U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Drafting a Syllabus

Last Wednesday was my final day of formal coursework. Ever.  I am done — done taking classes, anyhow.  Instead, I get to teach them.

For now, I have been assigned to teach a section of the second half of the U.S. history survey.  This section of the survey is offered during one of my university’s short summer terms.  Classes meet twice a week for five weeks, and each class meeting is four and a half hours long.

I can guarantee you that I will not be lecturing, nor will my students be sitting, for that entire time.  There will be breaks.  There will be a variety of classroom activities and exercises.  And still, there will probably be some (figurative) weeping and gnashing of teeth.  However, in five weeks’ time, I do need to be sure we make it from the Civil War to the War on Terror.  So there will in fact be content-laden lectures — two per class.

Below is a day-by-day breakdown of lecture topics / titles.  There are lots of ways we Americanists can carve our thin little slices of time, but — for now, anyhow — this general arrangement makes sense to me.


Day 1

Introduction to History: “One damned thing after another”

The Civil War and Reconstruction: Unfinished Revolution(s)?

Day 2

From Village Islands to Iron Giants: Industrialization Nation

No Place Like Home: Invasion, Immigration, Dislocation

Day 3

Filthy Rich: The Swanky Swamp of the Gilded Age

The Octopi Movement:  Empires at Home and Abroad

Day 4

There’s a New Woman in Paradise: Economies of Desire

Ponderers, Peddlers, Meddlers, Settlers: The Progressive Search for Order

Day 5

Western Civilization on Parade: World War I

Fun While It Lasted: Roaring Twenties, Reeling Thirties

Day 6

Alphabet Soup Kitchen: The New Deal

World War II:  Superheroes with Superpowers

Day 7

Shelter in Place: Cold War Culture

Staking a Claim: Suburban Life and Civil Rights

Day 8

Making Room and Making Right: Gender, Race and LBJ’s Great Society

Making Peace and Making Love: The New Left and the Counterculture

Day 9

From Malaise to Morning in America: The New Right and the Reagan Era

The Culture Wars: Where Is the Fight if the Cold War Is Over?

Day 10

King of the Hill: The Clinton Era and the Global Imperium

World Wide Webs: The Digital Age and the War on Terror


As far as textbooks go, I am not going to assign a survey textbook — that’s what the lectures are for. But I am planning on requiring two books — a very brief overview of U.S. history and an historical atlas — that should cost about $50 altogether.  I don’t want to ask my students to spend more than that.  And if the atlas doesn’t work out — I should be getting my examination copy any day — they’ll be spending significantly less than that, because I’ll use what’s available online.

Indeed, between my university’s own online resources and the archival material freely available through the DPLA, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, History Matters, and scores of other sites, I have plenty of primary sources I will be assigning to the class.  I am even going to have them read a smidgen of historiography — a little Frederick Jackson Turner, a dash of Dunning, a tiny dose of Schlesinger. Just a little — but a little goes a long way.

In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for particular documents/sources you use in your own teaching, please feel free to post a link in the comments below.  I won’t be using any film as a secondary source, but I’ll be showing a few film clips and playing a few songs as primary sources.  And I will certainly be including this audio clip to introduce my lecture on “Making Room”:

LBJ orders Haggar pants

Now that’s some class and gender business goin’ on right there.

22 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Really…the octopi movement??? To paraphrase Randy Newman, “If he (Frank Norris) were alive today he’d be rolling around in his grave”.

  2. Aw, come on, Paul — I’m proud of that pun. Of course, now that I’ve published it here it’s technically the property of S-USIH. You’re all welcome!

    • Letter from Birmingham Jail

      Exquisite, Tim. Perhaps the pinnacle of Western cultural and moral literacy.

      The very thought of it never fails to take my breath away. Thanks for this.

  3. I updated the LBJ link to a better source than YouTube, with its NSFW commentariat. I like whitehousetapes.org — their site includes a nice transcript that scrolls with the audio.

  4. I am teaching the same course, essentially (Civil War to today) in summer session this year as well; I have to say, I’ve been very inspired by your creative lecture titles here — I think such constructions help draw students into the material.

  5. Does anyone else use Gary Gerstle’s American Crucible in their 1877- survey classes? What are people’s opinions of the book? This isn’t to move away from LD’s questions; just wondering if others think Gerstle is good for “a brief survey of US history.”

  6. “Western Civilization Commits Suicide” wd be a better (if admittedly not esp. original) title, imho, for the WW1 lecture than “Western Civ. on Parade,” which makes it sound like a sort of ceremonial picnic. (The US got off rather lightly compared to Europe, true, but the lecture topic says just ‘WW1’ so you will presumably, I’m guessing, address the European origins and also extra-European theaters to some extent.)

