Crowd-sourcing the curriculum: build your Rotisserie League of American historians!

The summer mailbag full-to-bursting with questions, friends!  Here’s a spot of good news, for a change:  a selective SLAC in the East might be looking to fill several American history lines in the next few years!  A reader and commenter fills us in on the particulars, and wants to hear from all of you about how you teach North American and/or U.S. history courses:

Dear Historiann,

I recently took over as chair of our 10-person department. We have four historians of the US (including African-American) and six who cover medieval and modern Europe, South Asia, China, and Russia/Eurasia. One American historian has just been body-snatched by a uni with a Ph.D. program, and two of our three remaining Americanists are going to retire in the next five years or so. So, we have an opportunity to restructure our American curriculum, except that most of us who will be doing the hiring are non-specialists. (I actually took a minor field in American women’s history in grad school, but that was a long time ago, but I’m not an Americanist.)

From your blog and other sources I get the sense that the American field has been changing quite a bit, becoming less “exceptionalist” and more integrated into transnational analyses. I also strongly suspect that our Americanists have been providing a much narrower curriculum than other departments of similar size: nothing west of the Mississippi, for example. My question for you is, where do I go to find out the current directions of American historiography, what range of courses would be considered a good program at a small school, and would more generally reflect the current state of the American field? Does AHA provide a field guide?

What do you and your readers think?  Just sign me,

Not An Americanist, but I’m Willing to Learn

Think of this as Rotisserie League department building:  how would you help Willing to Learn rebuild hir department?  I think ze is right that many Americanists–especially those of us teaching either very recent U.S. History (20th century), or very remote American history (1500-1800)–are consciously engaging transnational or comparative history frameworks, such as borderlands or Atlantic World history.  All of my regular upper-division courses now engage much more than just Anglo-American history based on English-language sources, whereas that was not previously the case. 

What’s going on in your corner of American or U.S. history?  How did you revise the courses you may have inherited from an emeritus colleague, and what new courses have you added to the curriculum over the course of your career?  (And for you silverbacks out there:  how have you revised your own courses to permit you to engage the themes you see emerging in your subfield/s?)

I would also suggest to Willing to Learn that ze might write some really broad job advertisements and then let the job finalists make the case for the importance of their work and what they will bring to the SLAC curriculum.  (This has worked really well in my department in recent searches.)  But, if I had my ‘druthers?  I’d prescribe a Latin@ or Chican@ borderlands historian who either does early American or recent U.S. history; a scholar whose work engages race (again, any period); and a historian of science and technology or an environmental historian in whatever period hasn’t been covered yet.  Sci/tech scholars and environmental historians tend to be very sympathetic to transnational approaches to history, because so much of the subject matter in their fields doesn’t respect political boundaries.  Also, environmental history might also help Willing to Learn cover more of the geography of the U.S., as it seems to be a much bigger subfield among western graduate programs and western historians.  And of course, I’d personally like to see one or more of the Dream Candidates research and teach women’s and gender history in the mix, too.

Over to you, friends!  Non-Americanists are certainly welcome to comment, since most of you in North America probably teach in history departments that offer a full compliment of North American and/or U.S. History courses, and I’m pretty sure that some of you have some strong opinions about how American history is done in your neck of the woods!

26 thoughts on “Crowd-sourcing the curriculum: build your Rotisserie League of American historians!

  1. My first thought is add a historian of American religion — there’s a ton of new work in 20th American religion (neglected until a decade ago) and it’s often tied to the standard analytics of race/class/gender but is often doing transnational, comparative, and other exciting work. Lots of new work ties religion to other social movements, to foreign policy, to the environment, to law, to global migration, and to institutions like schools and the military. Any well-trained historian of American religion could teach religion throughout US history even if ze focuses on the modern US or, for that matter, any other time period.


  2. I’d suggest considering a Western historian, a lot of interesting racial history is coming out of the west these days. Also western history, and the violence of the “old west” as an extended discussion of reconstruction.

