Historical Figure Presentations

This semester in my upper-level early national and Jacksonian US class (1790-1848), I tried out an alternative to a short paper: oral presentations on historical figures which focused in on one primary source by that figure. Students chose from a list of figures I provided that would mesh well with the reading for that week, and I gave a sample presentation early in the semester to model what I was looking for. To encourage students to take notes, I gave them notetaking worksheets and explained that they could bring these to the midterm and final. They would serve as cheat sheets for short answer questions asking them what selected pairs of figures would discuss. You can skip down to the prompt, or read about pluses and minuses first.

Some big advantages of this kind of project:
-it’s student-centered learning–not just a buzzword, but something the students specifically said they liked
-gives students a stake in the work–some of them got really excited about the people they researched
-encourages independent research and analysis of primary sources
-builds public speaking skills
-less grading–I filled out a rubric as they spoke and just made a few additional notes before giving a grade
-created a very successful set of exam questions which drew out thoughtful and creative replies

Some challenges:
-getting students to use books and scholarly articles; perhaps setting a required number would help
-students often found great images of historical documents online, but if the transcription wasn’t posted with the images, they didn’t do good research to find it (esp. if it was only available in a book)
-they generally copied the format of my sample talk
-the biggest miss was on the supplemental images, objects or documents–they would show images, often from later eras, as illustrations but failed to analyze them

Assignment Prompt

For this assignment, you will choose one historical figure from the list of options for your chosen date and find one primary source document by or about that person. You will then craft an oral presentation that connects the person and source to that week’s theme.

Your presentation must include:

  • Brief background on the life and significance of the historical figure
  • One primary source document, a copy of which you can post digitally or hand out paper copies
  • Two supplementary images, objects, or documents
  • Analysis of your source and supplementary items in connection to the theme and reading for that week
  • Visuals of some sort, via handouts or digital presentation
  • Bibliography of web and scholarly sources

The presentation can take any form you would like: a powerpoint with a talk; an historical reenactment; a short film or media presentation. You may work individually or in pairs. Individual presentations should last 7-10 minutes, while those crafted by a pair should be 15 minutes.

A list of websites and databases which will be useful for locating primary sources is available on Canvas. Cite all sources. Your biography should draw from reputable scholarly sources; do not rely on websites.

You will also take notes on each presentation on a worksheet, which you will be able to bring with you to the midterm and final.


I scored the presentations based on the following:

  • Presentation
  • Enthusiasm
  • Visual Aids
  • Organization
  • Primary Sources and Supplements
  • Knowledge of Content

Figures as options, by week:

4: Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr
5: Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Judith Sargent Murray, Phyllis Wheatley
6: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Tecumseh
8: Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs, William Lloyd Garrison
10: Joseph Smith, Charles Finney, John Jacob Astor, Robert Fulton
11: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Margaret Eaton, John Ross (cherokee chief)
13: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Peabody, Emily Dickinson

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Teaching Resources for Tough Times

I’ve spent a good deal of time this summer thinking about how to structure my US history to 1877 survey course–composed almost entirely of non-majors–to address the pressing issues of the moment.  Here are a few things I’m planning to do:

  • start out on the first day with an explanation of why they should care about history, specifically early American history (jump to my list below)
  • also on the first day, set out some ground rules on how to respectfully participate in class discussions (jump to that list)
  • have students read both the Declaration of Independence and John Dickinson’s speech against it, then assign them to opposite sides to debate for and against declaring independence.  I’m hoping this will overturn some teleological thinking about the Revolution as inevitable, push them to hear some opinions they’re not accustomed to, and make them think critically about why and when people revolt against their governments.
  • read and discuss Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to understand the history of non-violent protest (inspired by discussion at the SHEAR panel “Teaching in the Age of Trump”).  Especially teaching just outside DC, where there are quite frequent protests, this will provide helpful context.


The relevance of history

History helps us understand:

  • How did we get here?
  • Where did we come from?
  • Has something like this happened before? How did people handle it?
  • How does radical—or even small—change happen? How do new movements form?

Early American history helps us understand:

  • How did the United States end up being so big and diverse?
  • Where did notions of race and racism come from?
  • Why do Native Americans live on reservations (like Standing Rock)?
  • Why were women excluded from politics?
  • What made colonists decide it was worth fighting a war against their mother country? What were they fighting for?
  • These “founding fathers”…what exactly did they envision for the country?
  • Why is Andrew Jackson in the news this past year?
  • How did we end up with a two party political system?
  • Why is the American relationship with Mexico so messy?
  • What was the Civil War really about? Why does it seem like we’re still fighting it?
  • What do American values like freedom and equality mean?

Ground Rules for Class Discussions
(Source: University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching)

  • Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
  • Listen actively and with an ear to understanding others’ views. (Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.)
  • Criticize ideas, not individuals.
  • Commit to learning, not debating. Comment in order to share information, not to persuade.
  • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Allow everyone the chance to speak.
  • Avoid assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.
  • Be courteous. Don’t interrupt or engage in private conversations while others are speaking. Use attentive, courteous body language.
  • Support your statements. Use evidence and provide a rationale for your points.
  • Share responsibility for including all voices in the discussion.  If you have much to say, try to hold back a bit; if you are hesitant to speak, look for opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
  • Recognize that we are all still learning. Be willing to change your perspective, and make space for others to do the same.
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Moving Forward, Looking Backward

or à la On The Media:
Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: History edition

For many Americans, these are scary times. While historians don’t have any clear answers on what to do next, our training and knowledge (or, at the very least, mine!) do suggest some trends and tropes to watch for. As both media consumers and political actors, we should beware of the following when journalists, pundits, or politicians reference history. Continue reading

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Historians Take on Hamilton

Historians are, by and large, delighted that Hamilton has brought so much attention and interest to the founding era in American history. Lin-Manuel Miranda has attracted diverse, young audiences and made them excited about history in unprecedented fashion. There are many songs that are historically on-point, although as a piece of art, the play takes some liberties with chronology and alters some historical events. What concerns historians most are two of the main messages of the show: Continue reading

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Cultural & Gender History of the Founders

This reading list is a supplement to my talk, “Making the Historical Personal: The Founding Fathers, Gender, and the Cultural Turn,” at the Society for United States Intellectual History Annual Conference, Oct. 17, 2015, Washington, DC Continue reading

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