Teaching HST 244 By Jonathan Sassi
What makes a general education course a general education course? What makes a course in social scientific analysis a course in social scientific analysis? Well you may ask. I had to ask myself those questions when I began to teach one of my regular course offerings, HST 244, the survey of United States history from the colonial period through the end of the Civil War in 1865. Over the years, I have developed an approach to the course that aims to meet the needs of both students taking the class as part of their history major and the typically larger number of students who are enrolled so as to satisfy the general education category of “social scientific analysis.” I do so by focusing the course around the twin themes of “coverage” and “uncoverage.”
For historians at colleges and universities across the country, the U.S. survey is a bread-and-butter course. It typically covers the sweep of the nation’s history during two semesters with the Civil War forming the dividing point. As in any survey course, regardless of academic discipline, one of the main challenges is how to cover all that material in fifteen weeks. As a specialist in early American history, however, this is a challenge that I enjoy. I tell my students that HST 244 is like a “greatest hits album,” where every week should be compelling as we sample some of the most important events and issues in America’s past. Hence, one of the themes I announce at the beginning of the semester is the idea of “coverage”: how we will be taking an overview of the development of American society and culture during a period of more than 250 years.
When I first taught HST 244 at CSI ten years ago, I just assumed that by virtue of their taking a history course my students were being introduced to “social scientific analysis.” While that was no doubt implicitly true to some extent, I now make explicit for them just exactly what we mean by a social science general education course. In these courses, to quote the language of the Undergraduate Catalog, “students are introduced to the fundamental methodologies of the social sciences, such as, hypothesis development, data collection and analysis, and the critical evaluation of evidence.” It is here that I articulate my second overarching theme, “uncoverage,” a term I encountered in a 2002 essay by historian Lendol Calder. Under the label “uncoverage,” I tell my students, we seek throughout the semester to expose and examine the original sources from which historians construct their interpretations of the past. I repeatedly pose the question, “How can we know what we say we know about early America?”
Each week I accordingly spotlight a different type of primary source material that historians use to understand early America and ask students to consider what kinds of information it can yield about the past. The present availability of rich online archives makes it possible for our students to access conveniently an array of primary sources. For example, when we study the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, I introduce students to the insights that can be gained from objects recovered through archaeology, using an informative website about the excavation there. Later in the semester, when we study the eighteenth-century slave plantation society that developed along the Chesapeake, I have students investigate photographs of the built environment, paintings and engravings of slave life and work, and newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves—all of these sources available on the web. Through examining this diverse range of evidence for themselves, students “do history” by forming interpretations about the lives of people in that faraway time and place. (My module about plantation slavery is available online as part of the Investigating U.S. History website, a collaborative project that involved U.S. historians throughout CUNY.)
Other weeks we focus on a Puritan woman’s account of her ordeal as a wartime captive of Native Americans, conflicting reactions to John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia as seen in contemporary newspaper editorials, and political cartoons from the War of 1812, to name just a few of my favorites. Whatever source material is in the spotlight that week, I push students to consider what kinds of historical questions that source can address and how to take into account its inherent biases. In short, I am deliberately training students in “social scientific analysis” as that is practiced by historians. By organizing HST 244 around the twin themes of “coverage” and “uncoverage,” I have designed a course that teaches my students about both the early American past and the social scientific methods we use to discover that history.