    The hot stuff in modern political history is in the rise of modern conservatism. It’s not my favorite subject but it’s hard to throw a stone in that field without hitting someone that has subtitled their book that.


  3. I would go for a Native Americanist and someone in Comparative Ethnicities. Native American history is really exciting — and is often inherently transnational. For Comparative Ethnicities you might be looking at people in labor history, urban history, postcolonial history, Caribbean history or African diaspora and (as New England Nat suggests) Western history.

    The really bold thing to do would be to hire an early American historian who did *not* specialize in New England. Tried to do this at Zenith for years but with no success.


  4. urm … might I quietly suggest that there seems to be a continent missing in these lists? Perhaps it’s too much to ask for a true historian of Latin America, but looking for someone doing hemispheric studies would at least get people thinking beyond the U.S.-Mexico border a bit.


  5. My preference is to always ensure you have one person in the mix who’s comfortable with pre-20th century history. We find a lot of modernists in our application files and that’s great but only to a certain point.

    Indigenous history is definitely a fabulous area as well as environmental, religious, gender, ethnic and urban or regional history mandates. If you have a political historian who’s staying around, that’s a consideration (similarly if your continuing faculty member is a specialist in rural history or the American Civil War).

    In our small department, we’ve tried to emphasize clusters across the geographic specialties (so I and two of my North Americanist colleagues all work on aspects of gender history but my other two Europeanist colleagues aren’t focused on that subfield). Still, in the end, having the candidates make the pitch and open your eyes to possibilities you haven’t considered is a good idea – at least one position should be very broadly drawn when you post it for applications!


  6. Well, as H-Ann says, maybe you can’t go too far and too fast without revising the curriculum. Truly transnational, hemispheric, or global conceptions require at least a little reconceptualization of periods, themes, major social forces. And if you require your majors to take “Battles of the Civil War,” you can’t go out and hire Asst. Professor Fabulous, who works in three languages with archives on four continents, and expect that person to draft a lecture on the skirmish at Roanoke. Happily.

    I am not really in a History department, and so I’ve avoided having to figure out what to do with my courses. But I am affiliated with such a department, and work a lot with History grad students and undergrads. All this illicit relationship does, though, is perpetuate the idea that “transnational” topics are “add-ons” to the core, nation-state-defined, curriculum.

    At the same time, you can’t redraw the through-lines for majors without having people on board to help you. And any of the fields mentioned above are good ones. The borderlands folks (who cross a lot of these areas) are a great place to start, not merely because they theorize the transnational explicitly in their work and generally practice what they preach in terms of research in multiple languages, but also because several fine PhD programs now produce great cohorts of students each year. And they are really nice people, too. Read the JAH issue of a year or so ago to identify the major players, and write to those authors to ask for the names of students.

    Being a small department might actually be useful. Bigger departments get calcified, and they don’t turnover so rapidly, so traditions get entrenched and continued. So don’t ask *only* the Americanists to change their notion of what constitutes their area. Tons of people in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America do “transnational” work. You could hire there, too. Our American Studies unit has done this successfully, hiring three Latin Americanists (and not Mexicanists) whose work is transnational


  7. Like other folks have said, I think borderlands, environmental history and the american west lend themselves really well to transnational approaches. One thing I’m trying to work on right now in my work is expanding the American West into the Pacific World. It feels like there’s this tendency in a lot of transoceanic work to focus solely on the Atlantic, so having somebody who has connections and works in the Pacific would be really exciting! (at least to me). Additionally, a lot of the really interesting stuff coming out in Asian American Studies and comparative race/ethnicities right now is looking at the Philippines and positioning it within larger global systems, most often in relation to US military, migration/diaspora/labor, and trade. But even within the Pacific World, Latin America often gets left out of that space unfortunately.


