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Honoring Teaching: Edward Balleisen

Award winner discusses his work in history courses

Duke historian Edward J. Balleisen

Since arriving at Duke in 1997, I have developed 11 courses open to undergraduates, spanning four centuries of American history, and targeted at every level of instruction, from the introductory lecture survey and the freshman seminar, to upper-level lecture classes, to research seminars for history majors and graduate students. I have team-taught with three senior faculty members, learning from their very different pedagogical styles, experimented in one case with comparative history, and served as the director of our senior honors seminar, and thus as a mentor to students working in nearly every conceivable chronological era and geographic terrain. In all of these varied contexts, I ask a great deal of my students. I have always expected them to handle taxing reading loads, to think on their feet and participate in class discussion, and to produce significant pieces of historical writing; and I have always offered extensive feedback on written work, challenging students to hone their use of historical evidence and improve the clarity and grace of their prose.

During the almost eight years I have spent at Duke, my agenda as an undergraduate teacher has become steadily more expansive, incorporating ambitious goals about content and pedagogy in my courses, intensive engagement with mentoring and supervision of independent research, and a deep commitment to curricular development. The latter extends not only to my particular areas of historical expertise, but also to the history department as a whole, and, in the past year, for the university at large, focusing particularly on the question of how one prepares undergraduates for the rigors, and joys, of independent research.


My scholarly preoccupations lie at the intersection of law, business, society, and culture, all in the post-revolutionary United States. In my core lecture classes -- American Business History and Modern American Legal History (the latter developed with Laura Edwards) --undergraduates constantly confront the connections among these dimensions of historical experience. At one level, I want my students to gain historical literacy, so that they can place contemporary dilemmas in a broad historical context. To make sense of an increasingly complex economic and legal world, undergraduates need to have a basic grasp of how the corporation emerged and evolved in America, or how basic approaches to regulation have changed dramatically from the early nineteenth century to the present.

In both courses, I encourage my students to evaluate the relative persuasiveness of "internalist" and "externalist" interpretations of business or legal history “ the former tending to view the business and legal domains as relatively insulated from broader political or cultural currents, and the latter tending to see legal and economic change as largely directed by such currents. I especially want undergraduates to assess the impact that governmental policy has had on the shifting structure and culture of American business “ a relationship currently at the heart of a whole series of pivotal debates in our society. Our discussions of American slavery occur in this framework, as does our consideration of how anti-trust policy has influenced the degree of innovation by twentieth-century American corporations, or our analysis of how shifts in employment law have influenced approaches to labor relations.

At the same time, I have put substantial effort into creating courses that stretch undergraduates' analytical capacities, and that furnish a solid foundation in historical interpretation and research. (The latter goals fit the basic premises of Curriculum 2000). My students learn how to dissect and evaluate scholarly arguments about historical causation; how to develop their own periodizations of key trends and transformations; how to sift alternative interpretations of primary sources; how to craft compelling historical questions; how to link those questions to plausible research agendas; and how to connect their research findings to broader historical trends and debates. Achieving such diverse aims, even in lecture courses that number as many as 60 students, has required a variety of strategies.

Over the past several years, I have developed what I view as a fairly distinctive style of teaching for my undergraduate lecture classes, borrowing from the techniques of professional schools like law and business. I generally ask students to grapple collectively with a series of historical puzzles/problems, each consisting of thematically connected case studies that collectively cover at least two hundred years of historical experience, coming up to the present. In American Business History, the themes might be "Strategies of Innovation," or "Labor Management"; in Modern American Legal History, they range from "Crime and Society" to "Property, Law, and Economy." Each class session examines one case study “ such as the emergence of the modern meatpacking industry in late nineteenth-century Chicago, or the controversies over intellectual property fostered by late twentieth-century biotechnology.

