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No Syllabus Required: Notes from a Teaching Experiment

Scenes from events and battles leading up to and during the American Revolution, 1775-1783, as depicted in 12 illustrations. Artist, Daniel Chodowiecki, 1726-1801. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Late last summer, an article in the humor blog McSweeney’s titled “I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Write the Syllabus for Your Class” made the rounds. It included the line, “I would rather go shopping for jeans or foundational undergarments or practical-yet-cute footwear than write this damn Syllabus because I do not know what I will want you to read on November 22.” I enjoyed that line because I had already decided that I would not be determining what we would read not just that day, but most of the semester.

A little background. Although I have spent the last decade researching and writing about the American Revolution, before this past fall I had not taught a course specifically on that subject since 2003. In that time, my own understanding of the subject and the field’s interpretations of it had evolved dramatically. The more I tried to hammer down a straight-forward narrative, the more difficult it became. The deadline for making book orders passed, and I still had no idea where to start.

The dilemma I faced is probably familiar to most Americanists. Students come into class expecting a familiar Founding-Fathers-bring-us-Freedom narrative, though they also know that their faculty will tell them about slavery and other unpleasantness too. Meanwhile, the influence of Atlantic history, of Age of Revolutions scholarship, and of #vastearlyAmerica, has challenged the boundaries of that basic narrative so effectively that a syllabus can only do full justice to “the field” if it at least entertains abandoning old stalwarts like the Stamp Act, thus weakening the organized narrative. One way to handle such a problem is to complicate each stage of the story—teaching the Tea Act as an Atlantic event, or forefronting Indigenous actors in the process of state formation—but that leaves the central narrative intact, which I could not commit to. Dropping the narrative requires one to create a different one, ever the thorny problem.

Moreover, I became an early Americanist in large measure because I believe in the importance of early American history to civics education. Most of my students come in with only a vague understanding of the nation’s government, much less its founding. I want to teach them complexity, but I believe the most important outcome of historical education is the creation of thoughtful and informed citizens. Bringing this philosophy to bear on the American Revolution class, aren’t I undermining my own goal if I skip the Constitutional Convention to make time for…. Something else?

This was to be a relatively small (30 students) upper-level history class, and my students tend to have good basic reading and writing skills, so I decided they were up for an experiment—explain the challenges of organizing the subject the American Revolution to the students, and then let them pick their own way through the material in “choose your own adventure” way. Before the semester started, I spent some time thinking about ground rules. I needed to be able to control the quality of what they read, and I wanted them all to read the same thing. To that end, I decided to ask them, in groups, for topics they wanted to explore, then I would pick the actual articles, class by class.

This plan dictated that there would be no books to read. We would be doing articles and chapters, and they had to be able to really read those pieces. To set them up for this, we started the semester with Michael Hattem’s absolutely amazing historiographical timeline of the American Revolution. This was our bedrock over the semester. Students analyzed it, grasped quickly what historiography meant, and had a list of names they could refer to when they read. It gave substance to the task we faced: as we picked what to read, we would define what the Revolution was. As they now understood, different scholars had done this differently over time, so our answer was up to us.

Next, after a wonderful article by Anne Curzan about inviting students into footnotes, we did an exercise that I learned about from twitter: have the students read the footnotes to an article without the text, and have them guess what it was about. We used Jesse Lemisch’s “Jack Tar in the Streets.”[1] An oldie but a goodie. In our discussion that day, the students relished in the freedom of not being responsible for knowing what the article was about, just showing what they could reason out. After reading and discussing the actual text of that article the next session, I only had one more class planned out. We read François Furstenberg’s American Historical Review piece, “The Significance of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier in Atlantic History,” to alert them to the rest of the continent and connections to the wider world.[2]Then we were off and running.

To hold the students accountable in this format, I asked them to write short analyses of every article, including summaries of the content, argument, primary source base, and engagement in the literature. These were time consuming for the students (and for me), but they definitely helped discussion. Their other assignments were longer papers, comparing an article we had read together to others they found in journal databases. I was both surprised and thrilled that these longer papers demonstrated that the students learned how to both find and analyze relevant scholarly articles. Beyond the noticeable lack of random web pages used as sources, they really did compare like to like, able to argue, for example, that the approach to national identity found in Michael McDonnell’s “War and Nationhood: Founding Myths and Historical Realities,” could also apply to Indigenous peoples in the same period.[3] From my perspective, this was exactly what I was going for, the critical thinking we all aspire to but sometimes seems so elusive.