  8. Native America! Not just because the methods are exciting and trendy (though there is exciting and trendy work there), but also because it’s the first 20,000 or so years of American history and all the rest of your U.S. history is built on it. Literally and figuratively.


  9. I hope that wasn’t snarky–as a historian of settler colonialisms, I get frustrated by the ways that Native America gets written out of standard USist narratives, in ways that indigenous/aboriginal peoples/first nations never would in Australian, Canadian, South African, Algerian, etc. histories.


  10. I think there are some issues to be aware of when thinking about hiring Americanists in a SLAC.

    1. Hire people who can teach both halves (or two-thirds) of the survey. A SLAC can’t afford people who are too narrow.

    2. Hire people who cross methodological boundaries. A SLAC can’t afford to have somebody whose wedded to a particular approach, especially since approaches come and go.

    3. There are tons of Borderlands/Native American/Environmental/Other new specialty folks that are totally narrow and overspecialized, just like any other sub-field. What you want are folks who can teach a wide array of courses, develop new ones, and keep growing as scholars and teachers. Don’t hire for subfield and if possible, do the hires all at once to get a team that fits together regardless of sub-field. If nobody is willing to teach a history of foreign affairs course (or diplomatic history as it used to be known), your shortchanging your kids who ight want to be IR majors/State Department etc. etc.


  11. Thanks for all of your thoughtful responses.

    Western Dave, I disagree with your advice to hire someone who will be willing or able to teach both halves of a traditional survey. In my view, one semester or quarter is enough, especially since most people in most departments (mine included, not just SLACs) wear several hats already. Could a department expect a hypthetical scholar who does Native American, gender/women’s history, borderlands, and Latin@ history reasonably expect this person to teach both halves of the survey? I don’t think so, not unless this is a teaching-only department with very low reserach expectations. (And I don’t believe it is, as their faculty are getting hired by R-1s to teach in Ph.D. programs.)

    If a survey is a part of the curriculum, then hiring people who can teach one term or the other seems just fine to me. (This is a department of 10 people, not of 4 or 5, in which case I think your idea is perfectly reasonable.) Otherwise, I think subfield depth and variety is more important than temporal breadth in the teaching.


  12. p.s. Since this is Rotisserie League fantasy, let’s just blow up the bloody survey course already, unless there are faculty who are really dedicated to teaching it and feel a personal intellectual commitment to it. Let faculty devise their own lower-level courses for non-majors to fulfil the historical perspectives gen ed requirements.

    How many majors are lost because of deadly dull survey classes and textbooks? How much better it would be for history education and popular interest in history if, for example, college freshmen and sophomores could take lower-level courses called something like, “Comparative Witchcraft in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800” or “Borderlands cultures, from Kaskaskia to Kazakhstan, 1600-2000” or “How to Be (or Not to Be) an Emperor, 4000 B.C.E. to 1850 C.E.” or “Genocide, Memory, and Reconciliation in the Modern World, 1800-2012?”

    Survey courses end up being exercises in coverage rather than intellectually challenging and stimulating courses. For all of their good intentions, they rarely encourage broad thinking in the way that the courses I’ve listed above might encourage, with a broad comparative perspective and a relatively broad temporal framework.


  13. It’s no surprise that I think _every_ history department should be hiring in Latina/o studies (probably Chicano/a specifically). After all, Latina/os are nation’s largest minority population and yet they are still woefully underrepresented in history classes (Maybe César Chávez makes the cut, but that’s about it).

    I would also suggest that adding colleagues with expertise in things like borderlands/Native American/environmental does more than just add new classes to the books. They can also influence the way their colleagues teach their own courses as well. After all, I often learn about cool new books from people who are not in my immediate field.


