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Problems and Progress: the challenge of teaching A level American history

By Kathryn Cooper of Loreto VI Form College, Manchester

American Studies Today On-line

A generation of students who have grown up with American culture in the shops, on TV and on the sports field find American history an increasingly popular option. Teaching it can be fun and rewarding, but there is often a lack of expertise and resources. However, a growing range of publications, access to the Internet, and a sense of community among teachers of American History are among the encouraging signs the author notes.

Any comment on teaching in England today is usually wrist-slashingly depressing - and in some ways teaching American history is no different. All the usual problems are there. Yet, there are bright spots, otherwise it would not be the fastest growing history option at a time when history A level generally is declining.

Education at all levels is under pressure. The hoped-for changes did not materialise after May 1997 as we might have wished; classes are too large and schools are under-funded. This is especially true of VI form and FE, which have seen cuts of 27% in the last few years, and where A level classes of 30 are becoming the norm. (No French students here riding to the rescue.) But what are the particular problems of teaching American history?

We may not wish to admit this as teachers, but one issue is lack of expertise. We might be competent historians and good teachers, but few of us are trained in American history. We know where to get information, how to present that information and how to prepare students for exams, but probably the majority of us especially the older (how I hate that word) teachers got our degrees in British and European history. It means we might not have the nuances of the periods we teach as we would on, for example, Gladstone’s foreign policy. Most teachers’ updates naturally concentrate on the more popular options so we have little opportunity to increase our own knowledge. Time for reading is at a premium; so more support for staff would be welcome.

Resources

The more immediate difficulty is resources. Getting books on US history at the right level is not easy. As American history has only recently become popular there simply are not the books available, and ones that are available are expensive. Several publishers have some good GCSE titles, some of which can be very useful for weaker students, but good A level texts are rare. BAAS pamphlets can be very useful, though their quality is variable, and the excellent Access to History series from Hodder and Stoughton is producing more American titles, though again the standard is variable. More books and pamphlets are needed both as course texts and as reference texts for personal studies. The publishers need to talk to the teachers to find out what they need. Recently, for example, one of my students found a small paperback on twentieth century US history published by Manchester University Press which would be ideal for the NEAB A level, but it is out of print. National Curriculum has taken the focus to the secondary level, but publishers should not forget the growing post-16 sector.

Linked to this is the lack of other resources. Student-friendly magazines such as History Review have few articles on modern America, and student conferences such as those run by Sovereign Education are never on the USA. But before we all abandon teaching US history and return to Peel and the Corn Laws, we should note the positive aspects.

Positive aspects

American history is popular. Many students cover the Crash, Vietnam or Civil Rights at GCSE and want to go on to look at more American topics. To a generation that watches Friends, Seinfeld and Larry Sanders, (the latter two watched by the more discerning student), wears baseball caps, eats Haagen Das and cheers the Manchester Giants, America is simply more attractive than Britain. In my college the introduction of American history has seen the number of students taking history A level double. The United States is the fastest growing history option at NEAB. All of this in spite of history often being seen as difficult and boring.

While resources need to be better, there have been several improvements in the last couple of years. The BAAS pamphlets and Access to History titles have already been noted. The BAAS pamphlets can be good introductions to topics, and there are several excellent ones, particularly those on Civil Rights, Vietnam and the New Deal. Access to History already has titles on the New Deal, the Cold War and Vietnam, among others, and it is hoped there are more in the pipeline. And although the magazines do not put in enough articles on US history, they are starting to appear.

The Internet

One increasing source of information is the Internet. Internet access varies tremendously from institution to institution, but the government has recently made a pledge to get every school on-line so we should expect to use it more and find more of our students being familiar with it. Many of us are already using the Internet and finding our students getting information from it, particularly for personal studies: references to CIA documents in work on Cuba, for example, are no longer so unusual. And as the web becomes more sophisticated the volume and variety of documents we will be able to get access to is very exciting (when it isn’t terrifying). It is also getting simpler to get at material as higher education institutions provide pointers to other sites. The American Studies Centre at John Moores University has many hot links on its site, and is even prepared to give Internet help to schools who want to book visits there.

And, without wishing to appear sycophantic, the recent BAAS conference at Nottingham and the annual conferences Ian Ralston organises at Liverpool Maritime Museum have both been valuable, and dare I say fun, for staff and students.

Enthusiasm

The enthusiasm shown by the BAAS and by teachers of US history when they get together gives one much hope. There seems to me to be a growing sense of identity and comradeship (if that word is still permitted under New Labour) among teachers of A level American history. A small group has already got together to talk about where to go from here and further conferences are planned. If we can harness and build on this the future does not look too bad.

But we do need to be aware that the Dearing Review is still talking of "a substantial amount" of British history. If we want American history to survive we must continue to lobby as teachers, in partnership with the universities, with BAAS and with the American embassy for A level American history to survive. There are difficulties and in many ways teaching Gladstone and Disraeli is easier, but I started teaching American history because I thought it would be fun. I haven’t changed my mind, and my students seem to like it too. Long may it continue.

How far do Kathryn Cooper's experiences reflect the overall situation of teaching American Studies? Read the results of our questionnaire analysis to find out. - ed.


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The views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily those of the Centre, the College or the University.

© 1998, City of Liverpool College, Liverpool John Moores University and the Contributors.

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