As I talked about the course with colleagues, most of the questions I got were about logistics. Those details turned out to work pretty smoothly, with only a few bumps. Each time we ended class, we would talk about what we should add to the syllabus, though that was usually for a date two or three classes down the schedule, because I tried to keep a bit ahead for the sake of students’ planning. With five groups, two topics per group, and some overlap, we ended up with about eight to ten topics each time we did the exercise. It took about five minutes at the end of class. I would then turn the list into an electronic poll, and they voted before we next met. I would then find the relevant piece, or sometimes two. For example, they wanted to read about conspiracies and spies (they referenced the show “Turn” in class). In response, I decided to add two readings: a healthy chunk of Virginia Anderson’s book, The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution, to give them spies, and then Douglas Egerton’s article, “Gabriel’s Conspiracy and the Election of 1800,” since fear of slave uprising and conspiracy seemed to me to be the most importance form of conspiracy thinking in the era.

We tried a variety of online poll methods. Each student could pick 2-3 choices. A Canvas (our CMS) quiz, used in this example, marked one choice as correct, seemingly at random. Survey Monkey got lost in spam folders. Google’s survey function, with a link on the course Canvas page, proved the most efficient tool in the end.

We tried a variety of online poll methods. Each student could pick 2–3 choices. A Canvas (our CMS) quiz, used in this example, marked one choice as correct, seemingly at random. Survey Monkey got lost in spam folders. Google’s survey function, with a link on the course Canvas page, proved the most efficient tool in the end.

While the course logistics occupied a certain amount of time, both I and the students enjoyed the process. The free flow of the format allowed us to adapt as we went along. The students really wanted ghost stories for Halloween. Thanks to some helpful friends on twitter, I found some to put on the syllabus.[4] The students also proposed their own Revolutionary era ghost stories; my personal favorite was one imagining the child-victims of William Beadle, Christopher Grasso’s “Deist Monster,” haunting the scene of their father’s crimes.[5]

As we moved through the semester, the trend in our collective course planning was towards units that took up more than one class, so the number of polls declined over time. When they wanted primary sources, we added some in as part of a week-long look at the Declaration of Independence. About two-thirds of the way through, we paused to talk about where we’d been, and what we’d been leaving out, and what that meant. For the last few weeks, I gave them a list of ten articles that matched the subjects they wanted more of, and I added the top five to the syllabus. Bringing clarity to the schedule at that point on the calendar was important, because they needed to turn their attention more directly to their final projects, for my class and for others.

Looking beyond the mechanics, the course developed a central tension, one that made clear the students shared my basic quandary about the subject matter. The students always wanted to be confident that they were getting coverage of whatever this thing we were studying was. When they brainstormed what they wanted next, it tended to be broad subjects not yet touched.  Economic aspects. Women. Indigenous peoples. Constitutional Convention. African American Experiences. But this persistent push for coverage left them unsure about how matters fit together; they missed narrative. They voiced worries about the lack of a familiar storyline for the period, even as they collectively resisted constructing one.

Moreover, they did not feel they had studied that some topics, even when—from my perspective—they had. This was particularly true for military history. Though we read four articles on what I considered military history, a full two weeks, they felt it had not been covered because we never walked through the war’s military process from Lexington to Yorktown in a single run.[6] In our end-of-semester discussions, their strongest complaint was that they had not learned the story they expected to learn, even though they appreciated and enjoyed the control they had.  Could they say they’d studied the American Revolution at the college level?

From my perspective, they certainly had. These were strong students, so I don’t take all the credit, but the level of their discussions and the overall quality of their papers far exceeded what I had seen in previous classes with similar students. They grasped the complexities in articles that I expected to be challenging. They were easily able to engage, for example, what it meant to see the participants in Virginia’s 1800 slave revolt as political actors rather than just resisters of the slave system, putting them in the same analytical framework we had used for Lemisch’s sailors, or for Molly Perry’s Stamp Act protestors.[7] Though they consistently wanted more founding fathers, Sarah Pearsall’s article on an Indigenous woman at the heart of the 1779 Sullivan campaign was one of the most talked about pieces we read, and more students chose to write their papers on the inclusion of women in the period than on any other topic.[8] The list of subjects we didn’t cover was endless, but I don’t think it was categorically worse than what I would have created had I mapped out the syllabus, and I will never forget the quiet student who intervened with, “but if we look at the primary sources in footnote 5…”