  14. I’m not an Americanist myself, but I’m in a large department where more half the Americanists have been hired within the last twelve years. From discussions with my colleagues, and from having just read a whole passel of dissertations from my department (in order to pick one to nominate for an award), I’d like to mention some areas where very good transnational history is being done:

    1) Migration. Rather than seeing immigration history as “the peopling of the US,” with flows moving in one direction, a lot of scholars are now looking at migration flows that move in many directions at once. This can also be done comparatively as there are lots of migrants from Europe, Africa and Asia in Latin America as well as in the US. And of course this is a key issue in international relations. Imagine someone whose research is on movements of peoples teaching a course on US Foreign Relations that focuses on how states respond to those movements.

    2) Indigenous Studies. Yes, there is a lot of good work being done in American Indian studies, but a recent trend is to put it in the context of the histories of indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world.

    3) Atlantic World. This used to be somewhat of a euphemism for “early North American history that includes the Caribbean also,” but it can be done in a way that focuses on Spain/Portugal and Latin America, or the African diaspora.

    And one other area, maybe not as transnational (although it could be), is business history. I have to confess that I thought of this as deadly dry, but my colleagues have opened my mind. It is something that students are very interested in, and it can also encompass issues around gender, labor, race, immigration, urbanization, governmentality, you name it. Plus a lot of small and large businesses have very good archives which can provide great opportunities for undergraduate research.

    I don’t see why teaching both halves of the US survey is such a hurdle. I have colleagues who teach both halves of the World History survey, and this is in a department of 40+. To me the point of asking for someone who could teach both halves of the survey would not be so much to find breadth of expertise but breadth of teaching vision (which, of course, can be shown in other ways than chronological range).


  15. @CPP – yes, there is such a thing as economic history. In fact, my u/grad degree is in economic history, so there are still a few lonely institutions who offer this as a distinct degree subject. Increasingly, a lot of hardcore economic historians (those interested in things like econometrics and philosophy of economy) live in economics departments, but it has also evolved into business history, which is very popular (especially amongst students interested in business and economics, so can be offered as an option in multiple courses, which, depending on how your institutions does its finances, can boost students numbers in your area and so your income) and can be quite lucrative, as some companies will pay historians to write their histories, or to give them advice on what to do with their archives etc, but also because it’s easier to claim for ‘national signficance’ when writing grant apps.

    On the topic of subfields, the history of material culture is just booming at the moment, and to a lesser extent visual culture. I think this is also a useful speciality(ies) to have covered as it allows students to think about writing history with non-traditional sources and also might be useful training for students who want to work in museums/galleries etc, as well as offering opportunities for formal linkage partnerships between academics and those in that area.


  16. Thanks to Feminist Avatar for mentioning material culture–it may be booming in U.S. History right now because of the renewed emphasis on jobs in public history/museums.

    Having been a material culture studies scholar for over 20 years now, I can attest to the fact that it’s difficult to get the respect of colleagues in history departments. (When I taught in American Studies programs there was no problem.) At many colleges and universities, exhibitions don’t count toward tenure and promotion in history departments as they do elsewhere in the university. When I substituted for a colleague in a college-level meeting about new tenure requirements, the dean omitted exhibitions and other public history work from the list–even though the university had a public history program for several decades. His response to my query? “I thought that was something only art types did. I didn’t think that historians did that kind of stuff.” This is the sort of thinking the National Council of Public History and the Organization of American Historians have been trying to understand and fight for some time. I counsel my younger material culture colleagues to ask the right questions and look over the contract when they are hired in a History department. And I ask them to think about NOT having a teaching collection of artifacts if there are no funds to create one.

    Material culture studies invites students not only to write “history with non-traditional sources” but to create other types of scholarship–websites, exhibitions, etc. The Mellon Foundation has been giving post-docs to college and university museums (mostly art museums) to hire recent Ph.D.s to serve as liaisons between faculty members and campus museums. Many of these have gone to SLACs, so the movement is there–though not necessarily in History.

    The study of material culture encompasses more than museum/public history work, though–think about what placing artifacts front and center in business or economic history does, for example. Or the movements of classes of objects between persons and peoples throughout the world.


