Course: HIS 361
Instructor: Julian Zelizer, Olivier Burtin
S 2017-2018

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

The course covered contemporary United States history, from Ronald Reagan’s presidency and Watergate in 1974 to the Black Lives Matter movement and other current events. The course met three times per week, with two fifty-minute lectures and one fifty-minute precept. Precepts were structurally flexible, at the discretion of the particular preceptor, but aimed, for the most part, to briefly summarize the overall focuses of the previous two lectures and to dive into the week’s readings, analyzing the work’s primary argument(s) and putting it into its appropriate historical context. There was a total of ten readings, amounting to approximately 200 pages of relatively light reading per week, to supplement the lectures and the overall themes of the course.   Appropriately, there were no prerequisites for taking the course. Although prior knowledge of some of the material or previous experience with history courses would have been advantageous, taking lectures, precepts, and readings seriously was more than enough to keep up with the pace of the course, even without past knowledge or experience.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

  The structure of Professor Zelizer’s lectures were consistent throughout the semester: fifty minutes of his take on a particular event, presidency, person, or phenomenon, with insight given its particular context, and  supplemented by PowerPoint slides containing both primary and secondary source pictures and videos. The occasional guest lecture, given by a preceptor, would be little, if any, different in structure. It was absolutely necessary to remain actively engaged throughout the entire duration of the lecture, as Professor Zelizer tended to move rather quickly, refrained from posting his PowerPoint slides on Blackboard, and prohibited the use of laptops and recording devices. Rather than attempting to copy down every single word from Professor Zelizer, it was often much more effective to internalize a particular line of thought, before briefly summarizing in one’s own words, taking care to make note of any notable names or dates that could appear as ID’s on future exams. Then, one could compare lecture notes with classmates to ensure that no essential information had been missed. This approach proved much more effective than blindly copying everything down, without attempting to understand the lecture material.

Learning For and From Assignments

  The midterm exam consisted of an identifications (ID’s) section and an essay section. Of six ID’s provided on the exam, one had to choose three and respond to them, identifying the particular ID and detailing its historical significance. The essay portion of the exam provided two prompts, asking students to select one and craft an argumentative response, using both lecture and reading material as evidence. The two prompts, as well as a third, were provided a few days in advance of the exam. Thus, the best approach to the essay section of the midterm exam was to outline responses to two of the three prompts, since at least one would be sure to appear on the exam. The midterm exam took place during one of the regularly scheduled lecture periods.   The final exam was very similar in structure to the midterm exam, but asked students to respond to four of eight ID’s provided, and contained two essay sections. The first essay section was non-cumulative, covering material from the midterm to the end of the semester, and the second was cumulative. Just as was the case with the midterm exam, each essay section on the final exam listed two prompts from three previously provided via email, and asked students to respond to just one.   The short paper was effectively an extension of the weekly precepts; given a particular speech, students were asked to write a five-page paper that analyzed the speech and placed it in its historical context, using primary sources from a library database. The final precept of the semester gave students a chance to practice and obtain a sense of what would be expected; as a precept, students worked together to formulate an argument given a speech and between five and ten related primary sources.   For each component of this course, the readings, the exams, and the paper, it was helpful - often necessary - to start early and prepare ahead of time. For the paper, in particular, many found it useful to visit their preceptor’s office hours to get a better sense of what he/she was looking for - after all, the preceptor was the one who would be grading the papers, as well as the exams and precept participation. It was more advantageous to ask about the overall characteristics of the argument, like its direction and shape, rather than about specific examples or whether the argument was “correct” or not.

External Resources

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

  Many students took the course as a relatively low-workload, stress-free way to fulfill the HA distribution requirement, but the course was valuable for a variety of reasons. For one, it taught how to make use of primary and secondary sources and formulate a historical argument in context, a skill valuable even outside of a history course. It also gave students a chance to read and interpret a wide variety of sources in the form of the ten readings throughout the semester, as well as the chance to discuss their ideas and opinions with their peers in precept. Finally, the course was an opportunity to study contemporary US History, in an era seldom covered in most other history classes, at any level of education, and provided students a way to become more educated about the world they were living in
The United States Since 1974

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