The best discussion we had over the course of the semester came at the end. We had just read Christopher Brown’s great article “Empire without Slaves,” so the students were primed to think about the reach of Anglo-American political and economic investment in slavery.[9] We read Nicholas Guyatt’s review of Sean Wilentz’s No Property in Man in the New York Review of Books, and the subsequent dust up. The students effectively evaluated the evidence the disputants used to argue their cases. They made astute arguments about what it meant to say the Constitution was pro- or anti-slavery, in general or in a specific political moment in US history. I left feeling they had learned what I wanted them to learn, how to bring a historical perspective to bear on the nation’s central institutions in a complex way.

And yet, this is not a story of simple success. Though the students reported on their evaluations that they enjoyed selecting the material for the course, and many reported that they would take another class that used a similar format, the objective measures on course evaluations were markedly lower than I normally see. Yet, setting aside a bit of bruised ego, I remain convinced that they learned more than my students usually do, and that the work they produced was, on average, significantly better. I believe this was probably because I was pushing them hard to develop a very specific analytical tool—historiographical analysis. At the same time, they may not yet see the value of that tool, and they may see it as only indirectly related to the subject matter. We struggle to define critical thinking’s specific utility, why shouldn’t they? In addition, it is possible that by inviting them into the experiment and lifting the veil on the role of omniscient-syllabus-creator, the course’s format simply made them uncomfortable. If that’s true, then I hope the discomfort comes from their realizing that the narrative of the nation’s creation that they sought, that they learned in high school and still yearned for after the semester ended, was no more real than the story they created for themselves.

Kate Carté is an associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  She is currently finishing a book titled Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History.

[1] Jesse Lemisch, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 25 (July 1968): 371–407.

[2] François Furstenberg “The Significance of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier in Atlantic History,” The American Historical Review, 113 (June 2008): 647–77.

[3] Michael A. McDonnell, “War and Nationhood: Founding Myths and Historical Realities,” in Remembering the Revolution, ed. Michael A. McDonnell et al., (Amherst, 2013), 19–40.  The student in question compared McDonnel’s piece to Bryan Rindfleisch, “‘Our Lands Are Our Life and Breath’: Coweta, Cusseta, and the Struggle for Creek Territory and Sovereignty during the American Revolution,” Ethnohistory, 60 (Fall 2013): 581–603.

[4] Judith Richardson, “The Ghosting of the Hudson Valley,” in Going Dutch: The Dutch Presence in America, 16092009, ed. Joyce D. Goodfriend et al.,  (Boston, 2008), 87–107; and Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Edward Randolph’s Portrait,” in Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twice-Told Tales (New York, 1897), 90–107.

[5] Christopher Grasso, “Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution,” Journal of American History, 95 (June 2008), 43–68.

[6] Works that I considered addressing the war’s military history included: Michael A. McDonnell, “War and Nationhood: Founding Myths and Historical Realities,” in Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War, ed. Michael A. McDonnell et al., (Amherst, 2013), 19–40; “‘The Scapegoat’: Sir Henry Clinton” in The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy,  (New Haven, 2013), 207–46; Sarah M. S. Pearsall, “Recentering Indian Women in the American Revolution,” in Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians, ed. Susan Sleeper-Smith et al., (Chapel Hill, 2015), 57–70; and Gary Sellick, “‘Undistinguished Destruction’: The Effects of Smallpox on British Emancipation Policy in the Revolutionary War,” Journal of American Studies, 51 (Nov. 2017): 865–85.

[7] Douglas R. Egerton, “Gabriel’s Conspiracy and the Election of 1800,” Journal of Southern History, 56 (May 1990): 191–214; Molly Perry, “Buried Liberties and Hanging Effigies: Imperial Persuasion, Intimidation, and Performance During the Stamp Act Crisis,” in Community Without Consent: New Perspectives on the Stamp Act, ed. Zachary McLeod Hutchins (Hanover, 2016), 36–66.

[8] Pearsall, “Recentering Indian Women in the American Revolution.”

[9] Christopher L. Brown, “Empire without Slaves: British Concepts of Emancipation in the Age of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 56 (April 1999), 273–306.

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