Up-to-date? Where to End the US Survey

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I recently brought home Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal from my public library (click here for a New York Times’ review). The book, written by two Boston Globe reporters, examines a period that intersects closely with my time on earth so far. I grew up south of Boston, Massachusetts, so James “Whitey” Bulger’s criminal history has been a local news topic for all of my adult life. Whitey, for those not familiar with the story, spent nearly two decades as (simultaneously) a criminal and FBI informant, and then many years on the run before being tried and convicted in 2013. Reading the book made me realize how little I actually know about Boston in the 1970s and 1980s.

When my students ask why my sections of the second half of the United States survey end in the early 1970s instead of going to “the present,” I respond with a smile: “If I lived it, it’s not history!” As I think more about this question, however, I am forced to face reality: I am uncomfortable teaching about events that I can remember. This is particularly true when it comes to political events in the 1980s because I can vividly recall watching the evening news with my parents. When I read about events from this era it’s always with a faint recognition of what I had seen or heard as a teen.

            With each passing year in the classroom, however, will come the inevitable need to expand time frame of the US survey for the sake of my students, many of whom were not yet born when I graduated from college. They don’t remember the politically-charged Olympic Games of the Cold War era, Bill Clinton’s denials of infidelity, or even September 11th. So how do we as historians decide what is “history” -- i.e., included in the survey and other courses -- and what is current events? Does my “If I lived it ....” litmus test have any credibility?

Probably not. And yet I remain perplexed by the enormity of what stays and what goes content-wise if I teach beyond the year of my birth. In an earlier blog I admitted that I’m already overwhelmed by my perceived need to cover a ton of content in US I (see TMI: Overloading the US Survey). I’ve resolved this academic year to revise my US II syllabus and bring my students to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. Now what? What stays and what goes?

Or, what if I let the students determine the content of our last two weeks of the semester? What if I tweak my syllabus to the point that I reach my usually stopping point (the war in Vietnam) with time to spare, which I would then dedicate to specific topics about which the students are curious?

Have you or one of your colleagues in another field tried this approach? I would love to hear from anyone who has experimented with course content in this way. In particular, how did you determine the topics to be covered? How did students respond to the experience? And would you do it again?

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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.