By Shannon Bontrager
Editor’s Note: This post is the first of a series of posts from the AHA Bridging Cultures project. Participants will blog about how they have redesigned their US history courses to take a broader view of the US relative to the Atlantic and Pacific worlds. Authors will also be contributing curricular materials, to be posted in our new online Bridging Cultures Resources.
The Bridging Cultures program funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities and fulfilled by the American Historical Association was designed to help two-year college faculty reinvent the US survey course.
Its focus on the Pacific world and the Atlantic world provided a framework for faculty participants to think about the historical role the US has played in these regions (and discovering bridges between them). Participants came away with innovative strategies about how to destabilize traditional nation-state narratives, incorporate the stories of the varied peoples who lived in the US, and understand the hemispheric mentalities and systems that shaped the American experience. I have used these key themes to redesign both halves of my US history survey courses.
I began by incorporating Atlantic and Pacific content into my lectures. Following David Igler’s Pacific World, for example, I reoriented the California gold rush as ending rather than beginning the story of American western expansion. This strategic shift allowed me to describe American imperial and environmental presence in the Pacific within the context of the US vying with other empires for trade with Asia and control of whaling and fur trades. It also enabled me to examine interaction between indigenous peoples and imperial agents in a vast oceanic system. Focusing on the Atlantic world, I incorporated recent research on commodities (such as chocolate and tobacco) and unfree people who came to the New World mostly through slavery, indentured servitude, impressment, and criminality.
Next, I devised imaginative in- and out-of-class assignments for students. One in-class group assignment directed students to use primary sources to investigate the effects of American empire on Filipino people; another, the influence Haitians had on African American thought. Later in the semester, students conducted out-of-class research on www.slavevoyages.org. This assignment required students to demonstrate their ability to think through a database and to target specific information while synthesizing multiple data points into a cohesive interpretation.
The Bridging Cultures program also served as an opportunity for faculty members from around the country to share their pedagogical and research ideas. This interaction inspired me to create original assignments for students to present their research. For example, I used PechaKucha (20×20) presentations to bring students and the community together. PechaKucha is a format where students present their ideas succinctly and efficiently on 20 automated slides lasting 20 seconds each. The entire presentation lasts 6 minutes and 40 seconds. (For more on this, see my earlier post, “Pizza, PechaKucha, and Pedagogy.”)
I also started using ChronoZoom. This “zoomable” timeline, invented at the University of California, Berkeley, and sponsored by Microsoft Research, attempts to cover all of history from the big bang to the current moment. There are, of course, limitations to this web-based application. For instance, it privileges Big History too much, and its content is heavily controlled and sparse. But its wiki capability allows students to add content to private timelines. This enabled my Honors students to create exhibits focused on the US and the Atlantic and Pacific worlds, viewable only to those with access to our class account.
Students even built a high-tech annotated bibliography with visual and interactive components. Some included YouTube videos, personal photographs, and Flickr Commons images. Through this exercise, students developed a sense of how their projects related to larger historical trends and systems. This provided my students with a valuable visualization of how the Atlantic and Pacific worlds impacted the US and how the US bridged the Atlantic and Pacific worlds over time.
This course redesign has allowed me to think more broadly about the US narrative in the survey class, enabling me to incorporate aspects of the AHA Tuning project more effectively. I make strategic decisions about what to include in the course, but this oceanic focus permits me to move further away from a coverage model and closer to my ultimate goal of getting students to think historically, analyze how broad systems and networks interact, and develop research skills. Incorporating these oceanic worlds into the US narrative also gives me the opportunity to more closely meld American history with world history. By changing the geographic perspective, I have been able to change many aspects of my courses to better serve my students.
In the Bridging Cultures Resources:
- Honors 2111 US History Survey Course Description and Syllabus
- Assignment: Social History of the Atlantic Slave Trade
- ChronoZoom Memory and History Project Rubric
Check out the complete resources.
Shannon Bontrager is an associate professor of history at Georgia Highlands College in Cartersville, Georgia. His research focuses on the cultural and political history of how Americans remember their war dead from the Civil War to the Great Depression.