HIST 613: American Revolution (Graduate Syllabus SP 2018)

HIST 613: The American Revolution (Graduate Syllabus SP 2018)

Professor Terry Bouton
Phone: 410-455-2056
Email: bouton[at]umbc.edu
Office: 510 Fine Arts
Office Hours: Tu/Th 2:30pm-3:45pm and by appointment

NOTE: It is always best to email before you plan to come to office hours so that I can block out time for you. (I typically schedule meetings with students and advisees during office hours, so it’s best to contact me before you plan to arrive to make certain I’m available).

Course Webpage:
Course Meeting Place: Fine Arts 014
Campus Map: http://www.umbc.edu/aboutumbc/campusmap/map_flash.html
Course Meeting Time: Tues./Thurs. 4:00pm-5:15pm

Course Description:
HIST 613 is a history/public history course designed to create primary source document collections for a website on the American Revolution aimed at teachers and students. The main objective for the course is to create collections of primary source material not currently available on the web that reveals the aspirations and experiences of ordinary people in the American Revolution. There are numerous wonderful websites and digital archives dedicated to documents produced by the elite “founding fathers.” By contrast, there is very little out there that offers teachers materials that capture how ordinary people experienced the founding moment. This course is part of my long term effort to correct this imbalance by making available documents about groups of people typically underrepresented in the story of American Revolution: slaves, women, Indians, small farmers, craftsmen, soldiers, and sailors. Where as most online archives take an elite centered, top-down historical approach to the documents from the era, we are going to create a “history from the bottom-up” set of primary-source resources. The end product for each student will be a well targeted, small document collection focused around a specific historical question about some aspect of the Revolutionary experience of some particular group. That collection will be accompanied by an introductory essay that place the documents in historical context and aids in their interpretation.

In terms of content, the course works in conjunction with its undergraduate counterpart, HIST 413 (a lecture-based course on the American Revolution). Students will attend the HST 413 lectures to familiarize themselves with the Revolution and to get a sense of historical events and issues around which they might center a document collection. HIST 613 students will not complete the assignments, papers, or exams for HIST 413. Instead, they will complete a series of assignments designed to help them develop document collections and context narratives. As part of this process, students will read deeply into the historical scholarship on their specific topic so they can provide sufficient background to help readers understand and interpret the collections.

The class also gives students hands-on experience in public history by learning to present history online to different public audiences. Much of that experience will be web-based, as students design their own individual projects to be hosted on the larger site. To ensure quality finished products, students will analyze other websites that present primary source documents and explore the possibilities for different kinds of presentation formats. Students will learn best practices for creating online archives and document collections for educational purposes. The end result should be a impressive package that students can link to on a resume to show potential employers their skills and talents.

Learning Objectives:

  • Develop skills in critical analysis of historical ideas, arguments, and evidence.
  • Understand the history of the American Revolution and the central historical debates around it, including its causes, the War for Independence, and the Revolutionary settlement of the postwar decades.
  • Understand best practices for creating web-based archives and developing primary sources and educational material for high school and college students.
  • Learn to use historical scholarship to create a context for interpreting documents.

The Project:
The main objective of this course is to produce a collection of primary source documents that can be used by high school and college teachers and students for course assignments. The documents themselves will be centered around a specific historical question or problem. Along with the actual document sets, each student will also write a content narrative that provides background context needed to understand and interpret the documents. This narrative will be based on secondary sources written by academic historians and will place the document collection within the larger story of the Revolution. The goal is the creation of a new set of documents that reveals some important aspect of how ordinary people experienced this historic moment.

The most important part of the project is selecting a good historical problem and a good set of documents. You are not just to assembling a random set of documents on a particular topic; you are putting together a collection with a message. Your collections are designed to help teachers/students understand some larger issue about how a particular group experienced the Revolution. Consequently, you are going to need to carefully frame your subject so that the historical issue is EXPLICITLY defined at the outset and CLEARLY demonstrated by the documents you select.

The biggest mistake students make is framing their topic too broadly. Your goal is to teach a specific lesson about the experience of some ordinary group of people during Revolution. You aren’t trying to tell me everything about that group’s experiences. Attempting to cover the entire experience of farmers or slaves or Indians or women or ordinary soldiers in the Revolution will only lead to chaotic, incoherent collections that will be of little use to anyone. Instead, I want you to focus on assembling collections that teach about one or two important aspects of a group’s Revolutionary experience.  So, you are not telling the entire history of slavery during the Revolutionary era but, rather, some key part of it: why so many slaves sided with Britain, how slaves advocated for their own freedom, what happened to slaves who left on British ships at the end of the war.  Likewise, you don’t want to talk generally about women’s experiences of the Revolution. Instead, you want to focus on questions like: “What role did women play in the protests against British policies?,” or “What were women’s experiences like on the wartime home front?,” or “How did women participate in the war effort?,” or “Did the Revolution bring new power or rights for women?” Again, the point is to develop a targeted set of documents to answer a targeted question not offer any old document on the general topic.

