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Announcing Past Forward: Articles from the Journal of American History

James Sabathne

Jason Stacy

Jason Stacy

Note: this is the final installment in a three-part series on historiography in the class room. Check out part one and part two.

James Sabathne and Jason Stacy teamed up to edit Past Forward: Articles from the Journal of American History forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2016. James teaches at Hononegah H.S. in Rockton, IL, and co-chairs the College Board’s A.P. United States History Development Committee. Jason is associate professor of U.S. history and social science pedagogy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and is the author of Walt Whitman’s Multitudes: Labor Reform and Persona in Whitman’s Journalism and the First Leaves of Grass, 1840-1855 (2008) and co-author of Documenting United States History: Themes, Concepts, and Skills for the AP* Course (2015). He is also the editor of Leaves of Grass, 1860: the 150th Anniversary Facsimile Edition (2009), co-editor of Walt Whitman’s Selected Journalism (2015) and a contributing editor for the Walt Whitman Archive, a digital archive of the poet’s writings. Since 2009, Jason has served as editor-in-chief of The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies. He is a former president of the Illinois Council for the Social Studies (2014).

What is Past Forward?

Past Forward will publish as a two volume anthology of essays from the relatively recent archives of the Journal of American History. The thirty-plus essays featured were selected and excerpted to meet the needs of students in the survey course. It may be that Past Forward will find use in diverse classrooms in universities and community colleges, as well as in Advanced Placement United States History courses.

Can you describe the inception of Past Forward?

As two history teachers, this project originated in discussions where we searched for the alchemy that could take students from the simple understanding of history as a fixed object to a higher-level understanding of historical writing as part of a dialogue that reflects the interests and context of historians themselves. We think students benefit from exposure to history as a discourse which presents opportunities for them to join the ongoing conversation about the past. Students get more excited over a living past produced from heated argument and contention over interpretations; it opens up opportunities for their participation in the process. After years of experimentation aimed at incorporating secondary sources into the survey classroom, it seemed to us that the time was ripe to help other teachers introduce students to professional writing by working historians. Of course, incorporating academic writing into the survey course presents a very real challenge, especially regarding time and student ability. Our thought, reinforced by classroom experience, is that history students can engage fruitfully with academic history, the good stuff, if it is presented frequently throughout the course, and in quantities more easily digestible than a traditional monograph or even a full-length article.  In Past Forward we deliver excellent professional history edited in ways suited to students.

How were the articles chosen?

We considered many factors in selecting the articles, including content, demonstrated historical thinking skills, sub-field representation, topics of ongoing interest, and the ways that certain selections interacted with other essays in the volume. In addition to consideration of these factors for use in undergraduate survey courses, our essay selections are aligned to the content required in the AP course. Moreover, we asked analytical questions at the end of each article that require students to apply historical thinking skills such as causation, comparison, contextualization, periodization, and synthesis.  Our selections also offer numerous models of the execution of these historical thinking skills.

How did you edit the articles?

The editing proved a real challenge.  We started with great respect for the essays in their original form, and sought to maintain the quality of the original articles while reducing their length.  As we worked through the process we sought to uphold the overarching structure of each essay so as to protect the integrity of each historian’s argument. Features such as historiographical analysis persist, although often in significantly reduced quantities. One of the ways that we shortened the essays while preserving ideas was to trim the number of examples a historian offered.  In a few cases, the writing and structure of the original led us to the painful decision to excise an entire sub-topic.

From the beginning we involved the authors of the essays. We asked if they would be amenable to inclusion in the project, and sent them our edited versions of their work. One of the most satisfying aspects of the process was when authors offered enthusiastic support for our edits.

How do you envision teachers using the volumes?

Ideally, teachers will utilize the essays to engage their students in a historical conversation; students will be reading, thinking about, and discussing great history.  Thinking practically, the combined halves of the U.S. survey are often taught over a 30-33 week period. We envision that teachers can schedule the reading and discussion of one essay from Past Forward per week in support of developing students’ content knowledge as well as their reading, writing, and thinking skills, all hallmarks of a good survey curriculum.

The essays span the survey curriculum and offer a diversity of topics and approaches. At the beginning of the volume we offer a brief guide for students on active reading, thinking historically, and long-term learning. We include a set of guided questions for each essay, which highlight key historical thinking skills. We believe these questions can be used to guide student reading and to drive classroom discussion.

Past Forward also features rich autobiographical vignettes by historians that expose the inspiration behind a particular essay and offer a view into authors’ motivations and the origins of their topical interests. These autobiographies give students a peek into why historians write, and a concrete and personal way to think about historiography.