History, Memory, and the Changeable Past

American University
History 100-B01
Summer 2014
Tu & Th 1:00 – 4:10pm
HRST 211

Jordan Grant
Battelle-Tomkins, Terrace Level, Cubicle
Office Hours: Tu & Th. 10:00-12:00pm, and by appointment

“If I were an antiquarian, I would have eyes only for the old stuff, but I am a historian. Therefore, I love life.”

  • Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft

Course Description

This course is an opportunity for us to untangle the complicated relationship between history, memory, and the past. As a class, we will trace the contours of historical thinking, studying how historians reconstruct the past through archival research and hone their interpretations of the past through scholarly debate. Using popular films, gonzo journalism, and exhibitions as our guides, we will investigate how professional historians’ study of the past differs (or does not) from the memory-building processes of individuals, communities, and nations.

Course Goals

This course makes a set of promises to you (assuming you fulfill the expectations below). By the end of the semester, you will be able to:

  • Distinguish and explain the relationship between history, memory, and the past.
  • Construct reliable interpretations of past events based on primary sources.
  • Find and critically assess historical arguments, both in writing and orally.
  • Visit and evaluate historical exhibitions and public memorials.


The majority of our readings will be provided on Blackboard, but you must bring a copy of the day’s readings, as well as your notes, to class. You’ll find the two books you will need to purchase listed below. Both are available for purchase online, but make sure to get the correct edition:

  • Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave, (New York: Penguin Books, 2013). Amazon
  • Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, (New York: Vintage, 1999). Amazon

Course Expectations

For this course to be successful, both you and I will need to meet certain expectations. Below, I’ve put together a list of some of the most important ones:

During this course, you are expected to:

  • Attend class. Over our six-week summer session, we’ll have twelve class meetings. I expect you to be there, on time, for all of them. Per university policy, you will be allowed two excused absences during the summer semester, though I will require a note from a doctor or a university official. If you must miss class, I do appreciate knowing when and why you are absent, but it doesn’t excuse the absence. If you are absent three times, you will automatically fail the course.
  • Actively read the assigned materials. Our weekly readings will provide us with the common ground upon which we will base our conversations. Without that common ground, our conversations will lose some of their richness. We will have weekly writing quizzes to ensure that you are keeping up with the reading, but to really succeed in this course, you’ll need to become an “active” reader, someone who annotates, asks questions, and translates what they’re reading into useful notes.
  • Be attentive and participate in class. Participation does not mean simply speaking aloud in class, although that is essential. You can also participate by actively listening to during lectures and discussion, by working collaboratively with your colleagues during class workshops, and by contributing to our six-week conversation through the insights you present in your papers and projects.
  • Complete the required assignments in a timely fashion. This course’s written assignments and presentations provide you with both informal and formal opportunities to respond to the topics we’ll be discussing in class. You will get the most out of the course if you turn in your work on time. Only the first two written assignments will be accepted late, and extensions will require one full day’s advance approval from me. Any “skipped” assignments will receive an automatic zero.
  • Treat me, your colleagues, and the course itself with respect. As we’ll discover, debates about our shared past can bring up powerful emotions. This course gives an opportunity to explore these issues in a safe environment, as a learning community. I expect you to take yourself and the material seriously, refusing to stop at the absolute minimum requirements, insisting on having what you say orally and on paper be as clear and effective as possible.

During this course, I will…

  • Take all of the work you do for this class seriously. I designed this syllabus, and I did my best to cut out any fluff. Everything I ask you to read, write, visit, review, or present has a purpose and will help fulfill the course promises I laid out above.
  • Be patient when you’re struggling with new ideas, but listen and provide clarity when the struggle becomes too much.
  • Make each class a fun and welcome environment for everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from. To paraphrase the educator Cathy Stanton, diversity isn’t our deficit; it’s our operating system.
  • Give you timely, constructive feedback on your work, both orally and in writing. With written assignments, you can expect to get your work within a week, usually less. I’m also setting aside a class mid-session so we can discuss in person where your are in the course.
  • Treat you and your work with respect, like the adult learners you are.

Assignments and Evaluations

This is a six-week, intensive course. There will be no midterm or final exam, but you will have to complete (almost) weekly reading quizzes, a series of small presentations, and three different writing assignments. Outside of a few brief lectures, our class-time will be devoted to discussions, collaborative work, films, and field trips.


At the most basic level, participation involves coming to class and arriving on time. That being said, regular attendance without hard work will earn you an average or “C” grade. In order to earn outstanding marks for participation, you’ll need to come to class prepared, armed with both a copy of the day’s readings and any other notes you need to confidently discuss them in class. Most important of all, you’ll need to productively contribute to our class discussion and workshops.


Over our six-week session, you’ll need to give three relatively informal presentations to the class. You won’t need to dress up for these presentations (unless that’s your style), and you won’t need to prepare an elaborate Powerpoint slide-show.

One presentation will be paired with the article review assignment. I’ll ask you to give the class a ten minute overview of the article you reviewed; the details for that presentation will be included with the review assignment’s instructions. The other two presentations are more flexible. I’d like you to find news stories that involve debates over history, memory, and the shared past and talk briefly about them at the start of class. These “History in the News” presentations are an opportunity for you to connect our class to current events and create new jumping-off points for our discussions. The presentations have two major guidelines. First, I ask that you email your story to me at least a few hours before class so I can approve it and add it to our course website. Second, both of your presentations are due before the second-to-last class meeting — June 19th.


