Teaching the history survey without a textbook: Episode 1.

17 01 2011

This is a post I promised the illustrious Historiann a while back as she and my friend Neil Schlager talked me into trying a no-textbook experiment in this semester’s 1877-present history survey class. Despite the fact that it’s a holiday today, my first class starts this afternoon. [Don't ask, it'll just make my mad.] Therefore, it’s good that my syllabus is basically done now (minus a few links).

Look over at that syllabus and you’ll quickly see what my replacement for the textbook is: The Schlager Group’s Milestone Documents site. In other words, instead of a long narrative that nobody reads, my students will be getting a lot of well-introduced primary source documents all linked from the syllabus. I think of it as being like the British and the Sugar Act in 1764. I’ve lowered the amount of reading that students have to do, but by doing it this way I can step up on enforcement and make sure they read something.

Me and a few others are beta-testing their site this semester. Among the advantages of this is that it won’t cost the students a cent (at least for this semester) and I get to suggest documents that they can include going forward. See if you can guess which ones on my syllabus were my idea. [Hint: they're mostly economic.] I’m guessing that because of copyright law, there’s basically a bias towards governmental and institutional stuff on a site like that for the whole time period after 1923, but their coverage really is quite good. Hopefully, I’ll get some good ideas to fix that by the time next semester rolls around. What documents would you use for the social history of the 1950s, for example?

Among the many reasons I’m excited to try this experiment is that it should force students to read the syllabus more closely. After all, following the links I’ve put at the bottom is by far the easiest way to find their readings. To make sure they don’t ignore online reading the same way they’ve ignored paper textbooks in the past, I’ll be mixing in terms they need to know based entirely on the reading which they won’t get in lecture. This is part of the stepped up enforcement mentioned above.

I’ll get to other advantages of this experiment in future posts, as well as any disadvantages which I don’t know about since the class hasn’t started yet.

Change is fun (at least for now).

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5 responses

19 01 2011
Marcia Merryman-Means

There is so much rich material on the 1950s, Jonathan. I haven’t given it much thought, but right off the top of my head: Allen Ginsberg’s critique of the Establishment in “America,” Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (excerpt), Why Johnny Can’t Read, the final letter of the Rosenberg’s to their sons, Paul Robeson’s unread statement (because he was not allowed to read it) to the House Un-American Activities Committee, an excerpt from The Affluent Society, something on Levittown (the May 7, 1947 announcement by Levitt and Sons? the report from the Herald Tribune two days later?). I could go on, but I suppose I should get more of those documents ready for MD.com. ;-)
Cheers, Marcia

19 01 2011
Marcia Merryman-Means

And take that apostrophe out of Rosenbergs. I must still be sleeping.

27 01 2011
Teaching the history survey without a textbook: Episode 2. « More or Less Bunk

[...] 1 is here, if you don’t remember what this is all [...]

28 01 2011
SchlagerBlog » Blog Archive » A Professor Replaces His Textbook with Milestone Documents

[...] He is also, it turns out, blogging about his experience with the site. You can see his first posts here and here. As Jonathan points out, one of the things we can do with a subscription site that [...]

25 03 2011
SchlagerBlog » Blog Archive » To Textbook or Not to Textbook?

[...] using our site in classroom trials this semester, and he has been blogging about his experience (episode 1, episode 2, episode 3). As you’ll see, he seems to like it very [...]

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