Teaching Localities

Over at Darren Reid’s blog, Mark Cheathem has some interesting things to say about the concept of the ‘Age of Jackson’. In particular, he notes that his students in Tennessee look at the 1820s and 1830s very differently from his former students in New England.

At my current university, the Early Republic course is entitled “Jacksonian Democracy,” which I find a bit limiting. (I prefer “Jacksonian America,” which speaks of more than politics, but changing a longtime course title is a more difficult process than one might imagine.) That course title works at a Tennessee university, because many of our students are state residents and have some awareness of Jackson and The Hermitage. When I taught in New Hampshire, I chose the course title “Republicanism, Democracy, and Expansion, 1789-1845,”

As I finalize my syllabi for next quarter, I have been reflecting on whether teaching in Ohio means that I should give a particularly midwestern flavor to my courses. Teaching a course on Native Americans in the fall quarter, I noticed a particular interest among students when discussing the Shawnee, Mingo, and other nations in the Ohio Valley. Teaching just miles from Point Pleasant, this perhaps isn’t surprising. As I go back over my lecture notes and reading lists, I’ve been reminded of this positive response, and I’m trying to adjust accordingly.

What, though, is the purpose of teaching a course on any aspect of early American history? One of the animating principles in my research and teaching is that the past is complicated. Another is that the key story of American political development is the struggle to fuse together the competing interests of a variety of very different localities. So what is important and crucial in Ohio may be anathema in Georgia or Maine.

The important contributions of comparative and transnational history also have to be considered here. In teaching the survey course, for example, I emphasize the importance of the international context in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, or in the formation of the federal government. Often, this is a necessary counterweight to the use of personal pronouns when writing about the American founding – it is harder to think of something as “our” history when being asked to view events from an outside perspective.

Yet what is the purpose of teaching history if it is not to make students more informed about the world around them? That requires an understanding of local events as much as it does international ones – after all, most Americans did not experience the Revolution as a transnational event, but rather a troubling and fraught local one. That’s even without mentioning the importance of a sense of place in understanding the past (I know my understanding of the Revolution was transformed by walking the streets of many of the major East Coast cities). A notch in favor of a local emphasis.

That case is bolstered by another key objective in teaching – the ‘transferable skills’ of critical thinking and analytical writing. The challenge of teaching history lies in striking a balance between gaining new factual knowledge, and being able to interpret it accurately. Clearly, the higher the baseline of original knowledge, the less time that needs to be spent giving out factual information. It’s much easier to explain Native American warfare when referring to locations close to the home towns of my students!

And yet there is an uneasiness I find in gearing my course too closely in that direction. It seems like it tends towards easy familiarity and safe answers, rather than challenging students to step outside of their usual terms of reference. In terms of my classes next quarter, my hunch is that Native American history will be sufficiently unfamiliar that a concentration on the Ohio Valley will help compensate for some of the novelties and difficulties of the course. For the Early Republic, a wider view will be necessary – to emphasize just how heterogeneous a polity the newly United States really was. Yet at the same time I wonder – if it engages students more readily, is greater localism in teaching material that much of a curse?

 

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About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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9 Responses to Teaching Localities

  1. I’ve been thinking about a similar issue since a Twitter conversation we had a few days ago about reactions to John Adams and the comparative background knowledge of early American in the United States and Britain. So I’m glad you’ve posted about it.

    You’ve raised several good points. I think one of the things you have to consider in college teaching is your situation. For example, I once interviewed at a public university in a state with a state history requirement. I learned a lot about said state’s early history to include in my teaching presentation, you can be sure. Or, and again this would apply at a public college or university, you may have a strong teacher education program. In that case the local examples can be invaluable both because they will help budding teachers on their own merits, and because they may end up facing local history mandates at the K-12 level. A little knowledge in sophomore year about the Shawnees and Mingos might go a long way once you’re in front of 35 fourth graders.

    On the other hand, you’re right to raise the issue (though without the cliched reference) of the past as a “foreign country.” Emphasizing that can have its uses.

    Lastly, I’d be curious to hear Mark elaborate on just what he meant by that. In my experience growing up as a New Yorker and living a fair bit of time in the mid-Atlantic and New England, I’m not sure I’d find anyone who didn’t understand the adjective “Jacksonian” to describe the 1820s and 1830s.

