Sophie’s Syllabus: What Gets Left Behind?

Planning any class requires separating the essential from what can be surgically cut away. I always start second-guessing myself as soon as a few weeks into the semester. Sometimes this syllabus maker’s remorse comes from a student’s question, something that makes me think I should have devoted more time on a given topic. Other times it comes from grading the first batch of exams or papers, and realizing that I breezed through a topic that left my students with a serious misconception. What frustrates me the most is when these omissions or blindspots don’t come from a conscious decision, but just from me missing something while creating the laundry list of coverage that seems inherent to the survey.

Last year, I tried an exercise before writing the syllabus for the first half of US survey. I wrote a series of historical questions that I wanted to center lessons around. I hoped this would stop my lectures from taking on a checklist quality for covering a given set of years.

After a little while, I came up with pretty long list of guiding questions. Some of the questions were modest (in terms of class time), yet important in scope, such as sorting out Puritan theology. Others, like what caused the Civil War, could easily be the center of a series of lectures.

I pared down the list of questions to fit the amount of lectures in a semester. I felt pretty confident that focusing my lectures on answering these questions, rather than temporal coverage, would help focus my lessons. While I was still cutting out a huge amount of historical material, at least there was some intention behind it.

For example, I realized very few of my guiding questions dealt with Native American history. Native American history is often among the most neglected subjects of the survey. Even before I did this question planning exercise, I knew that there were major problems with the way I covered Native American peoples. I usually spent a day talking about pre-contact America, but in incredibly broad terms. This material was not really connected to the rest of semester. I think my students knew that even though I did a ten-minute spiel on Cahokia, it was Boston and Philadelphia that will be appearing in their essay assignments and midterms. I think the pre-contact civilization lecture is often a way to assuage the conscience of the instructor rather than part of a cohesive plan.

Looking at my list of questions, I decided to have three lectures specifically centered around three different Native groups. These lectures would be spaced out through the semester. I chose to do lessons the Iroquois, the Cherokee, and the Comanche. All three questions focused on how these groups adapted to the economic and political challenges brought by European settlement.

I would be the first to admit there are several problems with this approach to Native American history. One, picking three groups to represent all Native American peoples is absurd. Two, by focusing on how these groups reacted to European settlement, I am implying that their history is only significant in so much as it is tied to these newcomers. Third, even if I want to focus on interaction with European settlers, why these three groups, rather than say the Lakota, or the Shawnee, or the Pequot?

I really have no defense against these criticisms. Native American history is not my specialty, and I do try to change my approach whenever I come across something from that field that strikes me. The next time I teach the survey, I could see devoting days of the Seminoles (from dissertation research), the Mandans (after reading Elizabeth A. Fenn’s great book), and the Apache (Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts blew my mind when I finally read it a few months ago).

Despite its limitations, I think picking a few key themes or questions is perhaps the best thing we can do with something like the survey. Centering my lessons around questions forced me to decide what material I wanted to focus on, and increased the likelihood that students would come away with something more than a couple minutes of coverage would have given them.

What do you feel inevitably gets underemphasized when you teach the survey? What ways have you found to make peace with leaving stuff out?

3 thoughts on “Sophie’s Syllabus: What Gets Left Behind?

  1. Nice post, Glen. Syllabus-maker’s remorse is always rough. I too organize my class around a series of interpretive questions. I have 25 questions that introduce lectures and serve as exam questions. Only four of my 25 directly treat Native American history:

    How did Native American culture change prior to European contact?
    Compare how the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English interacted with Indians.
    How did the wars of the 18th century change Indian life?
    How did Native Americans respond to nineteenth century American expansion?

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