Potosí, Then and Now

This week, in my modern world history survey course, we discussed 16th-century empires in America and Asia. In the week’s second lesson, we focused on the role of silver—and especially silver production controlled by the Spanish empire—in early modern Asian history.

To bring clarity to the concept, I played about half of a 2014 BBC News short film about the miners who still work in the mountain at Potosí. Cerro Rico was the most important site of silver production in human history, as well as a crux of Spain’s imperial power:

This film is a good way to make a contemporary connection. And it’s a good way to humanize an abstraction. Viewers get to see and hear extensively from actual miners at Potosí. That means this film is also a good way to get students thinking about the ethics of historical narrative, including the “presentism” question.

For my purposes this week, it’s a good thing that this film—while acknowledging the mine’s early modern history—is mostly about Bolivian society and politics in the 21st century. I had already assembled plenty of ways to talk about the 16th and 17th century; I wanted to add a story about our own world. Then we talked. I trusted my students to be willing to think about the right and wrong ways to connect these stories.

Publicity for a Survey Course

I’m excited to be able to say that my modern U.S. history survey course is currently featured in a banner story on the Rowan University homepage. Barbara Baals, an assistant director of the university’s media office, came with us when we visited the Hollybush historic site, and she wrote a great article about our class.

Core history survey courses don’t often get that kind of attention, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to advertise our work.

Class at a Historic Site: Inside Hollybush

This Tuesday, on a freezing morning, with Thanksgiving on everyone’s minds, fifteen students joined me in Hollybush, a nineteenth-century mansion on the main campus of Rowan University.

As planned, we assembled there to talk about primary sources related to the Glassboro Summit of 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin held two days of talks in Hollybush. Tina Doran, the operations coordinator in Rowan’s Office of University Events, had very graciously helped us reserve the building and had given me an advance tour.


Supervised by a portrait of the current Rowan president,

Ali Houshmand, in Hollybush

Before our field trip, my students prepared by exploring the Glassboro Summit Collection, a project of Rowan’s Digital Scholarship Center. The DSC coordinator, Michael T. Benson, had visited my class a few days earlier to help students understand the collection, and to explain the work of archivists and digital humanists more broadly. I gave students an assignment that involved browsing the collection and then selecting three primary sources (a photograph, an audio or video recording, and an artifact of another kind) to write about before they visited Hollybush in person.

On Tuesday, now that we were inside the house, I gave students permission to explore the first floor of the house on their own. Then I distributed worksheets for students to use—first in pairs and then in larger groups—as a basis for discussion.

The questions on these worksheets asked students to compare their expectations with the reality they found when they arrived on site; to evaluate the house itself as a primary source; to reflect on additional information they would like to have in order to understand the 1967 conference better; and ultimately to talk about how visiting Hollybush in person, in conjunction with examining primary sources, has affected their thinking about the larger Cold War.

The responses I heard to that last question, when we compared notes as a full class, suggest to me that this project did help students conceptualize the Cold War in new ways. Just as importantly, it brought home the larger fact that history is not some distant thing—that one’s own backyard can be the focus of world events.

Class at a Historic Site: The Glassboro Summit of 1967

History, the Past, and Public Culture

Last year, the American Historical Association released the results of a detailed survey about how Americans interact with history. One finding caught my attention.

Nine in ten respondents indicated they trusted museums (90%) or historic sites (88%) either “some” or “a great deal” to convey “an accurate account of history”—compared with only three in four who said the same about college professors (76%) or high school teachers (70%). The intensity of their trust was striking, too: Respondents were three times as likely to trust museums or historic sites a great deal as to say the same about high school teachers.

Looking closer, I found something especially interesting. Historic sites, even more than museums, enjoy a distinctive level of trust among Americans who tend to be skeptical of other information sources.

For example, only 18% of Republican respondents said they placed a great deal of faith in college professors, whom they were just as likely not to trust at all. But 57% of Republicans said they trusted historic sites a great deal. Except for religious texts, in fact, historic sites were the only sources of historical information that Republicans were more likely to trust strongly than Democrats were.

A chart showing that 57 percent of Republicans, 47 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of independents, and 42 percent of people with no preference said they had "a great deal" of trust in historic sites.
Trust in historic sites as sources for “an accurate account of history,” by political party.
Fig. 45 in “History, the Past, and Public Culture,” 2021

These results suggest to me that historic sites may be uniquely important tools for engaging skeptical audiences—including, perhaps, earning the trust of students in high school and college.

