A Teaching Strategy: Teaching U.S. History Backwards

Annette Atkins, March 2000

Contributing Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of columns about specific teaching experiences and strategies. The contributing editor welcomes submissions of your strategies in your fields.

I teach my American history survey course backwards. I don't mean, of course, that I stand for the entire semester facing the blackboard (as my fifth grade math teacher did), but that I start in the present and work my way backwards—at least part of the time. I organize my survey into three parts, one definitely out of order: Part I: 1960–present; Part II: 1850–1900; Part III: 1900–1960.

Most students in this class will never take another history class so this is it, this is my last chance to persuade them that history is worth their taking seriously. I know that I won’t persuade them (nor educate them, really) if facing them in their valedictory experience I simply try to jam into them everything they should know. Instead, I try to demonstrate that knowing history helps us understand ourselves first, then to understand our parents (and the generation relationship), then other ancestors, perhaps our own, but more often our collective ancestors. The point isn’t to convince the students that they stand at the bottom of a funnel, the inevitable result of all that has gone before, but the reverse. We are who we are for complex historical reasons. We make decisions in the present in particular ways and for particular reasons. Both are true of people in the past, too. Knowing ourselves helps us understand them and knowing them helps us understand ourselves—one way or another.

My Method

Day 1: First thing, I ask the students to list 10 issues that most concern them. They come up with lots of different things: world peace, pollution, AIDS, racism, paying for college, gaining weight, trying out for the golf team, relationship troubles, getting good grades, homesickness, a job, drugs, alcohol. Any issue is eligible because my goal on this day is primarily to get their attention, to announce that we’re doing something different here, to get each person to say one thing out loud, to put a premium on what they bring to the class. Their assignment for the next class: 1) find out from five friends their ten issues; 2) read the last chapter in the textbook (I am currently using Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, Concise edition).

Day 2: From the interviews we come up with a collective list of "our" issues. I make sure that we have a mix of what they would expect to see on such a list (wars, peace, AIDS). I also make sure to keep a couple of what seem like more personal and particular issues (getting good grades, dieting). My premise—and my belief—is that if studying history is worthwhile, it has to say something about both.

Then, turning to the textbook, we start the process of identifying the most important people, events, ideas, and trends in the last 20 years. We spend nearly three days getting clear about the difference between Iran and Iraq; what exactly is impeachment? What did Ronald Reagan stand for? Who is Bill Gates and how big is the Internet superhighway? When has the economy been up and when down and why? What’s happening to levels of poverty, to American involvement in the world, and to race relations?

By the end of Day 4 I want to have on the blackboard a list of their personal issues and a list of recent historical events. Then we set about the task of relating one list to the other. What on the historical events list helps us understand why so many students worry about their weight or have anorexia/bulimia? What on this historical list helps us understand why students care so much about grades? What on the list helps us understand why students don’t take much interest in contemporary politics? We feel our personal issues so personally, but often, I’m arguing, they grow pretty understandably from the times in which we live. We stand in a particular historical time and, as such, we are also "historical."

To emphasize another of my concerns, we then shift emphasis. OK, how would your lists—either personal or historical—change if you changed something about yourself? If you were born in a different part of the United States, of a different ethnicity or religion or race or class, etc.? We’re shaped by our times, but not all people are shaped in the same ways.

On Day 6, we shift to their parents’ generation. Most of my students are of "traditional" college age, so I can use this convention of them/their parents as a shorthand language for comparing the 1960s and the 1990s. They’ve been reading Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (the single most successful book I’ve ever used in the survey) and textbook chapters about the 1950s and 1960s. They’ve also been assigned to interview their parents (or another person who came of age then) to find out what their list of issues would have been in 1968.

We repeat what we did. We make a list of their parents’ issues. Then we work our way through the issues factually (Vietnam War, the difference between the Black and the Gray Panthers, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, Gloria Steinem, etc.). We then try to understand two things: their parents’ issues in relation to their historical context and then to understand generation differences.

