American Yawp in the Classroom: “Savagery” and “Civilization”

This semester, I will be teaching with a new textbook: American Yawp.

Cards on the table. I was a collaborator on Yawp, and a chapter editor, so I am by no means entirely unbiased about it. I have always liked it, and thought it carries immense potential as an alternative to the expensive textbooks assigned in many other history courses. (I should add the caveat that history textbooks are much more reasonably priced than textbooks in many other fields. The textbook I used last semester was $80 new, compared to my students’ Biology textbooks, which cost several hundred dollars. But $80 for a paperback book is still too much.) My blog posts in the foreseeable future will consist of my reflections on the Yawp textbook in the classroom: what works, what doesn’t, and what feedback I get from students about what could be improved.

So far, the overall results are positive. I’ve gotten encouraging feedback from students, who unanimously appreciate the fact that it’s completely free. One of my most engaged students also told me that he appreciated that the chapters were extensive and focused, but shorter than a traditional textbook’s would be. I also make use of many of the primary sources available on the Yawp website, which I supplement with other sources I’ve located in other places. I’m happy to share my syllabus with anyone who asks. Just e-mail me at

I can already report on my first discussion assignment, which I’ve now completed in two of my U.S. History I classes. I assigned students to read Chapter 1 of the Yawp textbook, and the Native American Creation Stories primary sources. In class, we discussed what about these stories might one use to refute the common claim among Europeans that Native Americans were “savages,” and what about these stories might European colonists cite to justify this characterization. It was my attempt to get students to think about these stories in a historically contextualized way, around this notion of “savagery” and “civilization” that Europeans and Natives used to assess one another’s cultures.

The results were mixed. Students in both classes were already assigned their analytical categories (a component of my classes this semester that I discuss in a previous post), and several students in one class did exactly what I wanted students to do: take this prompt and respond with insights that corresponded with their category. One student in the Gender and Sexuality category, for example, pointed out the story of the coyote and the woman as a way of discussing sexuality and gender inequality in the Salinan Indian Creation Story. This student even noted that this might be one way a clever defender of the Natives might try to convince Europeans of Native “civilization”: it offers evidence that, just like Europeans, the Salinan Natives also privileged the power and agency of men over that of women. But other students said little. In the other, the participation was more evenly distributed, but it was more of a blend of insights that attempted to contextualize the documents, and far less nuanced observations that amounted to describing the stories as weird or strange. I brought up George Carlin’s famous line about when we compare someone else’s religion to our own—“my shit is stuff, and your stuff is shit”—to point out that we often find things “weird” or “strange” when they aren’t what we’re used to, while often failing to appreciate how weird and strange our own beliefs are, because we’ve grown accustomed to them. (Most students stared at me blankly when I mentioned George Carlin, which I have to admit made my heart sink a little bit).

The discourse of “savagery” versus “civilization” is a point of emphasis for me in my U.S. History survey course, and overall, I think these primary sources, and Chapter 1, are effective resources for introducing this theme.

One thought on “American Yawp in the Classroom: “Savagery” and “Civilization”

  1. I just discovered YAWP last week and, gosh, how I wish I’d known about this site when I was constructing my syllabus. Fortunately, I left myself some wiggle room and added that little “This syllabus is subject to change” caveat at the end. So, going forward, I will be using some of this material as a supplement to the book that we’re using. Hopefully, this will help with discussions because, as your student so correctly noted, the YAWP chapters do seem shorter but more fleshed out.

    Thank you all for your work on this project.

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