Mulling this over, it occurred to me that skeptical Americans probably think of historic sites as primary sources. They may place greater faith in them because they sense that historic sites give them more immediate access to the past. (Of course, there are several other important factors in play, too, but let’s not overcomplicate the blogpost.)

This immediately focused my attention on a teaching idea I’d already had. And it brought together different aspects of my idea, which I now saw with new clarity. I suddenly got more serious about making a plan.


This autumn, I’m scheduled to teach a modern U.S. history survey course at Rowan University in southern New Jersey. As it happens, Rowan’s campus was the site of a high-level Cold War diplomatic meeting in 1967.

Press conference in front of Hollybush, from Rowan’s Glassboro Summit Collection

That summer, President Lyndon Johnson invited the Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, to speak with him at Hollybush, also known as the Whitney Mansion. That was the home of the president of what was then called Glassboro State College.

As you may already have guessed, this building still exists on campus.

A newspaper front page in Rowan’s Glassboro Summit Collection

Usefully for my teaching purposes, the Glassboro Summit was not only local. It also involved several distinct topics of interest in this course, including nuclear disarmament, the Vietnam War, and the Six-Day War. Although Rowan’s summit was less immediately consequential than some others, therefore, it’s actually a pretty good window into the Cold War.

Today, the restored Hollybush mansion is maintained by Rowan University as a space for special events. So I’ve requested permission to hold class there one day this semester. And it now looks like I’ll be allowed to do it.

If my plan works, we’ll have an on-site discussion of primary sources related to the event. I’ll ask my students to read, view, or listen to those sources beforehand; furthermore, I’ll allow the students themselves to select some of the sources they’ll examine.

These primary sources may include:

Many of these sources are available through the Glassboro Summit Collection, a project hosted by the Rowan University Libraries Digital Scholarship Center. Before my class heads to Hollybush, therefore, I’m asking a DSC representative to come speak with us in our regular classroom about that collection.

If everything works, we’ll devote most of one class period to getting to know our digitized primary source collections, with help from a curator; then I’ll give students a few days to explore those collections on their own; and then we’ll convene in Hollybush to discuss what students have discovered—speaking together in the actual rooms where the summit took place.

I am pretty excited about this plan.

How to Study a History Textbook

In my work as a college teacher, students often ask for advice about how to study their textbooks. Since I keep offering the same advice, I thought I should write it here in case it’ll be useful to other students. I’ve asked some other college and high school teachers what advice they would offer, too.


Let’s be honest: Using history textbooks is hard.

By “textbook,” in this case, I don’t mean just any kind of history book. Sometimes instructors do ask you to read other kinds, and we may refer to all of them informally as textbooks. But in many of your courses, a textbook may be a special kind of oversized, expensive book, designed exclusively to be used for school. You’re probably never going to read a history textbook for fun. Often, you’ll have to take quizzes or exams based on it.

Now, a lot of history teachers today don’t assign this kind of textbook at all. But there’s a good chance yours does. And these books can be deceptively difficult to use. They’re supposed to be relatively easy to read. But if you’re trying to sit down and read one straight through, you’re likely to find it boring, overwhelming, or just impossible to follow.

Students tell me all the time that they’ve carefully read a textbook chapter, even studied it more than once, only to discover that they can hardly remember anything they’ve read. Or that they studied part of a textbook and thought they were ready for an exam, only to discover that the questions on the test were completely different from what they had expected.

These are common problems. So let me offer some advice from the perspective of history teachers.

Continue reading “How to Study a History Textbook”

My Audiovisual Semester: Using Media in U.S. History II

Renovating my U.S. history course this spring, I added audiovisual primary sources to many class periods that didn’t use them before. Here’s a complete annotated list of the film and audio clips I have presented this semester, should they be useful to anyone else.

In most cases, these clips (or excerpts from them) served as bases for class discussions. A few of these clips, however, were merely illustrative of points I made myself in a lecture.


Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and World War I

“Sky Scrapers of New York City, from the North River” (1903)

This Edison film is simple: It depicts the Manhattan waterfront from the perspective of a boat floating down the Hudson River. I played it before and at the beginning of class in order to convey some sense of the texture of American cities in the Gilded Age.

“A Trip Down Market Street before the Fire” (1906)

This film shows a teeming San Francisco street in the early 20th century from the perspective of a motion picture camera mounted on the front of a streetcar. The scene is chaotic and potentially frightening; pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, automobiles, and streetcars share the road without any traffic controls at all. For years, I have invited students to discuss this scene as a way to understand Progressive reformers’ desire for new structures of urban order and rationality.

