War is a close second so I’ll save that for a future blog). In a perfectly-scheduled semester (read as: no snow days) I allot three class meetings (75 minutes each) to the Revolution. Students are assigned a textbook chapter for an overview of the key topics along with a multiple-choice, open-book quiz on the reading. But then what? What stays in and what gets left out?

There is certainly no shortage of print publications on the Revolutionary War era. Museums, libraries, and historical organizations provide so many awesome resources via the web that is difficult for me, as someone who did not specialize in this era, to choose a focus. I want to use/try everything I find, which only compounds my existing problem of too much content to cover in a short period of time.

In recent semesters my favorite digital resource to incorporate has been the Massachusetts Historical Society’s The Coming of the American Revolution, which includes sources on nonimportation and nonconsumption, among other topics, that have worked well as discussion prompts. Teaching in New England, however, it is easy to develop tunnel vision and focus too much on events that happened in Boston.

So this week I turn to you, my fellow historians, with this question: if you teach survey courses, how do you make decisions about what content stays and what goes? Specifically to those who teach the first half of the United States survey: what aspects of this era of history can I absolutely not leave out? And, finally, what fabulous resources exist via the web to help a New Englander broaden her approach to Revolutionary War-era history?

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.