Fall 2020 syllabus: History 102, U.S. History since 1865


History 102

History of the United States since 1865

Professor Patrick Iber

Fall 2020 / MWF 9:55-10:45

Course description and objectives: 

This class will teach techniques of historical thinking and writing through the study of the history of the United States since 1865. The majority of course readings are primary documents in U.S. history, and the two major goals are to give students a deeper understanding of the culture, politics, and society of the United States and to teach students the skills of historical interpretation and writing, in order to make them more astute observers of the world around them. We will be focusing on key moments in the transformations of American life, which will be considered from multiple angles: political, social, cultural, intellectual, economic and environmental. This will involve learning to think about evidence from multiple perspectives, and about how memory of the past is constructed over time. We will be covering key moments in American history, and discuss their importance to the present: among them Reconstruction and the battles for civil rights; the U.S. role on the world stage, including the World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and 9/11; economic crises and response, including the Great Depression and the Great Recession; and scientific, technological, and cultural changes.

Learning outcomes: by the end of this course, students will be able to 

  • Identify important events, people, and places in U.S. history since 1865
  • Formulate arguments about change over time
  • Evaluate arguments about history
  • Determine what constitutes reliable and valid evidence
  • Interpret, compare, and contrast primary sources
  • Think critically about how narratives about the past are constructed

Course requirements:

This class takes place in its own moment in history: that marked by, among other things, the broad disruption to normal ways of living brought about by COVID-19. Given that reality, we can’t have a standard class. But we can still have an excellent one, and I have made every effort to think about how to provide you with the best possible experience under these conditions. It also means that I will be very flexible if, for whatever reason, you are unable to meet the standard expectations. If you are not able to do a given assignment, you can create an alternative, equivalent assignment. If you fall behind (because you fall sick, for example), you can catch up on your own schedule.


Grades are often thought of as a way of measuring the quality of student work, or even of the quality of the student themselves. But COVID-19 has made it especially clear that grades also depend on many extraneous factors outside of the student’s control. This has always been true, but is particularly clear now. Under these conditions, I have decided to participate in an experiment in un-grading. This is a practice that has been adopted by a small but growing number of instructors, frustrated that standard grading often works to inhibit learning rather than to spur it. To be clear: I believe in hard work, initiative, focus, drive, and practice. I also believe in creativity, exploration, and in the possibilities of diverse approaches to demonstrating mastery. The bottom line is that this semester you will compile a portfolio of your work from the semester, and then supply your own final grade. Though I reserve the right to challenge or change your grade, I don’t anticipate that this will be a common practice.

At the University of Wisconsin, I believe that letter grades should mean the following:

  • A: indicates really superlative work. The student has not only mastered the material in the course at a high level, but has taken the initiative to go above and beyond course requirements in at least one important area.
  • AB: indicates the student has mastered the material in the course at a high level. The student has done the reading and writing, participated actively in discussion and lecture, and can show that they have grasped the essential concepts and made an effort to improve and develop fundamental skills.
  • B: indicates that the student has understood most of the course material. The student has done most of the reading and writing for the class, and participated in most discussions. The student can show that they engaged with the class thoughtfully, but may not have missed a few significant areas, because of time constraints or other reasons.
  • BC: indicates that the student has understood some of the course material. The student has done some of the reading and writing, but the work may struggle to show to demonstrate learning and mastery.
  • C: indicates that the student has been able to complete some of the course material, but can demonstrate only a modest amount of learning.
  • D: indicates that the student has been able to complete only a portion of the course work, and therefore to demonstrate only minimal learning.
  • F: indicates that the student has not been able to complete course work.

Course readings: there are no readings to purchase. Everything you need to read is linked to as a part of the syllabus. You must do the readings before class on the day they are listed, as readings will be a part of our daily activities. 

