Teaching and Learning Narrative History 133: Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction Carl Guarneri, History Department

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Teaching and Learning Narrative

History 133: Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction Carl Guarneri, History Department
**Please see the History 133 syllabus for a detailed list of the course’s learning goals and their alignment with the SHCU Learning Outcomes and with course assignments.
Learning Outcome #1 of the Social, Historical, Cultural Understanding learning goal is to “examine human activity in particular periods or places from a social, cultural, or historical perspective.” U.S. historians sometimes have the luxury of covering only a few decades in a course, and this is one of those times. Through readings in our textbook, essays by historians, documents from the time period, and other sources, we are able to examine the four decades that straddle the Civil War and Reconstruction in unusual depth and detail. This is both fortunate and appropriate, for this era is full of actors, institutions, and events that continue to interest the American public and also continue to generate controversy and debate among historians. These include the nature of slavery and southern society, the breakdown of the U.S. political system in the 1850s, secession, the causes and outcomes of the Civil War, the decision for emancipation, and the postwar settlement called Reconstruction. In this course we explore political behavior, social institutions, cultural categories (such as class, race, and gender), and individual decisions as they related to such key issues and problems in the nation’s history. Examining these topics “from a historical perspective” entails placing American history during this crucial era in an accurate and coherent chronological sequence, identifying in hindsight the major political, economic, social, and military trends and issues of this period, and examining the origins, dynamics, and effects of these issues and trends. Virtually every topic we cover is used as a case study of a particular problem or controversy in historical interpretation and an exercise in refining historical methodology through intensive examination of essays and documents.

Learning Outcome #2 of the Social, Historical, Cultural Understanding learning goal is to understand “theories of human behavior, relations, culture, or institutions; or interpretations of historical causation and change.” The syllabus for History 133 indicates the variety of historical interpretations that will be introduced, examined, and compared. In the unit on the Coming of Civil War, for example, after an intensive look at the political steps toward secession and war, students are asked to read four essays by noted historians that propose varied interpretations of the war’s causes and meaning. During class discussion and on Exam #2 students are asked to identify, compare, contrast, and assess these apparently conflicting interpretations. A similar procedure holds for the questions, Why Did the North Win the War? or Why Did the South Lose? Through these readings, students confront competing interpretations of the causes and consequences of key historical events, and they develop strategies for evaluating the relative persuasiveness of different views. An assessment of Reconstruction on the final exam provides an especially rich opportunity for students to measure the extent to which the era brought fundamental changes to American political and social life. Two of the papers assigned in the course, covering Lincoln’s Decision on Emancipation and Guerilla Warfare in the Confederate South, respectively, have students use documents and micro-historical analysis to develop and present a consistent interpretation of the causes and character of these important events. In short, understanding the complexity of historical causation and change, which is reflected in part in debates over historical interpretation, is built into the fabric of the course through students’ reading of competing historical works and their writing of challenging analytical essays that include both primary sources (documents) and secondary sources (historians’ essays).

Learning Outcome #3a of the Social, Historical, Cultural Understanding learning goal is to “learn how to employ social science or historical methodology to collect evidence about the social world.” There are assignments in the course where students “collect” historical evidence, including one that requires them to find and bring to class the text of a letter written by a Civil War soldier, and another that has them choose a film or museum exhibit to evaluate. History 133 is not designed as a research course, however. In part because such a vast number of Civil War documents are available in print collections, digital archives, and websites, the course emphasizes how to evaluate their authenticity, meaning, and significance more than how to find them. As the syllabus demonstrates, students confront a rich and varied collection of documents that illuminate key moments or trends in the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The course reader, Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed., gathers more than 80 documents related to important historical episodes and issues from this period. Students select from these the particular document they examine for their oral and written report (see the Document Essay and Class Presentation assignment sheet appended to the syllabus.) Students learn to find in such documents, which include official and private correspondence, newspaper editorials, magazine articles, legal testimony, and political speeches, appropriate evidence for producing hypotheses and arguments about the nature and dynamics of slavery, the war, and Reconstruction. In addition, two of the papers in the course (on slave narratives and Lincoln, respectively) present students with lengthy documents about historical episodes and ask them to use these documents carefully to examine questions of historical causation and interpretation. Finally, as the syllabus indicates, more than a third of our class meetings include discussion of documents from our course books.

Learning Outcome #3b of the Social, Historical, Cultural Understanding learning goal requires students to “learn how to employ social science or historical methodology to interpret evidence about the social world.” In History 133, the readings, class discussions, and writing assignments are directed toward interrogating primary and secondary sources in order to learn some of the fundamentals of historical method: examining historical issues within their context, identifying the origins and impact of change, generating and evaluating historical arguments, comparing and contrasting interpretations, and analyzing the influence of social categories such as race, class, and gender on the past. Topics and readings are selected to teach a range of methodological skills, such as evaluating and interpreting autobiographies (the slave narratives), understanding Supreme Court legal opinions (the Dred Scott Case), analyzing historical decision-making (the South’s decision to secede, Lincoln’s decision for emancipation), assessing the role of individuals and chance in historical outcomes (especially prominent in analysis of Civil War battles), incorporating multiple perspectives (what did different groups expect from Reconstruction?), consideration of gender (women’s experience of slavery and war), understanding the workings of collective memory (Remembering the War), and, most frequently, assessing conflicting interpretations of important events (the failure of political compromise in the 1850s, the causes of the Civil War, etc.). I have discussed the methodology of interpreting historical documents (primary sources) in the section above on Learning Outcome #3a, so I will simply add here that the course readings feature almost daily discussion of essays by historians (secondary sources) in which students are challenged to find the author’s thesis, evaluate the essay’s argument and supporting evidence, consider contrary views, and discuss the implications of its overall interpretation.

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