    • Well, you’re right about the self-destruction — but the title is a little bit ironic. And one of the things I want to not only historicize but also “problematize,” as they say in the biz (though I’d hesitate to drop that jargon on freshmen), is the idea of “Western Civilization” — who has “belonged” and who hasn’t, why there is an assumed but contested continuity between the ancient Mediterranean world and, say, Des Moines, IA, such that they both belong to this larger thing called “Western Civilization.”

      Germany is in for a while at the close of the 19th century (the whole Saxon/Teutonic business and the origins of American democracy in the forests of Saxony), then it becomes “barbarian” during WWI, only to become “western” again during the Cold War. I’m not going to lard all of that into this lecture, but I do want to introduce the students to the idea that “Western Civilization” isn’t some pre-existent thing that’s there, but a way of thinking about (part of) the world that has some real-world consequences.

      • OK, good point.

        It occurs to me you might be interested in Patrick T. Jackson’s Civilizing the Enemy, which deals w how the discourse of ‘Western civilization’ gets applied in the context of post-45 (W.) Germany and its reconstruction. (Disclosure: I’m acquainted w the author and have read some of his work – tho not this bk, actually, which was the outgrowth of his diss.) Jackson’s bk may even bear very tangentially on your dissertation, inasmuch as I believe he discusses the post-45 ‘general education’ trend in US univs. (eg, General Education in a Free Society, which was the ‘manifesto’ for Harvard’s gen ed program in the late 40s (?) — I forget the exact date — may have been ’46, but am not taking the time to look it up). This was not a great bks curriculum, but it might nonetheless be of some relevance… fwiw.

      • LFC, thanks so much for this book recommendation. I think it is more than tangentially relevant to my dissertation.

        You are a gem!

  7. Mark, don’t worry about moving away from my particular questions. I (foolishly?) decided not to use a survey text, but I’d be interested in a discussion of why others do/don’t use a survey text.

    Robin Marie and Cameron, thanks for the props! I really have to resist the urge to be impish in my syllabi (and pretty much everywhere else).

    On the “swanky swamp” lecture, the title gets at several things I’d like to cover:

    -the disparity of wealth (filthy + rich)
    -the conspicuous display of luxury (swanky)
    -the rise of “social darwinism” and evolutionary thought (swamp)

    My next step is to find rich, riveting images that match each title. We’ll be doing some in-class textual analysis exercises every day — and I’ll probably have them do some of this in groups, just to break up the butt-in-chairness of the day.

    I guess I should probably do all this “process” meta-conversation about pedagogy over at my own blog. Writing my way through teaching the survey will be helpful to me, but might be dull as dirt to most of our readers.

    However, consider this post an open thread / bleg and talk about whatever is helpful to you all in teaching the survey.

    I’m just so thrilled that I get to actually do this. I would teach this class for free if they’d let me. Thank heavens they won’t!

    • Congratulations LD! This looks like the most interesting syllabus I could think of! I would be curious to see a class discussion of that LBJ tape.

    • From a mentor of mine: “I teach for free, they pay me to grade.”

  8. LD: I prefer Gerstle because he covers alot of familiar ground (minus gender) while, unlike a survey text, still offering a specific, compelling argument. My prelims were a bit different: I had to create a syllabus for both halfs of US survey, a bibliography of texts that would inform my lectures, and then justify my decisions (which ran about 80 pages). I decided I wanted a master frame for the whole thing. With a little help from B. Anderson, Wallerstein, and inspired by a book on the long development of the Mexican state, I settled on the ebb and flow of American nationalism as my “theme.” I then discovered Gerstle, whose argument about the struggle between racial and civic nationalism over the twentieth century has been a perfect compliment to my lectures. Anyone else have a monograph they can’t “live without?”

    • Mark, thanks.

      One of the things I found so interesting about Self’s All in the Family was the fact that his entire book was in some ways an exegesis of the premise(s) of the show, without every once mentioning the show by name. It was an interesting silence. Maybe a tribute? Showing, instead of telling?

  9. Well, crap.

    Of course I couldn’t do what every other grad student teaching the survey does and just assign a survey textbook. No, I have to try to a) help my students economize and b) get gratuitously creative about how I approach the survey.

    Time to get gratuitously creative. I am L.D. Burnett, reinventor of wheels!

    • More students than not will appreciate your strenuous efforts to NOT assign a survey textbook (which I think most are written for teachers and not students anyway). You’re off to a great start here.

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