[NOTE: One of the most popular posts at this blog is “Teaching History Backwards,” probably more for the provocative title than for the course it describes, The History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement. And yet, I believe that the Civil Rights course was one of the best things with which I was associated during my career at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS). With the next several posts in this series, I hope to highlight several points along the road to the Civil Rights course.
When I began teaching at AFPS, I was required to take two “Education” courses a year for five years in order to earn state certification. One was “Curriculum Trends”; an assignment in that course was to devise a curricular offering of my own. The result: “The South and the Sectional Image,” a hypothetical course outline and a list of books I had used to prepare it.
In the world of professional education, the curricular merry-go-round does just that–goes round and round. A few years after I signed on at AFPS, the powers that be decided that we should include a few elective, one-semester courses among our offerings. Learning this, and remembering the outline I’d devised for “The South and the Sectional Image,” I proposed it as an elective; the proposal was approved; two sections were created; and I enlisted a departmental colleague to teach one of them.
What follows is the revised version of an article about this course, from the Georgia Association of Historians Newsletter, IV (Spring, 1978): 20-21.]
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When we reduced our graduation requirement in History from three years to two, we also decided to inaugurate several one-term, upper-level electives in hopes of attracting students who had fulfilled that new requirement but wished to pursue History further. As our contribution to this undertaking, a colleague and I offered a course in recent Southern history, “The South and the Sectional Image.” We hoped to encourage students to examine critically ways in which the image of the South perceived by Southerners and by the rest of the nation had changed over the last century.
A major stumbling block in developing this course was the selection of texts. We eschewed the traditional survey approach firmly grounded in one textbook, opting instead for several paperbacks. Publishers’ catalogues and advertisements revealed, however, that the pickings were slim. Eventually, we settled, with some reluctance, on Patrick Gerster and Nicholas Cords, eds., Myth and Southern History, Vol. II: The New South, an anthology of interpretive essays; C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow; and George B. Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945, at that time the final volume in LSU Press’s series on the history of the South.
To further a departmental objective that students be taught to view films critically, we supplemented the texts with several documentary and theatrical productions purporting to depict the “South” and the “Southerner.” Films we chose ran the gamut from “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” to a study of sharecropping in modern Alabama, “Lay My Burden Down.” Most of the films were borrowed through the Atlanta Public Library.
Because we felt that an elective course should be both interesting and rigorous, we included a term paper as one requirement. We offered our students five options for their term project: a traditional paper exploring in detail some aspect of recent Southern history; an essay placing in the context of the course a work of fiction set in the South since the end of Reconstruction; and three choices exploring other approaches to the study of the past—family history; oral history; and local history.
This course was conducted primarily through discussions of assigned readings and films; occasional lectures filled chronological gaps created by our choice of texts. To aid in refining the course, we also employed a detailed, anonymous critique as the final assignment.
Evaluating the course critiques the first time we taught the course, we reached several conclusions. First, we had blundered in our selection of texts; only Woodward’s volume had held the interest of our students. The idea of using films to supplement the texts was received enthusiastically, though perhaps more because viewing them got us away from the assigned reading than because of any inherent merit in this approach to the image of the South. Despite the groans that initially greeted the assignment of term papers, our students took the project seriously, and most seemed to find it a worthwhile component of the course.
In preparing to offer the course a second time, we jettisoned all of the original texts. As luck would have it, three volumes that we had wanted to use the first year but did not, because they were then available only in hardback, appeared in paper. These works, Paul Gaston’s The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking; William Anderson’s The Wild Man from Sugar Creek: The Political Career of Eugene Talmadge; and, especially, Charles Roland’s The Improbable Era: The South Since World War II, proved so popular with our students that we plan to use them again this spring.
To assuage our own misgivings about our reliance on films in this course, we also added a one to two-page critique of each film. In preparing the critiques, students were to concentrate on several questions: What image(s) of the South and the Southerner were portrayed in the film? How did the film maker create this image? How convincing was this portrayal? Our students groused about these assignments constantly, but we found that discussions were more lively and that the classes viewed the films more critically because of them.
“The South and the Sectional Image” has become a popular elective. Those enrolled have responded positively to its requirements, despite the manifold distractions of Atlanta’s balmy springtime. More idealistically, we hope that our approach to the recent history of the South will play some small part in producing more thoughtful Southerners, and Americans, but of this we cannot, and may never, be sure.
[NOTE: Ironically, just a year or so after this article appeared, the curricular merry-go-round at my school lurched once again: we jettisoned many of our elective courses, including “The South and the Sectional Image,” and returned to year-long survey offerings. The next time I would have the chance to teach a course in the modern South would be the Civil Rights course, two decades or so in the future. In the interim, however, I was able to keep my hand in the study of the modern South, as you’ll see in the next two posts in the series.]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: