California History

I frequently teach an upper-division course on California History at Cal Poly Pomona. A few particular aspects of my approach to this course include:

  • I teach the course (mostly) without a textbook. Though I assign Kevin Starr’s California to provide students with a broad overview, the main course readings are primary sources or scholarly articles. In this way we are able to focus on central themes and draw on students’ existing knowledge of the state (since all but a few have lived here their entire lives).
  • I teach skill development as an equal course component with content mastery. In this case, the skill involves identifying and analyzing bias/perspective in historical writing. During the course, students read Sarah Royce’s memoir of immigrating to Gold Rush California, Across the Plains, and D.J. Waldie’s book on Lakewood, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.  Their papers on these works include identical prompts: What is the author’s bias and how does it shape her/his account? In the process of wrestling with historical bias, students learn to examine all materials (including my teaching) with a more critical eye.
  • Drawing on content, themes, and skill development, students end the course by writing autobiographical essays about their own experience in California. The central requirement is that they consider how larger historical developments have shaped their life. These are frankly some of the best papers I have had the pleasure of reading or grading. We both learn a great deal about California and the lives of individual students.

Because the course is composed entirely of juniors and seniors, I can expect more from these students. Assignments include readings for each class session, two memoirs, two long-form exams, and three papers. Fortunately, my students have consistently risen to the challenge.