Every week will have four elements:

  • A Monday lecture. Before this lecture you should do the listed readings. This will be online, synchronous, and interactive, but will also be recorded.
  • A Wednesday lecture. This lecture has separate listed readings. This will be online, synchronous, and interactive, but will also be recorded.
  • A weekly section where you will have a chance to talk about the readings, historical methods and reasoning, and your research and writing. Your section contributions will be a part of your portfolio at the end of the class.
  • A Friday class, usually asynchronous. You will be asked to do an activity, on your own time, that should take about an hour and sometimes a bit longer. On rare occasions we may have a virtual event at the scheduled class time. Other times you may visit a museum, or a walking tour, do an investigation using online materials, or watch a documentary. You’ll write about this experience or activity, and post your response to a discussion forum. You don’t have to respond to all of your classmates, but please look at the work of a few others and respond in a constructive way. Your weekly writings will become a part of your portfolio. On some of these assignments you will receive constructive feedback—but not grades. You will respond to this feedback in your portfolio. More information about the portfolio can be found at the end of the syllabus.

Course schedule: 

Week 1: Introduction

Wednesday, September 2: Introduction to the class

Discussion of the syllabus and the class

Friday, September 4: The Civil War and the Origins of Reconstruction


Frederick Douglass, What to a Slave is the Fourth of July? (1852), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/What_to_the_Slave_is_the_Fourth_of_July%3F

Alexander Stephens on the Confederate constitution (1861): http://www.americanyawp.com/reader/the-civil-war/alexander-stephens-on-slavery-and-the-confederate-constitution-1861/

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address (1865), http://www.americanyawp.com/reader/the-civil-war/abraham-lincolns-second-inaugural-address-1865/

Week 2: Reconstruction

Monday, September 7: 


Wednesday, September 9: Reconstruction and Redemption


American Yawp, Chapter 15, “Reconstruction,” 

Jourdon Anderson’s letter to his old master:

Friday, September 11: How to recognize “fake history” 

First, I want you to spend 30-40 minutes looking on the internet for evidence of black confederate soldiers. You might search different parts of the internet deliberately: search engines, Facebook, reddit, and so on. What kind of evidence can you turn up? 

Then, and only then, read this piece by Adam Serwer: https://www.buzzfeed.com/adamserwer/the-secret-history-of-the-photo-at-the-center-of-the-black-c

On the basis of this and other evidence you may have come across, what do you conclude? What evidence makes you draw the conclusion that you did?

Submit your findings to the forum on canvas. Read a few other responses and comment constructively.

Want to learn more this week? You could listen to the episodes of Backstory with Eric Foner: https://www.backstoryradio.org/shows/how-reconstruction-transformed-the-constitution/ or on Reconstruction https://www.backstoryradio.org/shows/a-more-perfect-union/

If you happen to be a member of Slate Plus, they did a multi-episode academy on Reconstruction: https://slate.com/podcasts/reconstruction

Week 3: The West

Monday, September 14: Greater Reconstruction and the Western United States

American Yawp, Chapter 17, “Conquering the West,”

Chief Joseph on Indian Affairs, http://www.americanyawp.com/reader/17-conquering-the-west/chief-joseph-on-indian-affairs-1877-1879/

Wednesday, September 16:  Remembering the West

Stephen Kantrowitz, “‘Not Quite Constitutionalized’: The Meanings of ‘Civilization’ and the Limits of Native American Citizenship,” in The World the Civil War Made, Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (eds.), University of North Carolina Press.

Frederick Jackson Turner, “Significance of the Frontier in American History,” http://www.americanyawp.com/reader/17-conquering-the-west/frederick-jackson-turner-significance-of-the-frontier-in-american-history-1893/

Friday, September 18: Our Campus, Whose History?

In the absence of coronavirus, we would be doing a tour of the UW campus from an indigenous perspective. Because we can’t gather in large groups, it will be a self-guided tour. You will be provided materials to guide you to important sites on campus. Take a picture and comment in two paragraphs. What is the right way for our campus to remember this part of its history? If you aren’t able to do this—if you’re not in Madison, for example—you can design an alternative assignment.

