Contemporary Issues, Past to Present

“Who here doesn’t like history?” Students in my US History from 1865 to present class probably didn’t expect such a greeting from their professor. But they seemed intrigued when I laughed and raised my hand too. I told them that history as it’s often taught – as a succession of dates and names and events – was never presented as relevant to me. (I know I should care about history for history’s sake, but it’s hard, and most students surely don’t care in that way.) So, I told them, let’s make it relevant to us, to our time.

Inspired by Caleb McDaniel’s backwards US History course at Rice, I devised a project wherein students track an important issue in contemporary American life from 1865 to present. The Problems in American Life (PAL) project began by alphabetically splitting students into groups, and asking each group chose the five topics that most interested them from the following:

  • Police, prisons, and race
  • Gun legislation
  • The American military abroad
  • National security
  • Religious liberty
  • Women’s reproductive rights
  • Sexuality & gender norms
  • Americans’ obsession w/ celebrity
  • The global economy
  • Capitalism & economic inequality
  • Privacy
  • Big government
  • Environment: policies and human action
  • Human trafficking
  • Drug policy

To make choosing the final topic fairer, or at least more fun, we had an American History Battle trivia game, which I must admit was quite amusing.[1] The students were competitive and smart, all hoping to snag enough points to let them pick their favorite topic. There were enough themes that all the groups ended up with something that interested them. The last task in the first PAL group meeting was for groups to find a recent article from a reputable news source about their issue. In particular, they looked for an article that invoked historical claims not backed by sources or analysis. One of their main tasks for the semester will be to add footnotes and explanation to the news piece; in other words, they will be annotating the news.

Students work in their PAL groups six more times throughout the semester. Four of those meetings they will discuss primary and secondary sources related to their topic in a particular time period. We had our first group discussions last week, during which they examined the context of their topic from 1776-1865. My two TAs and I searched high and low to find 4 primary and at least 2 secondary sources for each group. With two survey sections and some overlap of issue choices, that meant finding 48 primary sources and 24 secondary (12 topics total). This required a broad conception of each topic; for drug policy, we focused on the Whiskey Rebellion and temperance, while for privacy we included the Bill of Rights and Ruth H. Bloch’s article on wife beating in early America. During the next four meetings, students will read, analyze, and discuss sources from 1865–1914, 1914–1945, 1945–1960, and 1960–present.

The three main assessments for the PAL project are individual and group oriented. Firstly, students individually write three 500-word essays on a specific aspect of their group topic that interests them. Each of these essays focuses on a specific time period: 1865–1914, 1914–1960, 1960–present. Students must use 5 primary and 3 secondary sources in each essay. While they can incorporate sources read during their group meetings, they will have to seek out other evidence that more directly applies to their issue niche. The main point of these essays is to get students thinking critically about contemporary issues, to ask how and why issues develop and change, and how they affect individuals, communities, the nation, and the world in different ways. Students will use these essays to complete their second assessment, their final exam, will be a 10-page historical analysis of their issue from 1865 to present. They cannot simply reuse material from their PAL Individual Essays, but can rely on the same sources to tell a fuller, longer story of their issue.

These essays will supply fodder for their third (and main) assessment: a group digital exhibit. Using the Wix platform, their task is to create an exhibit that answers how their specific topic became such a major issue in American life. They cannot simply lay out the dates and events (although a timeline will be required), but must also expose the complexities of the topic, the changes and continuities, and the underlying forces at work. Perhaps most importantly, the exhibit must tell a story. Every good exhibit has a narrative, so the students must decide what their argument is and how to convince their audience of it. Additionally, each group must collaborate to design and build the exhibit.[2] Overall, the exhibits must be sensorily appealing, using images, sound, and text to engage visitors.

This may seem limiting, as if I’m asking students to be like academics and choose a very specific historical focus. This is, after all, a survey of American history. And I do give traditional-style lectures about the broader scope of American history (using the American Yawp as my base). But these only account for 16 of the 30 total class periods. Much of the students’ time and effort will be spent on this one project, with all its many components, because I have seen too many students disengaged from history, unable to find how they connect. I’m hoping that this project will, to put it crassly, trick them into being historians. That finding a specific topic that intrigues them will lead them down a rabbit hole of reading and research that, when they come out the other end, gives them a better understanding of themselves. Because history is a selfish endeavor; getting to know ourselves leads to asking bigger questions about one another. So let’s get students engaged with issues that matter to them as a way to getting them engaged with history. Perhaps this way when at the end of the semester I ask “Who here likes history?”, I’ll get a class full of raised hands.

For now, though, I’m focused on finding sources and helping students write & create public history exhibits. I’ll update on the good and bad along the way.

[1] I also had them come up with history-themed trivia names, which included such gems as Teddy Broosevelt and Ciroc Obama.

[2] Wix is a very user-friendly platform, allowing for the easy creation of attractive exhibits. History, political science, and interdisciplinary studies majors at Mississippi University for Women’s History Department use wix to build their student research projects.

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