  17. Great point about material culture, History Maven, which reminds me that I should have put in a plug for public history generally. PH is a growing field, one that’s become newly popular as a hiring field because of the training it can give students for working in history outside of K-12 and university classrooms. So: work for federal & local government agencies, historic preservation, museums & material culture, archives, etc. The federal government is the largest single employer of historians in the U.S., which makes sense when you consider that so many agencies have their own historians, to say nothing of the Forest Service, National Parks, and the Smithsonian.

    Public historians also typically wear more than one hat–I would say that most of them are modernists, if not exclusively 20th C that field seems dominant, so they will also teach non-PH courses in modern U.S. history. Many of them are also Native Americanists, women’s historians, labor historians, social historians of various stripes, so there’s more value-added there, too.

    Having just been on the committee for a public history search in my department, and having interviewed four outstanding candidates on campus, I can say that it’s a very strong field, because in part of the double-duty that those in academia must perform: functioning as public historians WHILE ALSO meeting the same traditional publications requirements of academic historians. Sadly we could offer only one job, but it was a remarkable search in which the entire History faculty would have been happy to hire all four.


  18. @ Historiann I don’t think somebody should have to teach both halves of the survey, but rather the ability to teach both halves is an indication of intellectual flexibility so that in 15 years when a new sub-discipline comes along and you can’t hire for it, they can read up on it and tackle it. Best course I ever had in college was American Foreign Policy taught by a labor historian. Her Social History seminar (which was much closer to her own field) was less interesting because the topics and themes were less clear. There were a fair number of “well, we have to do this” topics whereas she felt much less guilty chopping and adding with the Foreign Policy to create a great course.

    I have the same issue with my world surveys which are very tight and coherent compared to my US survey which goes off on tangents and where I have trouble making it pass the New Deal every year.


  19. Western Dave: I so hear you about the difficulties in teaching material with which one is very familiar! It’s so much easier when you don’t know what you’re leaving out, or you don’t appreciate the subtleties, isn’t it?

    In grad school, I TA’ed a Western Civ course for a Very Famous French historian whose work was on the Revolution. Her own student-TA’s pointed out how much tighter & better organized her lectures were when she wasn’t lecturing on the Rev.!


  20. Who’s task is it to teach Canadian history? Do early americanists do that? Or an Empire person? I ask because I regret knowing so little about it and it seems canadian history would provide a nice challenge to american exceptionalism.


  21. I think it’s the job of Canadian historians to teach Canadian history. But aside from a few U.S. departments in border states like Maine, New York, and Michigan, Canadian Studies doesn’t have a whole lot of purchase in the Pays d’en Bas. I can’t speak from the perspective of other Anglophone countries, but I’d be surprised if Canadian history is ever taught outside of Canada and the contiguous U.S. borderlands.

    I say this as someone doing Canadian history (albeit pre-1867, New France stuff) who is unfailingly greeted with surprise and amazement that a U.S. historian 1) gives a $hit about Candian history and 2) speaks/reads French. I have been welcomed generously and treated with tremendous courtesy and deference in Canadian archives. But for all of that, I will confess that I teach only a smidge each semester about New France, and nothing about post-Confederation Canadian history.


  22. Pingback: In Defense of Online Teaching and Learning… | Stillwater Historians

  23. Late to this thread, but I’m going to add a plug for my own approach. If you’re hiring a modern US person, try to get someone who’s comfortable teaching about all of the major political movements of the period. My training & research is in women’s history, but my favorite class to teach is one I call “Grassroots Politics in Twentieth Century America,” where we do the politics of gender and race and class all together in one big mash-up. It’s a fantastic class that allows the students to easily see the similarities/commonalities among all the movements. But many scholars are still trained to do primarily race OR gender OR class, and aren’t comfortable – especially right out of grad school – wading into what they perceive as other people’s pools.


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