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Taking a firsthand look at America's past

STANFORD -- Just covering the Civil War in a one-quarter survey course would be a challenge for any teacher.

Karen Sawislak, assistant professor of history at Stanford University, made the challenge even bigger: creating a course on 19th- century American history that would not only cover war, politics and westward expansion, but also explore the American identity.

It was important, Sawislak believed, for her students to read firsthand accounts of the lives of ordinary 19th-century Americans. With the help of an Irvine Foundation grant and graduate students, she found and assembled such accounts from a broad spectrum of society, including racial and ethnic minorities, the working class and women. Examples included:

  • Letters from a mill worker in Lowell, Mass., that describe her life in the 1840s, working 12-hour days to clear about $2 a week after room and board charges.
  • An 1863 interview with Susan Boggs, who had been born into slavery in Virginia and eventually escaped to Canada, and who tells about her only son being sold for a thousand dollars.
  • Two juxtaposed documents: one an attack on Chinese immigrants, charging them with offenses ranging from keeping opium dens to corrupting U.S. officials with gold; the second a response to these attacks - which calls them "calculated to mislead honest minds and create an unjust prejudice against us" - sent to President Grant by the presidents of the Chinese "Six Companies" and the president of the Chinese Young Men's Christian Association in San Francisco.

Sawislak, who taught the course for the first time this winter, said the students' response to the course reader was "overwhelmingly positive. There is a real immediacy to these documents.

"I think it's extremely important for students to have the experience of reading texts from the time and trying in this way to learn the skills of a historian," she said. "I think they gain the confidence to ask questions of the material and to come up with their own interpretations."

Creating and teaching the expanded course was a constant juggling act, Sawislak said.

"I found it to be a very challenging process," she said. "You have to cover certain basics - the presidents and national politics have to be in there. You make choices about what goes in and what doesn't, and there is a partiality to it that is frustrating to everybody.

"It is frustrating to me to only begin to suggest the complexity of the social fabric of the country at that time, especially since it was a time of such rapid change.

"I suspect some students felt certain topics were given short shrift. I've had comments that I should have spent more time on the Civil War, for example."

Sawislak said she tried to make the course cohesive by organizing it around the questions: "What is American identity? What are the claims to American citizenship and how are those claims negotiated through categories such as race, gender, ethnicity and class? And how do all these definitions shift in the course of the 19th century?"



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