Locating the Local in American History Surveys

We welcome a new contributor today. Barry Goldberg is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the CUNY Graduate Center. His research examines the development of interracial politics on the Lower East Side in the post-World War II era.

A recent edition of my neighborhood newsletter had a front-page article describing a controversial Department of Education plan to rezone two elementary schools. The proposal would reduce overcrowding at one of the schools by sending its students to a nearby school designated “persistently dangerous” by the DOE (the department describes this category here). In response, local parents pressured the DOE to drop the plan.

The story, which received national media coverage here, got me thinking about teaching. In a world in which social media and new technologies allow unprecedented access to global information, to what extent are students today cognizant of issues facing their local neighborhoods? How does “the neighborhood” factor into students’ understanding of their social and political identities? And how might the answers to these questions factor into teachers’ curricular choices in the classroom?

For the past several years, I have taught the second half of the U.S. History survey (1865-present) at a public college in New York City. While I have established a consistent teaching methodology for the course, I inevitably tweak its content each semester. This semester, I have tried to integrate more New York City history into my lectures. I made this choice partly for selfish reasons – my own research focuses, broadly, on this topic – and partly because I assumed that my students’ ears would perk up when analyzing things that happened in and around recognizable places. In addition, despite my goal to cover material up to the present day (I usually only make it through the Clinton years), I have devoted six classes (or three weeks) to the 1960s and 1970s this semester, a time period rife with important events in New York City that tap into broader themes of the time period, such as the 1964 school boycott, a 1966 referendum over whether to institute a new Civilian Review Board for the NYPD, and the 1977 blackout. These topics have not only helped me explore course themes, such as the struggles for racial equality and the development of the social welfare state, but have also exposed students to ground perhaps less well-trodden in a survey course.

Incorporating local history into my survey course, however, has proven more complicated than I envisioned. I find that my students sometimes struggle to see how local developments fit into broader narratives for a given class session(s). I have also found that my students do not know much about New York City history (I did not know much as an undergraduate either) and that analyzing local events fully requires me to provide historical context that can sap time from other important topics. In addition, most of my students in the survey course are non-majors and many have not taken a U.S. History class since high school. As such, require a focus on – and often remain more engaged with – national and/or presidential history.

I often remind myself that sparking students’ interest in these topics is a legitimate objective for an introductory course. Nonetheless, this semester has left me wondering about when and where it might (and might not) be appropriate to offer closer looks at developments unfolding in neighborhoods and local institutions in a survey class. Might telling these finer-grained stories offer an additional way to build more opportunities for critical thinking? Can local history lead students to reconsider more standard historical narratives? How have others handled this issue?

Leave a Reply

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