“Why the Trusts and Bosses Oppose the Progressive Party” (1912)

Here, in his own voice, Theodore Roosevelt explains what Progressivism means to him—as a political movement that he believes he leads. The clip provides some insight into Roosevelt’s character as well as into the political era.

“The Third Liberty Loan” (1918)

Richard Augustus Purdy, a New York banker and dramatist known for his Shakespearean lectures and readings, delivers a speech as one of the “Four Minute Men” who whipped up public support for American involvement in the First World War.


Jazz Age, Great Depression, and World War II

“Billy Sunday Burns Up the Backsliding World” (ca. 1926)

This British Pathé newsreel gives a great sense of both the electrifying effect of a Billy Sunday sermon from the 1920s and also the ways spiritual, social, and economic issues intersected in the early fundamentalist imagination.

“Happy Days Are Here Again” (ca. 1930)

Annette Hanshaw’s version of the Franklin D. Roosevelt campaign song, from the film Chasing Rainbows, recorded under the name Gay Ellis.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat (1933)

A thirteen-minute explanation of the U.S. banking system and the initial steps Roosevelt’s new administration took to address the financial crisis. I played approximately the first 90 seconds in class.

Continue reading “My Audiovisual Semester: Using Media in U.S. History II”

How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II

This spring, I’m teaching a college course called United States History Since 1865. It’s a staple of American curricula. I have decided that it might be interesting to provide a walkthrough of the first lecture.

This should be an opportunity to articulate, step by step, some basic intuitions about how to achieve truthful storytelling in the classroom. (It’s also a chance to show—in a real situation rather than a political taking point—how I handle “divisive concepts” and “widely debated and currently controversial issues” related to American racism, inasmuch as this first lecture was about Reconstruction.)

This lecture was not perfect. It didn’t represent especially sophisticated historiography. But I am going to try to use it now to demonstrate the problem-solving nature of an interactive lecture about a fraught topic.

Specifically, I believe this walkthrough will illustrate the following nine aspects of my method for telling a story in the classroom:

  • Setting scenes
  • Posing problems
  • Integrating primary sources into a lecture
  • Enlisting students in telling the story
  • Showing change over time through examples
  • Identifying specific turning points
  • Explaining the significance of key memorizable concepts
  • Building to a crisis, confrontation, or moment of decision
  • Creating an open or provocative ending

Each of these elements will appear in the description that follows, and most will appear several times.

Continue reading “How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II”

History Wars: Views from Five Illinois High School Teachers

This summer, at Illinois State University, the historian Andrew Hartman organized a graduate seminar around the topic of American history survey courses. He focused especially on “the history wars”: contemporary political debates about how U.S. history should be taught. Most of his students were teachers already working in secondary schools.

Five of these high school history teachers wrote essays that now have been published in the new (fall 2021) issue of Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Introducing these essays, Hartman explains the assumption and the common reading that underpins the five teachers’ work:

One of the most powerful forms of constructing the American history narrative can be found in surveys of U.S. history, books assigned in high school and college classrooms that sometimes even attract readers beyond the classroom. In short, the course objective was to think deeply about the construction of the narrative of American history by reading, analyzing, and critiquing five of the most popular and intriguing U.S. history surveys, written from a diverse range of perspectives and with distinct objectives. We read, in the following order: Wilfred McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States; Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States; Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom; and Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. We also read the 1619 Project and the 1776 Report.

The teachers’ contributions to this forum are:

Revisiting My Honors Not-a-Western-Civ Course

This fall, I’m scheduled to teach Honors 121 again at La Salle University. More than two years ago, I described some of my planning process for that course. The outcome was excellent, if I say so myself. It may have been the most fun I’ve ever had teaching.

Now I’m in the late stages of revising my syllabus (PDF) for another attempt.

This time, one big thing has changed: The honors program is now explicitly trying to avoid thinking of Honors 121 as a western civilization course. What it is instead … is an interesting question.

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To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes

When I started teaching history on my own—working from my own syllabus rather than assisting someone else—I was thrown into a college U.S. history course just a couple of weeks before the semester started. I was still a graduate student, though I had my master’s degree, and I was replacing another adjunct instructor at the last minute. (I would eventually get to meet her at a conference. She’s nice.) She had chosen a set of textbooks that I’d never heard of, much less seen, and I found the department’s description of the course bizarre.

When I walked into the classroom, which had broken desks and obvious water damage, I still didn’t have access to my university email account or the university library. For the first few days, I had to ask the department secretary to come unlock the classroom computer any time I planned to use it.

Did I mention this was going to be the first time I had ever taught my own solo course?

I won’t keep you in suspense: That semester did not end up being my best work.

Continue reading “To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes”