Designing a nearly free syllabus

I’ve joined the group blog “Teaching United States History,” which focuses on sharing best practices related to teaching the U.S. history survey. My first entry, on the subject of designing a nearly free syllabus, is here:

By way of brief introduction, as this is my first post, let me say that this semester I will be teaching a U.S. history survey for the first time, at the University of Texas at El Paso. I was trained in Latin American history, and have taught surveys in that subject area. But the U.S. history survey will be different for me for at least a couple of reasons: it is required for all students rather than optional, and it will have more students than I’ve ever taught in a single classroom. Prior to pursuing my Ph.D., I taught high school, and I place a high value on interactive lessons and student engagement. So with those priors in my mind, my goals in designing my syllabus was threefold. First, to create a syllabus that was accessible. Second, to make something that used lessons that would reach a general audience, whether they think they are interested in history or not. And third, to teach college readiness skills through historical reading and writing.

At UTEP, about half of the students are first generation college students, while many work jobs while they attend school. Accessibility meant finding a way to make the syllabus as inexpensive as possible. At the beginning of last semester, I was visited by the usual contingent of textbook sales representatives—and some of the textbooks are quite good. But, thinking through the goals of the course, I decided that I was less concerned with covering every single event than in teaching students how to think and write historically. Doing that meant that the best choice would be to compile my own grouping of primary document for students to read or watch before each class, since no textbook contained enough primary documents, or the ones that I thought best served the lessons I consider most important. So I built my entire syllabus out of free material, all available on the web. The American Yawp serves as a textbook for students who feel they would benefit from using one.

The biggest challenge in compiling my first syllabus, then, was to carefully plot out the entire course and find appropriate primary documents. This year the American Yawp introduced a primary sources reader—complete for the antebellum years and solid through 1922. After that point, however, the Yawp can’t include materials because they are still under copyright, and a free online textbook obviously has no budget for securing rights. Fortunately, there are so many other sources that can fill the gap that have entered the public domain. (The contrast here with Latin American history is striking—the quantity of available online resources for teaching U.S. history is almost overwhelming.) Political speeches and other U.S. government documents are not subject to copyright law. Many defunct magazines have been digitized, and many currently existing newspapers and magazines have plenty of material available for free in their archives. There is also a wealth of historical video and audio available on YouTube. Compiling material from these sources made it possible to make a free syllabus that I think will serve my students better than the textbooks that would have cost them money—even the good ones.

The only expense for my course will come from the software that will make it possible to do interactive quizzes and events, so that I keep lecturing down to 20-25 minutes per session and help students acquires skills of interpretation even in a large lecture setting. Here too I looked for free alternatives to commercial products, and there are some. But at the moment they don’t allow for sophisticated questions (like ordering exercises or even multiple choice). Perhaps in a year or two they will, and I’ll be able to get the cost down to zero. But for now, I’m happy with $24. Undoubtedly some of the primary documents I’ve chosen won’t work as well as I hope, and the syllabus will need to be refined for future semesters. But for now, I think I have good correspondence between my goals and the course design.

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