Us history, 1865 to Present Instructor: Ryan Poe Course Description

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US History, 1865 to Present

Instructor: Ryan Poe

Course Description

What is the modern United States? When most Americans think of the period from 1865 to the present, they conjure up a series of wars, from the Civil War to the World Wars, and clean through Vietnam. Themes surround these larger events like the end of slavery, the “rise of freedom” (or its ugly, unfree corollaries, Jim Crow and disfranchisement, usually portrayed as confined to the South), women's rights, the New Deal, the Cold War, and finally the Civil Rights Movement. What happens, though, when we trouble this narrative by raising questions about what counts as an event, about where we look geographically for certain eras, and about who or what make up American history? This course surveys that period of history known as “modern” America, from the end of the Civil War until the late twentieth century, emphasizing contingency and diversity in the American experience in ways that challenge the dominant progress narrative of American history.
Beginning from the impact of the emancipation of slaves in the United States, this course will traverse a range of historical places, peoples, and events in American history with a special emphasis on aspects of the North American past that aren't often discussed in high school classrooms or in popular portrayals of the American past. You may have heard of time periods like Reconstruction, political parties like the Populists, and even colonial wars like the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars; but how much do you really know about them? What popular cultural currents were shaped by these events and what affect did they have on the American public? Why may have these eras in history have been somewhat lost in popular accounts of history?
We will focus on three themes to help us answer these questions. First is the expansion of the American state and its relation to individuals, citizen and non-citizen. This is particularly important as we keep in mind the relationship between the local, the state, and the federal over the course of American history, and would also be key as America's place in international politics and world markets changed over time. The bounds of belonging became increasingly important in the history of the United States. Indeed, coming to terms with the changing boundaries around citizenship status and the development of new terms to describes non-citizens, like “illegal alien,” plays a crucial role in how Americans interacted (and now interact) with federal, state, and local authorities, making up our second theme. Finally, we will play with geography and raise questions of regional distinctiveness, exceptionalism, and representativeness. What areas of the country get to be typical America, and why? What may this obscure in our understanding of the past? How does incorporating a diversity of American experiences change popular narratives of United States history?

Learning Objectives

By the conclusion of the course, you are expected to be able to do the following:

  • Explain the general trajectory of United States social, political, and cultural history from the end of the Civil War until the end of the twentieth century.

  • Describe the development of the nation, including changes in law, political economy, and structure of government.

  • Understand various contingencies of citizenship, regional development, state formation, and the general historical trajectory of the classical narrative of U.S. history.

  • Identify a handful of sources available to historians interested in United States history and evaluate how scholars have used these sources.

  • Construct an argument in writing based on a clear thesis, supported by yet critically engaged with relevant evidence.


The assignments for this course are crafted so that students must employ critical, written engagement with secondary readings and primary source materials in preparation for a life of critical thinking beyond this course.

  • Discussion Quizzes (10%)

    Every Friday before our actual discussion (and only on discussion days) you will be tasked with writing at least one question or critical observation about that day's source material. These serve as a rubric for evaluating the student's level of preparation for discussion, which is sometimes difficult to discern in the often-terrifying, performative setting of the classroom. Because the discussion material is generally a mix between primary and secondary sources, it may help think, in writing, how the historian we read that week would view the document given to you. Would it contradict or complicate their conclusions? Would it support them? You will not be given feedback on these essays unless I feel it is necessary or you request it. They are for the purpose of jogging your minds for discussion and for me to follow your progress, preparation, and attendance on discussion days.

  • Critical Engagement Essays (25%)

    Twice over the course of the semester, you will be asked to closely read a primary source from the syllabus from a section we have already covered. (Note: these cannot be sources we discussed on discussion days.) You will then write an essay evaluating, interpreting, and critically engaging that source in no more than 3,000 words. Do not feel a necessity to cite secondary works or read a stack of books about the material before you read the document! This exercise is to help you get a sense of what historians do: we use what we think we know about the past to evaluate documents, artifacts, and evidence that the past left behind.

    By close reading, I mean for you to dig down into the nitty-gritty of the document and its various details. Who was the target audience? What did the author intend? Would it have been read differently by different audiences? What was it printed on and why? What do certain phrases indicate about the author's historical position, standpoint, or circumstance? What is strange to you here, what doesn't make sense to you, and why? (After asking the latter question, try going about piecing together why you feel that way—is it because you held assumptions about the past that may not be entirely true? Is it because you have never heard of this type of thing before?) What is not said in the document, and why might that be important?

    • Essay One (10%) – Consider this your practice essay!

    • Essay Two (15%)

  • Book Review (15%)

    You will be tasked with writing one very short (no more than 800 words) review of a serious academic book that covers or majorly overlaps with the time period covered in this course. I prefer your book selection to be from the list provided at the end of this document. However, if you wish to explore a different topic, you are free to do so as long as you request my permission.

    The goal of this exercise is put you in the mind frame of a historian, but in a way slightly different from the critical engagement essays. Instead of engaging critically with a single document, you will instead engage with what an author is arguing, ask why they are arguing it and to whom they are directing their criticisms, additions, or correctives. Your review should briefly summarize the author's main argument, identify what aspects of their narrative allowed them to make such arguments, and discuss what you perceive to be its strengths and weaknesses. Is the author convincing? What sources do they use? In what historiographical debates does this author intervene, and how?

  • Exams (50%)

    Students will be separately evaluated in writing in two very short exams twice in the semester. The course is specifically designed so that if you participate in class at expected levels throughout the year, you will not need to prepare any more intensely for exams than you do for regular discussion days.

    Each test will be made of one longer essay question from a choice of three pertaining to one of our themes (nation, citizenship, region) and a handful of identifications for the student to choose from. Because it is not the teacher's job to trick their students, I will be providing the three essay questions that you will choose from on test day ahead of time to enable ample preparation should you require it. Keep in mind, however, that no notes will be allowed at actual test time, so prepare adequately!

    Students should write no more than four, single-spaced hand-written pages for this part of the test.

    three identification questions from a list of five will be somewhat random, but again, it is not my job to fool you. Although I will not be providing a list of possible identification questions prior to the exams, if you participate in class regularly and keep up with the readings, you will have a decent idea of what events, places, and people will be worthy of an identification question. (Keep in mind that I will almost never use people as identifications unless we discuss them extensively.) Answers to identifications should include no more than three sentences explaining the chronological placement (exact dates are preferable!) and historical significance of the event, place, or thing in question.

    • Midterm Exam (20%)

    • Final Exam (30%)

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