U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teaching US Intellectual History

I’m teaching in the history department next year! Amazing and exciting. For a US historian, I’ve taught a lot of courses about the world outside of the US and about the US’s internationalism. This year I’ve been teaching a unique, fun course on South Africa and the global anti-apartheid movement (with a few US parallels drawn here and there) as part of my post-doc at the University of Kentucky. In the fall I get to teach a senior seminar which I gave the super exciting title of “Race and Class in the Great Depression” (I had about 2 minutes to decide on a title, literally). In the spring I’m teaching the US Intellectual History survey. Despite my place here on the blog, I would feel more comfortable teaching the African American History survey, so I’m turning to you folks for ideas.

My questions:

1. What are some of the themes that you highlight?
2. Do you move through the semester chronologically or thematically?
3. Do you assign whole texts or mostly essays?
4. Do you focus more on close readings or broad ideas?
5. Which texts/essays do you assign? Do you ever assign non-written texts (music, films, monuments, images, art etc)? Two of my favorite lectures that my advisor, David Bailey, gave in his US Intellectual History survey, were on Julia Ward Howe’s authorship of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and on Dorothea Lange’s Depression era photography.

As an intellectual historian, I’m about as far from a philosophical historian as you can get. After events this past week, I’m thinking Richard Pryor and Wendell Berry might be good sources (Randall Kennedy mentioned one of Pryor’s acts in a talk I went to Monday–I plan to share it with ya’ll one of these day–and Wendell Berry spent the weekend camped out in the governor’s office to campaign against mountain-top removal).

How hard do you work to connect the history to the area in which you teach? I’m very new to Kentucky, but I live about 500 yards from Henry Clay’s estate. Maybe I should include some of his speeches (although I plan to start after the Civil War)? Do any of you know other famous Kentuckians?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I love “The American Intellectual Tradition” edited by Hollinger and Capper – 6th edition is out now. It is mostly chronological but they do try to carve out some thematic elements as well. I also think Menand’s “Metaphysical Club” is a great read although perhaps more than you’d want to assign in a survey style course. I use Brick “Age of Contradiction” for the 1960s and Jumonville’s “The New York Intellectuals Reader” has lots of great stuff that you’ll want to think about including. “Renewing Black Intellectual History” from Reed and Warren is a must as well.

    There are so many options for organization that I would not know where to begin myself (although I hope to have the chance some day). This semester I am teaching a course on the Cold War; looking at some of the important ideas and intellectual history themes, for each theme I have tried to find a few film clips that are representative so that I can connect with the class on another level. We have been having a good time with it and I think it makes the themes more clear more quickly than the readings alone could do. It has also taken the pressure off of me as a lecturer and we can spend classes having real discussions which is what I always hope for.

    Perhaps some of this is helpful, I hope so. Good luck with this course!

  2. I am reading through both volumes of Hollinger and Capper this semester in a PhD seminar. I too enjoy the set-up — the introductions to each period and each writer are helpful. However, these are expensive books — over $50 per volume. I don’t know what kinds of limits, if any, there are on the amount/cost of books you can put on your reading list, but that may be something to consider. Perhaps free eTexts online through Google Books or Project Gutenberg, supplemented by .pdfs from JSTOR, could do some of the work of these anthologies. But that would be a ton of work to put together.

    As a student, I could live with a course which is *roughly* thematic, but I would need a sense of a very sturdy chronological scaffolding underlying the whole thing.

    Good luck. Let us know how it goes.

  3. Lauren: I *loved* Dave Bailey’s lectures when I was an undergraduate. They’re the single biggest reason I teach US cultural and intellectual history today. My two favorites: 1) Jazz and the US; and 2) the history of basketball—a special lecture prepared in honor of MSU’s run for the National championship in 2000.

    I don’t have Bailey’s lecturing chops, I’m afraid. So I like to give my students one or two primary sources (often from PDF excerpts from Google Books for out-of-copyright stuff) and a secondary source that is on topic. In class we dig into all the texts and I make it my goal that every student leaves with new skills at discovering a past conversion in any primary source and in reading secondary sources as part of a contemporary historical conversation.

    I’ve taught the course twice now. The first time I used a roughly chronological theme (“American selves”), but I much prefer a stronger chronological arc, and I think my students do to.

    For a rough idea of my arc, I hang my hat on Nick Guyatt’s _Providence and the Invention of the United States_ for the first third of the course, shift to Menand’s _Metaphysical Club_, and then finish off with Hollinger’s _Postethnic America_.

  4. Is there any photograph in American history at once more touching and iconic than that one by Lange? Although I write about the people who stayed, not the ones who left, I think that photo speaks volumes. We need similar ones to help us comprehend the current Great Recession.

  5. For teaching the Great Depression/New Deal, WPA art (especially the poster division) offers fascinating non-text texts to use. Many are available online through the Library of Congress.

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