U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Pedagogy: A Theme for the US Intellectual History Survey

I am teaching the US Intellectual History survey for the first time in Spring 2012. I’ve been thinking about what unifying theme I want to present to students. It’s become my conviction that we need a few ideas that we keep returning to over the course of the semester, rather than an attempt to cover as much material as possible. When I first started teaching, I wanted to give my students all the information which I had discovered since coming to grad school–the kind of stuff that I read and went, “how did I not know that before?” But I realized that themes developed based around my interests, anyway, and it was usually those themes that were remembered, through the sheer force of repetition.

What themes have you used in the survey? I had been thinking about things like pragmatism, pluralism, changing ideas of conservative/liberal, but I had a bright thought this morning and would like your opinion.

What if I arranged the lectures around idea transmissions and national conversations? I would want students to ask the questions–how did people have national conversations before the internet? What did they talk about? How did the method of transmission influence the content of the discussion? We could spend the last few weeks looking at blogs, newspapers and magazines online, and social media. I could then ask the question on the final–has the internet fundamentally transformed what Americans talk about? Why or why not?

I had this thought reading Louis Menand’s discussion of the “Value of College in America” in the most recent New Yorker. I am thinking of assigning the article for students to begin to think about college as a form of idea transmission and center for dialogue. (On a side, more relevant note, what did you all think of the article?)

I’ve also been thinking a lot about American literature. When I took my European Intellectual History comp, I read a lot of literature/philosophy. Less so for my US Intellectual History comp. Do you ever assign novels?

Finally, do you assign monographs in an undergrad class? I feel like I should assign more than a week for undergrads to read a whole book, but if I assign a monograph, we may only be discussing that topic for a single week. Perhaps it is better to assign article length primary and secondary sources and tie them to the specific discussion of each class meeting?

P.S. The image is from Menand’s article in the New Yorker.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think your idea about transmissions and conversations is a good one. May want to make some use of the ideas in Stephen’s Johnson’s book “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” and his TED talk on the same subject. His concept of the importance of the coffee shop as a metaphor for exchange of ideas is a good one.

  2. I do assign monographs to undergraduates, and book-length primary sources. 1-3 chapters per class session depending on length of class, and how much detail I want to get into.

  3. Thanks anonymous. I’ll definitely check that out.

    Jonathan, do you talk about the topic of the book across weeks? Or expect students to read the chapters, but wait to discuss it during one particular class period?

  4. I assign historical monographs and memoirs on the survey level (no fiction yet, but that’s mostly because I’m in the “juggling” stage of my early career and am leaning on tied and true works in that course). Formal book discussion lasts one day; it acts as a capstone to a series of lectures on a particular topic; and it is a stepping stone to a writing topic.

    I often try to pick a work that contradicts or offers an alternative to what I (and our class text) present in class. It makes for some interesting conversations and the brave students usually get around to asking me that sticky and important question: “So, which one of you is telling the truth–you or the author of the book?”

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