Holy Bias Towards the 20th Century, Batman!

10 03 2012

I’m currently marking the essays written by the students in my US history survey class. The essay assignment was designed to make students familiar with the use of primary sources. The list of available essay topics is below. I told the students that their essay bibliography should include least ten items, of which at least five must be primary sources and three must be scholarly (i.e., peer-reviewed) secondary sources. An online database of appropriate primary sources for each topic was given to them. The students also had a list of secondary sources for each topic.

Below, I’ve listed the number of students who selected each topic.

I suppose it isn’t surprising that most of the students would select twentieth century rather than nineteenth century topics. However, I’m a bit shocked by how massive the bias towards the recent periods of US history was.  More than half of the students in the class selected the topic that involved looking at the correspondence between JFK and Nikita Khrushchev! Obviously undergraduates tend to gravitate towards essay topics involving the recent past, but I was shocked by just how marked it was in this case.




Essay Question Essential Primary Source Number of Students Who Selected This Topic
How were Anglo-American relations covered in The United States Democratic Reviewbetween 1837 and 1859? What sorts of biases were evident in this publication’s reporting on Britain and its leaders? http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/u/usde/index.html 2 students
What does the correspondence exchanged between President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev say about the Cold War in the 1960s? http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1961-63v06/comp1 38 students
What do declassified CIA documents say about American attitudes to the European Union and Europeans? http://www.foia.cia.gov/search_options.asp 2 students
How did the North American Reviewcover the issue of southern Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877? http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/n/nora/index.html 2 students
How did Harper’s New Monthly Magazinedepict Mormons between 1851 and 1891? What do the articles about the Mormons say about this community`s relationship with the national government? http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/h/harp/index.html 2 students
What do the papers of Robert Lansing say about the decision of the United States to enter the First World War in 1917? http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/FRUS.FRUS19141920v1 8 students
How did DeBow’s Review cover the Mexican-American War? Did the Southern States have a distinct perspective on this conflict? http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/browse.journals/debo.html 1 student
What do the speeches in Congress made during the debate about California statehood say about how Americans conceived of their nation? http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwcg.html Nobody selected this topic.
Analyse the “fireside chats” of President Franklin Roosevelt. What do they say about his Presidency? http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/fireside.php 19 students




5 responses

10 03 2012
J Liedl

Interesting distribution! I think the appeal of that topic’s not only the time period but also the breadth. If they feel shaky on American history, this would give them some other and presumably more familiar information on which to draw. Note, too that you ask them to analyze what this says about the Cold War – again, a broadly drawn topic of world history interest – not just about some elements within the American historical experience.

I found that I scared some good students away from a fun question by making it too comparative: I’d asked them to compare the experience of empire between the Hittites and New Kingdom Egypt which is fun but not really suitable for a short project in a second-year course. My lesson’s learned – really think questions through!

10 03 2012

They already knew loads about the Cold War from another class, so I can see why they would have felt more comfortable with the Cuban Missile Crisis topic. However, it is shocking how little interest there was in Anglo-American relations.

10 03 2012
J Liedl

That one on Anglo-American relations? It is interesting that they didn’t choose, you’re right.

If you had a chance, asking the class what was appealing and off-putting about various topics might help you figure out better distributions for future assignments. There’s nothing more soul-destroying than grading all the assignments on the same topic when you worked so hard to give them a variety!

11 03 2012
Fat Arse

One factor to explain why so many chose the JFK & Khrushchev Cold War topic may be that many of their parents lived through said period & referenced it often while raising their kids?

11 03 2012

Most of these students were born in 1991. I suspect that in most cases their parents were born after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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