    • My sense of the NH students was that they hadn’t a clue as to who Jackson was or why a period of U.S. history was named for him. My students in Tennessee and even in Mississippi understood his importance, primarily through Indian removal.

      I think the awareness of Jacksonianism might tie in to your point about the student population. Frankly, as a college freshman, I’m not sure I could have said much more about Jackson than that he removed the Cherokee. The only reason I knew that was because I grew up in East Tennessee near the Red Clay council grounds.

  2. I think there is a usefulness in connecting history to the local, making it more meaningful to students.

    Two caveats, though. One is that we can’t assume that students know any more about local history than they do national or global history. I’m still surprised by how little my Tennessee students know about Jackson besides Indian removal. The second is that bringing the “alien” into the classroom can help jar students out of any complacent understanding that they might have of the history they know or think they know. A case in point is teaching the Civil War to my New Hampshire students. They had a good awareness of the Revolution, the Salem witch trials, and even abolitionism to some extent, but they (generally) knew nothing about southern culture. I spent a fair amount of time on Civil War memory to examine how the Civil War remains alive for many white and black southerners in ways that it does not for New Englanders.

  3. Ken says:

    You both raise some important points. One reason I use as many primary documents as I can in my classes is to try and jolt students out of complacency. It’s been a real joy this term to hear students tell me how much they enjoyed reading non-importation agreements, for example, because it told them a side of the Revolution they’d never heard before.

    Mark – my comments about teaching local history weren’t based on assuming prior knowledge, but more that history is more ‘relevant’ or ‘real’ when it touches on landscapes and areas they are familiar with. I think a sense of the mobility of Native American populations was brought out much more effectively when I was talking about Ohio rather than New England, for example.

    Joe – One thing I should note is that my university also offers a course in Ohio History; generally these sorts of courses are compulsory for state accreditation, I believe (if you’ve read Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl, he has a couple of particularly amusing riffs on the requirement to teach ‘Our State’ in North Dakota).

    On a different note – are you interested in doing some sort of dual posting on the differences of teaching early American history in the US and the UK?

  4. Chris Tucker says:

    As a former student of Dr. Cheathem (and a Massachusetts native raised in New Hampshire), I can certainly offer my own thoughts. I’m currently a second-year PhD student at a university in Worcester, MA, so it’s hard for me to remember what exactly I was aware/unaware of as an undergraduate. I can say however that I entered Dr. C’s “Republicanism, Democracy, and Expansion” course with virtually zero background in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War (which was part of the reason why I enrolled in the course) and a minimal amount of experience studying Andrew Jackson. I was fairly knowledgeable regarding Indian Removal, which was covered extensively in my high school American history courses (I went to a private high school, which complicates things a bit as I can’t attest to what NH public school students are taught) but otherwise, I was completely ignorant of Jackson’s major influence on the period.

    As for the example of the Civil War, I would also agree with Dr. Cheathem. I took his Civil War course, however, with a moderate amount of experience in the War, which I attribute to my father’s mild obsession with it. As a kid, we went to numerous battlefields and I watched films such as “Gettysburg” and “Glory.” Hardly a true education but more than many other New England children get, in my experience. We NH students also learn at fairly young ages about Franklin Pierce, but I wasn’t aware of his opinions on slavery and role in the coming of the Civil War until I did a research paper on him for Dr. C.

    I will agree with Dr. C that New England students are fairly well-aware of the Revolution and the Witch Trials, mainly because we first encounter them in elementary school! When I changed my college major from English to History, I had intended on focusing on the Colonial period, which is another thing we young New Englanders are well-versed in (relatively speaking). However, my primary area of interest quickly changed to African American history, mainly due to the courses I took with Dr. C. As I noted above, my Civil War knowledge was decent, but the social causes/effects of the War were not part of my education, and the courses African American history (as well as the Civil War and the Jacksonian period) were instrumental in shaping my interests.

    At Clark (my current institution) the faculty does a fantastic job linking national history to the local history of Worcester, but they don’t offer a course on Worcester’s history alone (to the best of my knowledge). I’ve never designed my own course so I can’t fully say, but in my experience as a student, it seems difficult to tailor a college level course to the history of a locality. Rather, I think emphasizing local interests in national events (or even global, at times, such as the case with the Revolution or abolition) is what I’m most interested in as a student, and how I hope to design my courses when I am the member of a faculty.

  5. Pingback: History Carnival #107 – March 2012 « The View East

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