Every week, you will be given a group of readings to complete before we meet as a class. The readings will range in length and complexity, from a few breezy chapters in a popular history book to a complete nineteenth century slave narrative. For four of these readings, you’ll be given a brief reading quiz in the first ten minutes of class. You will not be able to consult your books or notes during these quizzes, but the questions will be straightforward and simple as long as you’ve done the required reading.

Reports and Reviews

This course has three major writing assignments: a primary-source based report on a historic riot, a review of an academic article, and a review of a museum exhibition. These assignments are intended to give you the opportunity to practice both doing historical work and assessing historical arguments in a variety of forms. Each of these papers will have its own guidelines and rubric, but in general, you’ll be graded on the basis of content (idea, thesis, and argument), support (evidence and analysis), organization (clarity and precision), style (appropriate genre and tone), and correctness (grammar, punctuation, and spelling). All writing assignments will be due by noon on the due date via email to me.


  • Class Participation [150]
    • Active Participation
    • Preparedness
    • Attendance
  • Class Presentations [100]
    • History in News Spots (2) [25]
    • History Review Reports [50]
  • Reading Quizzes (4) [200]
    • Snow-Storm in August
    • 12 Years a Slave (Part I)
    • 12 Years a Slave (Part II)
    • Confederates in the Attic
  • Reports and Reviews [550]
    • Washington D.C. Riot Report (200)
    • Article Review (200)
    • Exhibition Review (150)


Always remember: as an instructor, I do not give you a grade. You, as a student, earn a grade:

  • A student who earns a grade in the A range excels in all respects, for example, s/he submits written assignments that are superior in their conceptualization and presentation (that is, free of writing flaws, well-organized, persuasive, original, etc.); is consistently well prepared for class and makes thoughtful contributions our discussions; demonstrates exceptional motivation by going beyond course requirements.
  • A student who earns a grade in the B to B+ range consistently submits good to very good work. S/he is generally in command of the material, actively contributes to discussion, and his / her writing has no serious deficiencies.
  • A student who earns a B- to C submits satisfactory work (in other words, meets the minimum requirements for assignments, but no more), but may have some problems with writing and only moderately contributes to class. S/he may be having real difficulties with some material or with completing assignments, but takes the initiative to seek assistance outside of class.
  • A student who earns a C- or D is barely getting by submitting generally unsatisfactory work and / or fails to submit some work. S/he has little grasp of course content, has serious writing problems, makes almost no contribution to class, and shows little interest in improvement.
  • A student who earns an F submits unsatisfactory work in all respects, often does not submit assignments at all, is frequently absent, and shows no interest in either the course or improving his / her performance.

Other Policies


This is the 21st century, and we are all to some degree swimming in a sea of technology: laptops, tablets, smartphones, e-readers, iPods, etc. I have no interest in banning technology from our classroom, but I will set limits for it. Cell phones should be turned off or silenced at the start of class. (If you’d like to have an exception to this rule, e-mail me or meet me outside of class so we can discuss it).

Laptops and tablets are more than welcome for note-taking, but there will be many instances where I’ll ask you to close them, such as during films and certain parts of our discussions and workshops. Other devices should stay turned off.


Writing is always an act of revision, and our written work gets better whenever we give ourselves time to write multiple drafts. I strongly encourage you to revise your work before you turn it in, either by yourself, with your peers, or with the help of the talented staff at the university’s Writing Lab or Writing Center. (I’ve worked at the former, so I can vouch for them).

The first two writing assignments can be revised and re-submitted for a better grade. When you resubmit a paper, you’ll need to attach it to your original draft of the assignment with my comments. I will average the grade of the two drafts together to reach your final grade. All re-submissions will be due by the last day of class, June 27th.

Late Work

All written assignments must be turned in via email by 12pm on the day they are due. After twelve, I count the assignment as “late” and deduct five points from the final grade. Assignments will continue to lose 5 points per day late, including Saturdays and Sundays.

If you would like an extension for an assignment, you need to contact me and receive my approval a full day before the assignment is due. Computer problems will be met with my utmost sympathy, but will not be accepted as an excuse for missing assignments. (I highly recommend you build a cloud-based backup service (DropBox, BackBlaze, etc.) into your work-flow; they have saved the day for me on numerous occasions).

Academic Dishonesty

I expect all work you produce for this course to be your own. If you draw ideas and important information from a source, you must identify that source. If you use language that is not your own, it must be placed in quotes and have its source identified. Plagiarism and other forms of academic violations elaborated within American University’s Academic Integrity Code will not be treated lightly, and disciplinary actions will be taken should violations occur. By registering for this course, you have acknowledged your awareness of the university’s code and are obligated to become familiar with their rights and responsibilities.

Student Resources

Getting a college education is hard work. If you experience difficulty in this course for any reason, please don’t hesitate to contact me. In addition to the History Department’s resources, the university provides a wide range of free services to support you in your efforts to meet the course requirements:

  • The Counseling Center (x3500, MGC 214) offers counseling and consultations regarding personal concerns, self-help information, and connections to off-campus mental health resources.
  • The university’s Academic Support and Access Center (x3360, MGC 243) also offers technical and practical support and assistance with accommodations for students with physical, medical or psychological disabilities.

If you qualify for accommodations because of a disability, please notify me in a timely manner with a letter from the Academic Support Center or Disability Support Services so that we can make arrangements to address your needs.