In December I solicited your advice here on incorporating U.S. intellectual history into U.S. survey courses. Right now I’m in the middle of my post-Reconstruction survey at Northeastern Illinois University. Things are going well. I have an excellent crop of capable students—perhaps the best I’ve ever had. And even though I’m an adjunct, the administrative support has been quite good. The History Department’s chair, Patrick Miller, has gone out of his way to make me feel comfortable.
But what of my plans for inspiring students, “subtly” or explicitly, to think about our subfield? Thus far those designs have, well, come to little. This does not mean, however, that the life of the mind in U.S. history has been ignored. As of today my only opportunities have been a lingering gaze at Progressive Era intellectuals (muckrakers, DuBois, Dewey, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and other experts), changes in education, and hints of larger cultural ideas. On the latter, it’s always been important to me to heavily emphasize the transition in values that took place in our gradual move from what Daniel Walker Howe [right] called American Victorianism to American Modernity.
It bugs me that there has not a comfortable way to insert William James into the discussion. This stems, I believe, from my textbook choice. My selection, Out of Many (Faragher et al, 5th ed), favors Dewey in its discussion of Pragmatism. And this focus works for the plethora of education majors in my class: its cultural literacy for them. But James gives one an opportunity to talk about Boston intellectuals and his famous, novel-writing brother.
But aside from this somewhat petty critique, the larger trouble with incorporating intellectual history arises from the impulse toward coverage. Darren Grem at the Religion in American History weblog reflected on this situation last fall. His solution was to experiment with a technique he wittily denoted as “uncoverage.” [Note: I’d forgotten that this idea wasn’t Grem’s. See comment #1 below.]
In Darren’s first post on the subject he called the drive toward coverage a “rookie mistake.” I respectfully disagree, as many colleges have a philosophy of coverage in surveys by which they expect you to abide. This philosophy was not forcefully impressed upon me at NEIU, but I recall a conversation about facts that needed to be passed along. We don’t have an exit exam, so the philosophy can’t be enforced. But I’m no fool: as a first-time instructor at this institution, I didn’t want to rock the boat. This is the plight of the adjunct.
In situations where coverage is not merely a first-year instructor’s mistake but an expectation—implied or otherwise, all efforts to more than nominally incorporate subfields are over before they’re started. This undermined my effort for the current term.
In sum, I think subtlety is the only way to incorporate U.S. intellectual history in my current course. Hopefully I’ll be able to post on this again in the future—when I’m in a situation that explicitly allows for bending a survey to my expertise. – TL