History 111G: Modern America

William Chafe. Les Todd

In 1984, American involvement in Vietnam was a mere nine years in the past; the Watergate scandal, only ten; and the social upheavals of the late 1960s, little more than a decade and a half.

That year, history professor William Chafe taught a large lecture class on the subject of modern America to students who were children when those events occurred. Most had probably watched Nixon's resignation on television or written a high-school paper on the Iranian hostage crisis. And so Chafe taught at the intersection of current events and history.

Twenty-five years later, teaching students who might not remember the Clinton administration, the subject remains the same. But Chafe's "Modern America" is now a much smaller class—approximately forty students—and the format has changed. More class time is dedicated to discussion, sometimes up to half of the period.

Chafe also feels more comfortable bringing his own experiences to the table; further removed from the time period, he now sees the value in discussing his involvement in the antiwar and civil rights movements. "I think it's far enough away," he says, "that I can think of myself as part of the history I'm teaching."

As is true for most professors, technology has changed the way Chafe teaches "Modern America." Students have quick, online access to readings and other materials, and nearly all now take notes on laptops.

But one thing hasn't changed: getting the students to do the reading in the first place. Chafe has never assigned term papers for the class—just one midterm exam and the bluebook final—but has introduced a journaling assignment in recent years. Students must complete lengthy entries in response to the reading, giving them additional opportunities to ruminate on the subject matter. There are no set questions to answer; they need to show only that they are engaging with the material and processing it on their own.

While Chafe once taught separate lectures on subjects like Black Power and the Vietnam War, over the past twenty-five years, historians have added to the record, making it possible for him to approach his material in a more unified way. Take as an example David Maraniss' They Marched Into Sunlight, a historical narrative published in 2003. The book, which alternates between a battle in Vietnam and a peace protest on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison that occurred over the same two-day period in 1967, is now a cornerstone of the course.


William Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of history and has been on Duke's faculty since 1971. From 1995 to 2004, he served as dean of the faculty. He is the author of many works, including a seminal study of the sit-in movement, Civilities and Civil Rights (1980). His most recent book, Rise and Fall of the American Century: The United States from 1890-2010, was published by Oxford University Press.




A History of Our Time, William Chafe, et al.; The Unfinished Journey, William Chafe; Meridian, Alice Walker; Radio Free Dixie, Timothy Tyson; They Marched Into Sunlight, David Maraniss; The Politics of Rage, Dan Carter; Personal Politics, Sara Evans; Reckoning with Reagan, Michael Schaller


Reading journal, midterm exam, and final

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