The other big mistake (which usually grows out of a too-broad topic) is assembling a collection of documents that doesn’t tell a coherent story. Your goal is locating documents that directly address that targeted historical question. If your question is about the role women played in protests, you need to assemble a bunch of documents related to popular protests that reveal the different ways that women participated. Each of those documents needs to deal with the issue in a substantive way (not a one sentence mention).

To help you understand what I’m looking for, here are some examples of good historical questions and the documents used address them:

  • “What did slaves want from the Revolution?” (using slave petitions to show how African Americans looked both to American and, increasingly, the British to fulfill their vision of the Revolution)
  • “The Revolutionary Politics of Petitioning Women” (using women’s petitions from Virginia to get a sense of the issues women acted on politically)
  • “The People Lead the Stamp Act Revolts” (using newspaper accounts of the Stamp Act Revolts to see the role that ordinary citizens played in the protests that led to the repeal of the Stamp Act)
  • “What Happened to Soldiers After the War?” (using Revolutionary War pension applications to see the typically hard times that many ordinary soldiers faced in the post war decades).

A final issue: your documents must be relatively easy to read, understand, and interpret. Whatever the point you are trying to make, you need to select documents that make the point CLEARLY, using EASILY UNDERSTANDABLE language, and without the need for much introduction or background information. The document should explain itself as much as possible, so that most anyone who reads it could comprehend what is being said and get the point being made without much prompting. Aim for stand alone documents whose meaning and importance are clear without requiring too much introductory background explanation from you. By contrast, you will need to avoid documents where the dynamics described in it take too much explanation to understand, where the language requires too much decoding (a problem with 18th century documents), or where the document doesn’t make a clear point that is related to the question you are trying answer. For example, if you are trying to show why slaves sided with Britain, then not just any document on slavery will do. You need documents that directly address this question that also pass the readability test. The challenge is assembling a set of coherent, easy to understand documents.  This will be a real challenge for everyone and will require a good degree of patient searching on every student’s part.

I will help you work through all of these challenges. You will spend the first several weeks finding a broad topic that interests you and developing a sense of the kinds of historical question or problem around which you will build your collection. Once you have an idea of the broad area, I will help you narrow down the topic to a specific question. I will also give you a sense of the kinds of documents you should search for and some ideas about places to begin looking. After that it’s up to you do hunt down appropriate  documents. If you have trouble or an idea doesn’t pan out, I will help you find a different, workable project. Again, I understand that most students don’t know enough about era or the main historical debates to develop a good project without guidance. So, if you feel a bit lost and overwhelmed at first, this is perfectly normal. Rest assured that we will work together to find everyone a project capable of being successful.

(I reserve the right to make changes to the requirements or to the schedule.)


The final grade breaks down as follows:
ASSIGNMENTS:                   1000 pts. (67% of your total grade)
FINAL PROJECT:                    500 pts. (33% of your total grade)
TOTAL GRADE:                    1500 pts.

At the end of the semester:
1350-1500 points will be an A
1200-1340 points will be a B
1050-1190 points will be a C
900-1040 points will be a D
Below 900 points will be an F

Assignments (1000 Points, 10 Assignments, 100 Points Each):

1) Revolutionary Sources Online (DUE Feb. 6): Search the web for collections of primary resources related to the American Revolution. Use the list of online primary source documents from my website get a sense of what I’m looking for and what is already on the list:


Find FIVE new websites that contain significant Revolutionary era PRIMARY SOURCES to add to this list. When evaluating a site for inclusion, consider the following issues: Does the site contain enough unique primary source documents to be worth adding? Is the site trustworthy? Who appears to be the site’s target audience? What kinds of documents are available on it? How many documents? How are they organized? How easy is the site to navigate? What kinds of contextual information (if any) does the site provide to help readers understand and interpret the sources?

Once you have selected your websites, write an introduction for each one. That introduction should provide a brief overview of the documents on the website and how to access them. You should note subject matter, types of documents, and provide instruction on finding documents and using website features (like search functions) if the site’s navigation is not intuitive. Remember, these introductions are geared toward teachers and students at the high school and college level who are our site’s target audience.

