Another Radical Restructuring of the U.S. Survey

As I was thinking about how much Charles W. McKinney, Jr.,’s keyword essay on “Riot” (in Edwards, Erica R., Roderick A. Ferguson, and Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, eds. Keywords for African American Studies. New York: NYU Press, 2018. doi:10.2307/j.ctvwrm5v9) resonated with students, I began brainstorming another new way to teach the US survey (again).

What if I organized each week around a “keyword” in history, and students built a construction of the term over time. This approach would particularly translate well to a hybrid format, I’m thinking.

It could go something like this: each week there is a keyword — we could start the semester with the “riot” essay as an example of what we would create each week. Examples could include: freedom, consumption, work, policing…

Then, in each class session, students would pair up and be assigned a chapter from a textbook, perhaps American Yawp. They would work together to gut the chapter and its contents for material that would help explain the week’s term for that era. For example, if the week’s word were policing: students looking at chapter 15 might explore issues of convict leasing; those looking at chapter 16 would explore how strikers encountered force, those looking at American imperialism might think about the concept of “policing” the Western Hemisphere and beyond, or they could examine the origins of modern police forces in the Progressive Era in chapter 20 (or in the chapter on urbanization).

The class would build an outline in a Google document, perhaps, providing an overview of the term’s various meaning across historical contexts. Then as a class we could write a reflective thesis.

Writing assignments could include an article review or primary source exploration of the term — an article review would allow them to go in depth into the nuance and complexity of application in a particular moment. These could be added to the document as an aside or cutout.

A final exam could have them assess the question of periodization. At our university, we have upper level electives that divide the century into the classic eras: 1877–1920; 1920–1945; 1945–1968; 1968–present. In their final assignment, the could propose core themes for an era drawn from the keywords, or they could propose a different periodization based on three of the keywords developed in the class discussions.

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