Want more this week? Here’s a podcast on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/studio/episodes/american-icons-buffalo-bills-wild-west

Here is an episode of Backstory on Standing Rock and the history of indigenous resistance: https://www.backstoryradio.org/shows/standing-rock-and-the-history-of-indigenous-resistance-in-the-united-states/

Week 4: The Gilded Age

Monday, September 21: Capital and Labor in Industrial America

American Yawp, Chapter 18, “Life in Industrial America,”

Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, 

Jacob Riis, “How the Other Half Lives,” 

Wednesday, September 23: Jim Crow, Juan Crow, James Crow

Listen: On the Media, “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done,” [52 minutes] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/worst-thing-weve-ever-done-on-the-media

Ida B. Wells, Lynch Law in America (1900), http://www.americanyawp.com/reader/18-industrial-america/ida-b-wells-barnett-lynch-law-in-america-1900/

Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, Justice Harlan’s dissent (1896)


Friday, September 25: 

Quiz #1

Want more this week? A documentary on the life of the boxer Jack Johnson has a lot to say about life under Jim Crow, https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/unforgivable-blackness/

Week 5: The Progressive Era

Monday, September 28: Social Reform and Feminism

American Yawp, Chapter 20, “The Progressive Era,”

Alice Duer Miller, Are Women People?, 


Wednesday, September 30: Immigration and the Boundaries of Whiteness

Randolph Bourne, “Trans-national America,” (1916)


In re: Ricardo Rodriguez (1897)


James D. Phelan, Why the Chinese Should be Excluded (1901), http://www.americanyawp.com/reader/19-american-empire/james-d-phelan-why-the-chinese-should-be-excluded-1901/

Friday, October 2: 

Explore your own family’s immigration or migration history. Talk to one or more older members of your family about how your ancestors came to the United States, or how they moved around it. What do you know about the economic, political, or social situations that pushed or forced them to move? What kind of hopes did they have on arriving? What kind of work were they able to do when they arrived? What kind of treatment did they receive? If your family is Native American, talk about your family and tribal history. If you are the first in your family to come to the U.S., you can discuss your own decision to come here to study. Write up what you learn in 400-500 words and upload it to the class forum. Read and comment constructively on the work of a few of your peers. (If for some reason you feel uncomfortable posting to the forum, you can submit your writing privately.)

Want more this week? Try the Backstory episode, “On the Outs,” on immigration restriction https://www.backstoryradio.org/shows/on-the-outs/

Week 6: American Power Abroad

Monday, October 5: American Empire

American Yawp, Chapter 19, “American Empire,”

Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901), http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR/sitting.html

Wednesday, October 7: World War I

American Yawp, Chapter 21, “World War I & Its Aftermath”

Podcast [required]: Throughline, 1918 flu [38 minutes]


Friday, October 9: The 1918 Flu Pandemic

Read through this collection of primary sources from the National Archives about the flu pandemic of 1918. (https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/records-list.html) Remember to treat these objects as primary documents. (Here are some of the questions you can ask of them that differ from other forms of reading: https://www.carleton.edu/history/resources/history-study-guides/primary/Remember that primary documents can tell us things that they don’t “intend” to.) What do these documents reveal about their time? How do the experiences documented here compare with your own, approximately 100 years later? Write approximately 500 words and post to the forum. Read and comment constructively on a few of your peers’ essays.

Want more this week? I have a few recommendations: one is the On the Media episode “Empire State of Mind” with historian Daniel Immerwahr, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/on-the-media-empire-state-mind

Second, the Throughline episode on “Eugene Debs, American Socialist” connects the Gilded Age / Progressive Eras to World War I, and may be of interest to some of you https://www.npr.org/2020/03/18/817837651/american-socialist

Finally, if you’re looking for more pandemic-related content, there is the Backstory episode “Forgotten Flu,” https://www.backstoryradio.org/shows/flu/

Week 7: The 1920s

Monday, October 12: Consumption and Social Change in the 1920s

American Yawp, Chapter 22, “The Twenties,”

“She Learned to Drive a Car” from Your Car: A Magazine of Romance, Fact, and Fiction: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collID=cool&itemLink=r?ammem/coolbib:@field(NUMBER+@band(amrlgs+yc1))&hdl=amrlgs:yc1:115

and continued 

Wednesday, October 14: The Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression

Podcast [required]: Throughline, “Lives of the Great Depression,” https://www.npr.org/transcripts/893672249

Caroline Henderson, “Letters from the Dust Bowl,” http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1936/05/letters-from-the-dust-bowl/308897/

Friday, October 16:

If possible, I would like you to visit the Wisconsin Historical Museum (the one on Capitol Square), but there’s a good chance that covid-19 will make this impossible. If it can be done, I’d like you to take a picture of something you find of interest on your visit and write two paragraphs about its importance and how it connects to themes or issues we have studied in class. In the likely event that we can’t do this in person, you may do a virtual tour of any museum of U.S. history. Please spend at approximately one hour on your tour. Take a screenshot of something you find of significance and do the same activity. Post and participate in the forum, as usual.

