Letting Students Craft the Narrative

“Do we really have to read all these sources?” When I first heard this now oft-repeated refrain, I wondered to myself if the students really do need to read the many primary and secondary sources I require for their Problems in American Life group meetings. Part of my hesitation stemmed from the fact that I worried my own time was being consumed by these readings. I have spent more hours carefully curating each group’s list of primary and secondary sources than I have on any other aspect of the class (including grading). Is it worth it?


As a reminder, this semester I’m trying out a new structure for my American history survey class, whereby students work in groups to chart a contemporary issue in American life from 1865 to present. The students meet four times throughout the semester to discuss readings specific to their topic in a particular time period. So four times over the course, I provide approximately 5 primary and 4 secondary sources for twelve total topics. That’s some 240 primary and 192 secondary sources. While I am lucky to have two Teaching Assistants to help me in this process, in the end I am in charge of choosing the chronology, main events and people, and contemporary and historiographical debates that frame each topic. So I am, on some level, constructing a narrative of the issue based on the archive I provide for the students. But of course, there is no one narrative for these issues. One benefit of teaching in this style is to expose students to what historians really do: ask questions of the past, of evidence, of ourselves. Students should not be presented with one narrative, but should be pushed to discover that history is filled with many and often conflicting narratives, to challenge the narratives they’ve been presented with in the past, and to learn how historians parse all this out. But how can I present multiple narratives in a coherent and manageable way for 180 students?


Take for example the topic of gun rights legislation. In the state of Texas, this is a particularly potent and personal issue. Many students come to class with resolute beliefs about their right to carry a gun into my classroom. But others are wary, some even openly against, the open carry of weapons on college campuses. This range of opinions is in part a result of personal beliefs, but it is also a product of the history of gun rights legislation. I want students who are charting this issue to contemplate and debate how we as a nation and a state came to have such wide-ranging viewpoints on the subject. As I choose the primary and secondary sources for each time period, I want to show as many sides as possible, even those I blatantly disagree with. So I included St. George Tucker’s forceful defense of gun rights alongside new scholarship on gun restrictions in the American West. For students who know Tucker’s work, it has often been cited by conservative pro-gun organizations, they still found something that surprised them in the readings: how officials in the romanticized gun-slinging Wild West actually sought to limit guns in their states. I also post short readings to urge students to connect their specific topic to larger social and structural issues discussed in class. One such example was a brief 1866 Albany Evening Journal article describing a North Carolina State Convention’s attempts to enact measures protecting African Americans’ rights, including their right to bear arms. Not all students made the connections between this article and our debate about whether the 1873 racial violence in Colfax, Louisiana, was a massacre or riot. But at least one student recognized how race contributes to the long history of gun rights and legislation in this country. So instead of fully presenting one single narrative, I’ve given snippets of many strands that students can piece together.


Whether this works relies in large part on students’ understanding of the issue in the larger scheme of American history. There are two things I’ve learned thus far to improve students’ comprehension of the chronology and historical development of their issue. First, the history education of students is so wide-ranging that I must overtly address the contemporary issues in my lectures. I make it very clear that students studying sexuality and gender norms, for instance, should pay attention to our discussion about Muscular Christianity. Second, I need to provide a readable, comprehensive overview of the topic from 1865 to present. Students should read this before delving into the primary sources and more detailed academic scholarship. Otherwise, they are left without a scaffold upon which to place this new knowledge. When I next teach this class, students will read a general history of the topic at the beginning of the semester.


Students still ask me that oft-repeated question, to which I now answer, “Yes, if you want to learn anything, or at least pass the class.” It’s not just because I spent umpteen hours assembling the reading lists. I want students to gain skills as well as knowledge in this class, and it’s only by reading the sources that students will begin to think like historians. But for them to do that well, I cannot assume they have a general understanding of the chronology, themes, and issues that pervade American history. It’s my duty not just to find the interesting primary and secondary sources, but to provide students with the context to evaluate those sources.


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