Teaching Race, Native American Identity, and How to Construct a Historical Argument in an Online American History Survey Course

For the past year, I have taught an American history survey course online. I inherited the basic structure and assignments of the course from other instructors I underwent a learning curve during the first semester.  One of the main obstacles I faced during the first semester was that I found myself frustrated over the number of hours I spent grading essays.  I quickly realized that I needed to redesign the course to help students learn the basic structure of an evidence-driven essay.  By helping them understand the components of an argument-driven essay early in the semester, I knew I could prepare them to write organized and well-supported essays later in the term. Here is a list of the core issues that I observed during that first term and that I tackled in my course design during subsequent semesters:

  • Students were unaware of how to locate a thesis statement or a historical argument in an essay, journal article, or book.
  • Most students had little to no knowledge of how to use in-text citations.
  • Most students had little to the knowledge of how to construct a central argument, how to use evidence to support a central argument.
  • Several students were unaware of how to format a paragraph or a paper.

I know, I know, some readers will pause now to declare, “She is not responsible for teaching the students how to format a paper!” Or perhaps some will exclaim, “She shouldn’t be so strict or expect so much of her students!” Everyone, of course, is entitled to her/his/their opinion, however, as a first-generation college student from a rural area, I found that my limited knowledge of several aspects of the list posted above stunted my success as an undergraduate and a graduate student. I currently teach at an open-enrollment institution, and each semester my classrooms consist of a diverse body of students, including English Language Learners (ELL), first-generation college students, students from underprivileged backgrounds, others struggling with mental health issues, others who work full time and juggle other adult responsibilities. I want my courses to provide my students with as many skills as possible to help them to juggle the challenges they face and to succeed in college. While I do not expect my students to write a perfect essay in my survey-level course, I do know that I can provide them with a foundation that they can build from throughout their college career.

After noting the patterns listed above, I set out to design several assignments that broke the essay-writing process down into steps. These assignments are spread out over several weeks. The first assignment, and the one I will discuss below, helps students understand how to locate a historical argument and how a historian uses primary and secondary sources to support their/her/his argument. During the second week of class, I assign a worksheet using Nancy Shoemaker’s 1994 article “How the Indians Got to be Red.”[1]I find Shoemaker’s article well-written and language accessible for undergraduates to read and to absorb. The article also fits well with the subject-matter we cover during the second week of a chronologically designed course about American history from pre-contact to the present. The first question asks students to locate Shoemaker’s argument. Instead of asking them to search for it, I provide them with I the page number and the first and last word of the argument. I provide them with the location of the argument, but not the argument itself so that my students learn how to identify the location of a thesis statement but not have to guess if they found the right sentence(s).

The second question of the worksheet asks students to paraphrase Shoemaker’s argument. This activity helps them to recognize how to paraphrase and cite an idea from another author. This question also helps my students to gain an awareness of paraphrasing as a writing technique so they can check their use of the practice later in the semester when they are assigned an argument-driven essay.

The third question asks the students to compare and contrast Shoemaker’s introductory and concluding paragraphs. They are prompted to consider how she introduces the main topic of the article and then how she wraps up her main points and what new ideas she introduces in her conclusion. The students share what they learned by writing a short reflection (100-150 words) about what they observed when studying the introduction and the conclusion together. My objective with this question is to teach the students how to connect an essay from the beginning to the end.

The fourth question begins with a prompt to analyze three footnotes from the text. The references are found roughly around the middle of Shoemaker’s article, and all three cite primary sources. I ask the students to locate the footnotes, to consider the author, title, and date of each source, and then to analyze and study how Shoemaker used each primary source as evidence to back her central argument.

The final question asks students to share what they learned from completing the worksheet and the article. I love these open-ended questions because they not only encourage students to share their perspective, but the answers also provide me with feedback about the assignment so that I can make any needed adjustments. My spring semester students recently completed this worksheet, and most of them began their reflections with statements about what they learned about the construction of race in Colonial America and how Colonial Americans mistreated Native Americans and denied them agency. My students also discussed what they learned about essay writing. I will share some useful feedback from student papers below:

“I learned that it is essential to use primary sources as evidence to defend your claim or thesis. Without them, our argument is empty, and there is no proof to show that what you are saying is true.”

“What I learned about identifying and supporting historical arguments is the importance of sources. If you want your paper to be credible, it needs to include reliable primary sources, and those sources need to be cited correctly.”

This assignment is beneficial because my students learn the ins-and-outs of an evidence-based essay early in the semester. By encouraging them to consider how a historian uses primary sources and citations to back h/is/their argument, I prepare my students to write well-organized essays later in the semester. Since I began assigning this worksheet, I have noticed an improvement in their essays. I have also observed how my students have incorporated ideas about race and Native American identity in their discussion board posts and their assignments. This worksheet teaches students how important it is to use evidence to construct and back a statement or claim. And, as we all know, this skill is transferable to other courses and to their professional and civic lives.

[1]Nancy Shoemaker, “How Indians Got To be Red” The American Historical Review102, 3 (1997): 625-44.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *