As I have repeated throughout this series on engagement, I do not presume in presenting this “practical ideal” that anyone else will regard it as either practical or ideal for their own purposes or predilections. If any element of the proposed US History I course plan proves useful, I would be delighted. A key phrase to bear in mind here is “mutatis mutandis,” which is a fancy way of saying that I doubt the entire plan could be implemented wholesale–with no changes or modifications–in any context other than that in which it was conceived (namely, my imagination). So it is with my learning objective.
With regard to the identification of patterns, I must stress that the patterns will not be perfectly matched analogues. History, contrary to what you may have heard, does not really repeat itself. Agents (individuals or groups) may make decisions in circumstances that resemble decisions made by other agents (or by the same agents, for that matter) in similar circumstances, but, however similar these may appear, we (historians) do not want to perpetuate the popular misconception that if you *really* know your history, you can apply the “lessons” of history to present problems as though they were interchangeable parts. Yes, I would be pleased to have students recognize patterns and make connections across contexts, but from the very beginning, I have encumbered our learning objective with the verbiage necessary for distinguishing whether the pattern fits, whether it does not fit, and why.
Bloom’s taxonomy is to blame for the why part, and it is the why part that opens up opportunities for even more pleasant frustration: Finding patterns and making connections involves some cognitive demand, but not enough to drive an entire course in US history. Given the opportunity, students want to create. If their creative impulse can be leveraged in a way in which the student must marshal content knowledge from multiple contexts, then a game can be made of justifying even tenuous connections. Defending the presence or applicability of patterns can be counterproductive (perpetuating the interchangeable parts view of historical lessons), but when the defense includes consideration of the necessary changes or confounding distinctions by design, then a space is made between the analogous historical phenomena being compared. It is in this space that the student is encouraged (forced? given license?) to seek and find the nuances that will allow her to “win” the game of defending the found connections. Since the nuances must be grounded in what the listeners/readers agree to be acceptable historical discourse (no deus ex machina stuff or Chewbacca defenses allowed), the student is encouraged (forced?) to dig deeper into the topics addressed: After all, the defense is in the details [mutatis mutandis applies to paraphrasing, too].
Identifying and Assigning Topics
I will not lay out a matrix of 320 topics for the purposes of illustrating how to lay out a matrix of 320 topics. Rather, I will provide evaluative criteria for guidance and a representative model. What with mutatis mutandis and all, I suspect that professors will have their own ideas of what content must be addressed. The more democratic professors might meet with their graduate assistants (or build a spreadsheet on Google Docs) in the weeks preceding the first class meeting, thus giving the GAs some say in the content addressed in the work they’ll be shepherding and ultimately assessing.
I recognize that some profs will want to sound out their students on their interests before developing a topic matrix. Choice is a good thing; as I noted previously, however, I think “choice” could be as simple as, “would you rather write about vagabondage or prostitution?” When one considers the degree of choice permitted in most survey courses, an either/or option is rather generous. It may, in fact, stump the student. (Be prepared for that.)
For the purposes of assigning topics and keeping track of which students have consulted with which other students (the cross-fertilization among members of separate groups that broadens the content accessible to the weft students and provides richer details for the warp students), I would use warp topics (the themes that are meant to span the time period studied) as column heads and weft topics (events, individuals–the more focused research) as rows. Make separate matrices for each GA; each GA may want to make separate matrices for each group. Intragroup consultations are considered a matter of course, so if the GA has 20 groups of 5 students, she can easily manage her charges when they are conferring within their “home” groups.
More to come.