Week 8: The Great Depression

Monday, October 19: Great Depression and the New Deal

American Yawp, Chapter 23, “The Great Depression,”


FDR’s inaugural speech:


Wednesday, October 21: Culture and Life in the Great Depression

Watch: Modern Times [at least the first half hour, the film is freely available on Kanopy]

Michael Kazin, “This Land is Our Land,”


Friday, October 23: 

Quiz #2, including mid-semester check-in

Want more this week? Other important cinematic representations of the Depression on film, from the time, are Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Week 9: World War II

Monday, October 26: The War, At Home and Abroad

American Yawp, Chapter 24, “World War II,”

Watch: Manpower, a 1943 propaganda film about the U.S. labor market

Letters from interned Japanese (read all 12 letters in “Life in Camp” section and the 1 letter in “Returning Home”) http://www.janm.org/exhibits/breed/title.htm

Wednesday, October 28: Ending War into a New World

Cord Meyer, “Waves of Darkness” an autobiographical short story, [PDF provided]

“When Time Stood Still: A Hiroshima Survivor’s Story,”


Friday: October 30:

Similar to two weeks ago, this week I would like you to visit the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. In the likely event that this is impossible, you can do the virtual tour, or do a virtual visit another museum dedicated to wartime experiences. In either case, please spend about an hour on this activity. Again, take a picture or a screenshot of something you find of interest, and write two paragraphs about its importance and how it connects to themes or issues we have studied in class. Post and participate in the forum, as usual.

Want more this week? The Ken Burns documentary “The War” isn’t easily streamable, but it’s still better than the alternatives at exploring many aspects of the American experience of the war.

Week 10: Cold War America

Monday, November 2: Origins of the Cold War

American Yawp, Chapter 25, “The Cold War,”


The Truman Doctrine (1947)

Nixon and Khrushchev’s Kitchen Debate

Wednesday, November 4: Affluence and Exclusion in the 1950s

American Yawp, Chapter 26, “The Affluent Society,”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” 


Friday, November 6: Watch the Twilight Zone, season 1, episode 22, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” [available on Netflix – if you don’t have access let me know]. Analyze this episode of television as a primary document. What does it tell us about the time it was produced? You may wish to consider how “reading” a piece of mass-market entertainment differs from other kinds of primary sources. Write 400-500 words, and post and comment as usual.

Want more this week? I’d recommend the Stanley Kubrick black-and-white black comedy Dr. Strangelove, one of the greatest movies ever made.

Week 11: The 1960s 

Monday, November 9: The Civil Rights Movements

American Yawp, Chapter 27, “The Sixties,”

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”

César Chávez, “The Organizer’s Tale,” 

Wednesday, November 11: Politics in the 1960s

Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

Watch or read Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing,” https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ronaldreaganatimeforchoosing.htm

LBJ on Affirmative Action (1965)


Friday, November 13: 

An archivist from the Wisconsin Historical Society will explain their collections, how historians use them, and show us some documents from their important collections relating to the Civil Rights Movement. If you can attend (virtually) at the scheduled time, I would be very grateful. 

For your writing this week I would like you to choose one of the written assignments you have done this semester, and expand it to 800-1000 words. You’ll be submitting this for a closer reading by your instructors, who will give you feedback on how to make it effective, so you may want to revise it to make it more formal than your first draft. You should have an argument—that is, you are trying to convince the reader of something—and evidence to support that argument.

Want more this week? If you’re not busy, there are fourteen hours of Eyes on the Prize, the essential documentary on the Civil Rights Movement, available on youtube.