We make a list of Caputo’s issues. I bring in people like Ann Moody (Growing Up in Mississippi) and Russell Means of the American Indian Movement. I talk about some of my own issues when I started college in 1968. Then we look at the different "lessons" that we might well learn from our historical contexts. I learned from Kennedy, Johnson, King, and Pope John XXIII that individuals could make a difference. I learned from the civil rights movement to question convention; I learned from the women’s rights movement that change could happen. I learned that politics were really important. What lessons have they learned from their context? Who are the individuals who matter (Bill Gates?)? What did they learn from the Gulf War or American foreign position generally? From Bill Clinton and George Bush? What are the lessons of the civil rights movement now? Of course I vote; of course I read the newspaper—given the lessons of my generation. Of course few of them bother to listen to the news on television (does’t everyone lie anyway?).

On Day 12 my students hand in their first take-home exam. It comes in three parts—something like this:

  1. Pick one of the recent historical events and explain it. Then explain one of your issues in light of that event.
  2. Pick one event of your parents’ generation and explain it and then explain how it shaped their lives.
  3. Write a letter to the New York Times in 1968 from Philip Caputo explaining his position on the Vietnam War; write a second letter from a person who disagrees with Caputo, making sure to explain the nature of their disagreement.

Day 13. Finally, 1860. Different date, same sequence. It’s now more complicated because the students can’t draw on their personal experience. Drawing on the textbook assignment, we make one list of the important historical events. Then, I want them to use their imaginations to come up with a list of the issues that would have concerned them then. I also want them to stay grounded so I ask them only to change time periods but to keep their same age, gender, ethnicity, same religion, class, location, etc.

Together we figure out, for example, a list of the issues that would concern an 18-year-old white woman in Minnesota in 1860 and an 18-year-old white man in Chicago in 1860. It is always a stretch and some students don’t "fit"—my Hmong student, for example, would have had no Hmong equivalent, of course, so we generalize out to "immigrant" which gives an opportunity, too, to talk about different immigrants at different times.

To make my other point about differences within a generation the students also read Frederick Douglass’s Up From Slavery or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or Gary Anderson’s Little Crow. What issues concerned them?

We compare them with each other, with the Minnesota white woman, and the Chicago white man; with the students’ parents; with the students themselves. How and why are we different? How and why are we the same? Which comparisons are helpful, which distorting?

The exam, again, asks them to explain some historical event or another and to see how it shaped the experiences, opportunities, ideas, and lives of some person in 1868.

In Part 3 of the course, we turn to 1929 or 1936 or 1948—another date, another set of two lists, another exam about the relationship between people and their historical contexts. In each case we try to balance and to relate the particular and the general, the personal and the historical, the generation and the differences within the generation. You get the gist, no need for more details.

Why I Do It This Way

  1. Most of us are naturally interested in what’s related to ourselves, I think. Of course, I’d love for students to be interested in American history for the simple pleasure of the pursuit, but I’ll. take interest wherever I find it (or can generate it). If students are interested in themselves, I’ll. start there.
  2. Students often complain that courses that purport to end in the present—1865 to the present—rarely do. Such courses are something like picking up a mammoth biography that walks us day by day through a person’s childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, but trails off (or wears us out) before getting to the adulthood that had drawn us to the book in the first place.
  3. Even if we talk at 747 speed, we can’t cover all the "content" that our students need. If we try to deliver that much stuff our students will drop it when they walk out the door anyway.
  4. What we most need to impart to our students is the sense that history matters and some idea of how it matters, what it attempts, and what it explains.
  5. If we conduct this last class in the way that our students are used to a history class being conducted (and that Hasn’t converted them into historians in the past), we’ve lost our last chance to "save" them.
  6. It works. Students learn surprisingly more than I would have expected, because they’ve taken it in. They’ve stood in another time and tried to look out at it from the eyes of another person. It also works in that students get engaged and stay engaged—not every one and not every day, but enough to persuade me to keep trying this method for the time being.

—Annette Atkins is professor of history at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and is the Perspectives contributing editor for Teaching.