2) Textbook Document Sets (DUE Feb. 13): Borrow a document-reader textbook from me and examine the document sets on the American Revolution. Use these to draw a set of conclusions about what makes for a good document collection.

3) Online Archives (DUE Feb. 20): Issues and Best Practices

Reading: Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web

Question: What tips, advice, information, or strategies from “Digital History” do you think will be useful in helping us create our online archive/document collections?

4) Your Historical Question and Document Set (DUE Mar. 1):  Write an essay that defines your project by explaining your historical questions and what each document reveals about your topic. What documents are you going to use? What larger historical point will they make (what’s the lesson they teach)? What context will you need to provide to teachers/students to help them understand and interpret your documents? Transcribe the documents (or excerpts from documents) that you intend to use for your project and upload them to your Blackboard document folder on the Discussion Board.

Assemble your document collection from either: 1) primary sources not currently on the web; or 2) primary sources from large collections on the web. I do not want you to use or duplicate document collections that have already been assembled for teachers/students (i.e. the ones created by the Maryland State Archives that are linked on the HIST 413 list).

This is the most important assignment for ensuring your success this semester.To make your document set work, you need to have developed a coherent “big picture” historical question that is neither too broadly framed so that it’s confusing nor too narrowly framed so that the larger significance gets lost.


5) Revised Historical Question and Document Set (DUE Mar. 15):  Write a new essay that explains what your project is about and what each document reveals about your topic. Update your Blackboard folder with a thread containing the new documents you have transcribed along with the ones you want to keep from the first Document Set posting (don’t include documents from the first posting that you have decided you don’t want to use).

6) Annotated Secondary Sources (DUE Mar. 29): Create a list of at least 5 reputable secondary sources to accompany your contextual narrative that both serves as the scholarly basis for your narrative and offers further reading suggestions for teachers and students. After each title, you will include several sentences that summarizes how the work helps us understand the issue at the heart of your collection.

7) Introduction for Whole Document Collection, Individual Documents/and or Subgroups, First Draft (DUE Apr. 10): Write an introduction that sells your document collection to teachers/students. This should be relatively concise, a long paragraph or two, and should present the main historical point the documents convey. It should also include questions to guide readers through the documents so that they are better able to get out of them the meaning that you intend.  This introduction should also convey the key contextual information needed to interpret the documents that you elaborate on further in the main context narrative (as separate part of the collection package). All this should all be done in an engaging way. The idea is to entice the reader to want to examine the documents by developing some kind of hook to draw interest (i.e. myth busting, confounding expectations, a historical mystery to solve or interesting historical problem, introducing them to a new angle on a big topic).

You should also include brief introductions and questions for each document or topical subgroup of documents within the collection. Again, the idea is to establish the context needed to understand and interpret them and to provide specific questions to guide students toward the meaning you want the document to impart.

They key for all of the introductions is to catch the reader’s attention and provide context needed to understand and interpret them–BUT not to give too much away. Remember that the point is for students to do most of their learning from the documents themselves, not from your introductions. Consequently, you shouldn’t explain what the documents say or give away too many of the specifics. You are only arming them with appropriate background (the topic, what the document is, the general questions we are trying to answer) to make it easier for them to read and understand the documents without getting too confused. This means walking a fine line between giving too much and not enough context.

NOTE: This is a first draft of the introduction that will be the front page of your collection. This is just the introduction, not the historical context narrative, which you will submit separately

8) Introduction for Whole Document Collection, Individual Documents/and or Subgroups, Second Draft (DUE Apr. 17): Submit your revised introduction. Your grade will reflect the overall quality, how much work you put into it over the original draft, and how well you responded to my critique of the first draft.

9) Historical Context, First Draft (DUE Apr. 24): This is a COMPLETE first draft of the history context narrative that will accompany the documents. This narrative should provide sufficient general context for helping teachers/student understand the larger issues you want them to get out of the collection and to understand and interpret the documents.

10) Historical Context, Second Draft (DUE May 3): This is a COMPLETE second draft of the history context narrative that will accompany the documents. Your grade will reflect the overall quality, how much work you put into it over the original draft, and how well you responded to my critique of the first draft.

Completed Project (500 points) (DUE May 17): The completed project is your finished webpage for your document collection. The completed project will contain: 1) An introduction to the document collection including questions to guide interpretation; 2) A contextual narrative that provides background information critical to interpreting the documents and understanding the historical issues they address; 3) An annotated bibliography of at least FIVE reputable secondary sources that inform your contextual narrative and offer further reading for teachers or students using the website; 4) Transcribed documents, properly edited and attributed, with explanatory footnotes that identify key actors and antiquated terms.