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Teaching The Past Through the Lens of the Present

strattonClif Stratton is Assistant Clinical Professor of History and the Assistant Director of the Roots of Contemporary Issues Program at Washington State University. He holds a Ph.D. from Georgia State University (2010), an M.A. from Auburn University (2005), and a B.A. from Presbyterian College (2003). His book, Education for Empire: Schools, Race, and the Paths of Good Citizenship, will enter production with University of California Press this summer. In 2014, Stratton received two teaching awards for his work in the Roots program, the Richard G. Law Excellence Award for Undergraduate Teaching from Washington State University and the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Historical Association.

Dr. Stratton’s syllabus for The Roots of Contemporary Issues is available here..

You can also find Stratton’s lesson plan for Carbon, Politics, and Landscapes here.

“This is not a course on the state of the contemporary world,” I tell my students on day one in Roots of Contemporary Issues (RCI), a 100-level, one-semester course required of all students entering Washington State University. The course topic may not be the contemporary world, but it pushes students to understand specific events and processes unfolding all around them by encouraging close examination of the historical origins of change and cultivating intellectual skills useful to a range of disciplines and career pursuits. As Kenneth Pomeranz has argued in Perspectives, we must pitch general education history courses “not for the sake of ‘general knowledge,’” but rather “for the intellectual operations [we] can teach.” RCI asks students to think consciously, critically, and historically about our world. It intentionally uses the present as a lens through which to focus on historical questions, arguments, and evidence.


Beginning in 2009, Washington State University overhauled its general education system. In 2011, a new set of requirements emerged, the University Common Requirements, which focused on seven competencies for graduating seniors: Critical and Creative Thinking; Communication; and Depth, Breadth, and Integration of Learning; Diversity; Information Literacy;  Quantitative Reasoning; and Scientific Literacy. The University asked the History Department to design a new course that addresses the first five of these goals. The design committee had four main goals: (1) teach skills in reading, writing, historical thinking, and information literacy through historical content; (2) help students understand their own lives, experiences, and conditions, as well as those of others within a broad historical and global perspective; (3) capture their attention by centering lessons on issues they understand as critical; (4) design a program capable of innovation through assessment.


While RCI is globally focused, historians of the United States will be interested in its approach and issues, which are relevant and, perhaps, useful. Instructors, all historians of myriad fields, typically spend three weeks on five broad themes: Humans & the Environment, “Our Shrinking World” (though there is talk of changing the name to Globalization), Roots of Inequality, Diverse Ways of Thinking, and Roots of Contemporary Conflicts. Each instructor may choose to focus on five specific issues within each theme, but all lessons must achieve the same goals: (1) address connections among at least three continents; (2) convey historical origins, at least before 1800, and (3) avoid narrow focus on the US.

The design committee originally created two sets of issue lesson plans for each theme, but since 2012, we’ve continued to introduce new issues to the program in hopes of keeping our approaches innovative and diverse. Instructors have wide-ranging latitude as to what they teach and how they teach it, but are overseen by a steering committee that serves, in part, as a lesson plan review board to confirm that all courses meet learning goals, use historical thinking, and engage students with skills and knowledge in clear and organized ways. Most importantly, we want to foster a culture of intellectual and pedagogical exchange among faculty whereby we can draw on each other’s expertise and approaches to strengthen our own.

Here’s our mix going into Fall 2015:

Humans & the Environment Our Shrinking World Roots of Inequality Diverse Ways of Thinking Roots of Contemporary Conflicts
Global Climate Change Economic & Cultural Globalization Racial Inequality A Clash of Civilizations?: The Politics of Orientalism Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
Global Water Crisis Global Pandemics Gender Inequality Economic Ideologies: Capitalism & Socialism Civil War in Darfur
Carbon Energy, Politics, & Landscapes Colonialism & Capitalism Peoples and Public Health: Epidemiology & Disease in Society War War in Afghanistan
Politics of Resource Consumption/Conservation Global Drug Trade War & Terror
Borders, Espionage, & Enemies of the State


Lessons for each issue are geared less toward lecturing and more toward engaging with historical questions, analyzing primary documents, and understanding the relationship between historical arguments and primary evidence In class, students have opportunities to analyze and debate primary records, pose historical questions, situate evidence within historical context, and consider how evidence informs contemporary issues. Often, students write a brief essay at the conclusion of each issue in which they respond to a central question and support their argument with historical evidence.

While work centered on assigned issues certainly requires students to practice analytical and communication skills, instructors pre-select most sources. Students have little chance to vet sources themselves. Yet the ability to sift through hundreds if not thousands of potential sources in a methodical and efficient way is equally critical as making determinations about the value, reliability, and meaning of information. To this end, RCI features a systematic set of research assignments in which students identify a contemporary issue and use library resources to conduct methodical research into its historical roots.

These steps, designed for first-years and transfers, are not unlike what one might find in a junior or senior history seminar: topic identification (in this case, a contemporary issue); preliminary research questions; source gathering and analysis of tertiary sources, scholarly monographs or articles, and primary sources; an annotated bibliography; a thesis statement; a detailed outline; and a final essay. By scaffolding the research process in this way, students are not daunted by a single 6-8 page assignment but presented with a manageable series of assignments that culminate in a historical argument, supported by evidence, that seeks to provide insight in the deeper nature of contemporary problems.


Each year, we conduct an assessment of research papers to understand how students are working toward UCORE goals. Data shows that first-year students and transfers are right on target for developing critical and creative thinking and information literacy skills, including thesis development; source selection, evaluation, and citation; and argument building. This summer, we’ve added diversity to our assessment profile and are eager to see results. Other sources tell us we are doing well, given the challenges of general education courses that reach across a range of student preparedness and interest. The National Survey of Student Engagement reveals that we’re performing above our peer institutions in helping students connect their learning to societal problems or issues, considering diverse perspectives, integrating knowledge and skills across courses and disciplines, and understanding the value of scaffolding their work over time.

Perhaps most of all, RCI has energized faculty to teach first-year courses. Its attention to contemporary relevance prompts all of us to remain abreast of global developments germane to the issues we already teach and to look for new topics around which to develop lessons. It is a dynamic and invigorating approach, and students who arrive with other major or career goals in mind tend to understand more quickly and more clearly why they’re taking a history course. Our hope is that RCI becomes a boon not only to our department and to the historical discipline, but also to allied pursuits in the humanities and social sciences.