Discussions, Maps, and Nature: My Reflection of Teaching an American History Crash Course

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to teach a one-week crash course on United States History to a group of university students from China.  The students arrived in Utah in late July and stayed for three weeks.  They took four college courses which consisted of one and a half hours a day for seven days.  The students took courses in Writing and Rhetoric, American History, Sociology, and Religion, and spent their weekends traveling to Bryce Canyon National Park, to a retreat in Montana, and visiting Yellowstone National Park.

I will admit, condensing American history into seven one and a half hour courses was a challenge.  I have taught the American history survey course for several years but had never thought about how to cram over 500 years of history into one week. Early on in my course prep, I decided to focus on the evolution of ideas, especially concepts about freedom, equality, enslavement, and exploitation from pre-contact to the present.

I dedicated the first day of the course to examining pre-Contact America and European Colonization. Most of the students were engaged in the presentation and discussion.  Each semester I read the reaction of my students so I can know how best to present material to them.  In this case, my students seemed interested when I discussed events in detail and the cause and effect of human interaction.  (For example, several students participated in the discussion about pre-Contact agriculture in what is now the American Midwest.)

I left each class exhausted and exhilarated.  The class conversations were deep, challenging, and fun! For example, after class on the second day, a student approached me to ask, “What philosophers inspire American historians?” I was taken aback! I expected a question about colonial America, not about the historical profession. I enjoyed my chat with her (who, by the way, had read works by each of the philosophers I named and then identified which one inspires me the most based on my lecture style). On the third day of class, another student asked me how the American Revolution and the Second Amendment correlates to America’s current gun culture.  This question opened the door for an extensive discussion about equality, identity, and the way that fear functions in American society and how these concepts compare to China.

The night before the students returned to China, the majority of the people who participated in the program gathered for a reception. During his closing remarks, the director invited students to share their thoughts about their time at the university. I will now share some of the observations that the students provided as their insight is valuable to me as an instructor.

One student said that she enjoyed the discussion-based delivery that the instructors used during their classes. To emphasize her point, she explained that last summer, she took courses in France and the professors there used a traditional lecture-based model to deliver information. She said that listening to a lecture while taking notes was difficult for her as she struggled with jet lag. In juxtaposition, during her classes in Utah, the professors encouraged her to participate in class discussions and felt as if she was a part of the class and that her ideas and opinions mattered.

Another student remarked that she enjoyed when instructors asked the students to compare the class material to practices in China. I cannot speak for the other instructors in the program, but I know that I asked the students every day to compare the American practice of history or a historical topic to something in China and tell me about it.  The responses were always informative and enthusiastic and introduced more depth into the discussion than if I had chosen to focus exclusively on the American perspective.

As I prepared for the course, one of my objectives was to demonstrate that I was interested in their viewpoint. One way I did this was to assign two different map projects.  The first assignment asked students to label all fifty states and capitals on a blank map of the United States. The goal is to help students connect specific places to ideas, places, and the people we will discuss.

I also asked the students to complete a map of China. I told them to design the map using any tool they would like and to focus on any aspect of Chinese culture or history they prefer. The students were excited, and the results were fantastic. I received maps in a variety of digital and paper formats that covered several topics. For example, several focused on foods consumed in different parts of the country. Another student compared material culture from her hometown with objects popular in other parts of China. Another student mapped different dialects. This assignment encouraged my students to trade places with me.  They got to feel like equal participants in the learning process by educating me about their country.  I plan to modify and incorporate this assignment for my survey courses.

Finally, I was surprised when several students remarked that they were impressed by how close Americans are with nature.  One student said that he was shocked when he received information about what to do if he encountered a bear while hiking.  He said that in China, most people would “freak out” if they saw a bear. In Utah, however, he was told what to do if he saw one while hiking. He said that he spent more time outdoors in Utah because he felt confident in exploring local trails. (By-the-way, his comment reminded me of the second day of class when this same student raised his hand to ask me about a trail located close to the university. I told everyone how to reach the trail and then warned them about rattlesnakes. When several people looked worried, I told them what to do if they encountered a “rattler.” I understand now why all of them looked shocked during the conversation!) Another student said that she had thought of America as “industrialized” and filled with “skyscrapers”; after arriving in Utah, her view had changed, and she also realized how much she loves the outdoors.

I absolutely loved teaching this course and hope that I can participate in similar study abroad programs in the future.  The students were excited to learn and gave me valuable feedback about how I can continue to adapt my teaching style to make my classes engaging, interactive, and inclusive.


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