Week 12: The 1970s

Monday, November 16: Social Change and the “Silent Majority”

American Yawp, Chapter 28, “The Unraveling,”

Watch episode of “All in the Family,” season 2, episode 12 “Cousin Maude’s Visit,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EKZWInBIKc

Wednesday, November 18: The Vietnam War and its Repercussions

The Port Huron Statement, https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/111huron.html

Watch: “The War at Home” on Kanopy about Madison and the Vietnam    War

Friday, November 20: 

Quiz #3

Want more this week? The Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary “The Vietnam War” does a lot that you will probably appreciate in showing first-person experiences: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/home/ There isn’t an easy way to stream it at this time.

Week 13: 1980s and 1990s

Monday, November 23: Reagan and the Right

American Yawp, Chapter 29, “The Triumph of the Right,”


Phyllis Schlafly, “What’s wrong with ‘equal rights’ for women?” (1972),


Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural address (1981),

Wednesday, November 25: The End of the Cold War and the Unipolar Moment

Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?,” The National Interest no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18.

Benjamin Barber, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1992, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1992/03/jihad-vs-mcworld/303882/

Friday: November 27: 

THANKSGIVING, NO CLASS OR ASSIGNMENT. If you’re visiting family, talk to them about their memories of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s and how they experienced them. Remember, their accounts aren’t definitive: they are primary sources. You don’t need to write this up.

Want more this week? I recommend the documentary How to Survive a Plague about the AIDS epidemic and the activist groups who fought back, including against government hostility and neglect.

Season 2 of the podcast Slow Burn took on the impeachment of Bill Clinton and has a lot to say both about that era and our own. https://slate.com/podcasts/slow-burn/s2/clinton

Week 14: The Recent Past

Monday, November 30: September 11 and its Consequences

American Yawp, Chapter 30, “The Recent Past,”

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, “Guantánamo Diary,” 


Wednesday, December 2: Politics from Bush to Obama

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2006), [excerpt] http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1546298,00.html

Watch: Interviews at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, the far-right response after Obama’s election https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht8PmEjxUfg

Gary Younge, “How Trump Took Middle America,” 


Friday, December 4: 

Work on revising the essay you chose for detailed feedback. Incorporate changes based on the recommendations of your instructors. You may want to start compiling your portfolio for the end of the semester. You will include both the revised and original versions of the essay. You will include a one paragraph postscript describing what changes you made and how you incorporated feedback.

Want more this week? There’s so much…you could enroll in my History of Now class next semester. You can just pay attention to your life and the world around you with the analytical tools we have developed throughout the semester. On Netflix, I recommend the documentaries Knock Down the House (about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the left) and Alt-Right: Days of Rage, about the alt-right and antifa.

Week 15: The present

Monday, December 7: 

We will have an optional class meeting. What I would like you to do for your final assignment is to select an object—whether physical or digital in nature—that you think would help historians of the future understand something important about the year 2020. Once you have chosen your object, add an explanatory note. What do you think this will tell historians of the future? What does it reveal about our time—not just because of what it is and what it says, but also by the way it was produced or consumed? Does it speak to the way things were, or the way people felt about them? Are there any potential misreadings of the object that you would like to head off before they occur? Write a final 500-word reflection on this, though it doesn’t need to be ready by Monday.

Wednesday, December 9:

Come to class to share and discuss your choice of object, and say goodbye!

Final exam: Dec 12, 12:25-2:25. There is no final exam for this class. Submit your portfolio on the 12th.

The digital portfolio of your work this semester consists of:

  • A cover page
    • On a single page: a summary of your scores on the three quizzes. If you want to add any discussion, you may do so.
    • On a separate page: a summary of your participation in class and section. This can be just a paragraph or two, but can be longer if you have more that you think it is important to say. You can discuss struggles, progress, moments of insight or helpfulness, and so on.
    • A revised version of the essay you chose, based on feedback from your instructors. Please also include the original version of the essay. Please include a one paragraph postscript describing what changes you made and how you incorporated feedback, and what you yourself noticed could be improved.
    • Copies of all of your forum posts, including the week 15 assignment.
    • On a separate page, a final self-evaluation. Which letter grade is the best reflection of the work that you did this semester? Use the evidence from the other parts of the portfolio to explain the grade.

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