As we examine a given case study in class, I use an interactive style that meshes segments of lecturing and presentation of relevant images with a version of Socratic dialogue. My goal is to foster active learning, as I facilitate students' interpretation of historical issues, rather than encourage a passive mode of receiving a particular interpretation from me. When this approach clicks, as it increasingly does, I can orchestrate a conversation with as many as 20 contributors in a 50 minute period, as the class evaluates the evidentiary value of a primary source like a slaveowner's diary, or the relative merits of competing explanations for a particular historical trend, such as the turn to the conglomerate as a mainstay of corporate strategy.

Alongside our investigations of particular case studies, I set aside significant time in my classes to teach students the basics of independent research. Rather than simply setting topics and waiting for papers to arrive in my box (whether physical or virtual), I give students extensive guidance about how to develop a set of organizing questions, and I incorporate sessions in libraries and archives, where my teaching assistants and I can answer questions and show students how they can dig into archival sources. My courses similarly give students space to produce initial drafts of their papers, so that they can get detailed responses to their work. (This process depends in part on extensive mentoring of graduate student T.A.s, who do a significant share of research supervision.) My final examinations, moreover, continue the work of integrating research skills, as they ask students both to evaluate their own papers, and to show how their research findings fits in the broader narratives of American legal or business history. This examination technique has proved to be a superb mechanism for students to show what they have learned “ about the central themes of the course, the key insights of their own research endeavors, and the nature of open-ended historical research.

Information technology plays an increasingly vital role in both of these courses. My Blackboard coursesites serve as rich repositories of readings, lecture images, and weblinks. They also house discussion boards, which begin a conversation about the various case studies that we can build on in class. (I have set these coursesites for guest access, should individuals on the selection committee wish to peruse them.) Now well-launched, these courses have found significant constituencies among undergraduates, not only among history majors who wish to learn about pivotal American institutions and their interactions with society, but also with majors in political science, public policy, and economics, who have greatly appreciated the opportunity to explore such modern institutions from an historical perspective.


For the past three years, I have had the great pleasure of directing our senior honors seminar, a yearlong capstone experience that culminates with 80-120 page theses whose quality often rivals that of our best Masters theses. This position requires intensive mentoring with each group of thesis writers, over a fifteen-month period. The cycle begins early in the spring semester, with meetings with interested juniors to define topics, identify faculty supervisors, refine formal research proposals, and plan summer research. It then extends through the entire senior year, as members of the thesis seminar complete research and transform their findings into historical prose.

Directing the history senior honors seminar is enormously challenging, as topics range across centuries and much of the globe, and the pace of work, especially as one set of juniors begins the process, and another set of seniors completes it, is intense. But the students are both extremely bright and deeply committed, making the seminar an extraordinarily rewarding endeavor. I have learned a great deal from the experience, not least about how to facilitate independent research and writing.

In part, my approach to the honors seminar has borrowed from the time-tested techniques of my colleagues who have directed the program before me. The fall seminar begins with a series of workshops about historical research “ how to use libraries effectively; how to ask good historical questions; how to assess historical evidence; how to go about revising drafts; even how to footnote appropriately. That semester ends with, and the spring semester largely revolves around, consideration of chapter drafts by seminar participants.

But I have added several important wrinkles to the proceedings. First, I spend a good deal of time communicating spatial approaches to note-taking and brainstorming, which have become absolutely essential for my own work, and which most students find intriguing, and some quite liberating. Second, I have extended the contexts in which the seminar participants learn by sharing their own work. I have students circulate samples of their primary documents, and examples of their note-taking, so that we can explore the interpretive skills of handling evidence, and the organizational skills of tracking research findings, through materials in which thesis writers have a clear stake. Seminar participants similar share their conceptual outlines, so that they all collectively learn how to develop a sustained, multi-faceted narrative strategy. And I use the drafts of former thesis students to convey effective techniques of revision. Third, I have integrated information technology into the honors experience, mostly to facilitate distribution of research materials and chapter drafts, and to improve communications with juniors who are contemplating a thesis (I produced a series of documents on the thesis experience for our departmental website). Finally, I have instituted a dimension of oral presentation into the honors experience, a dimension that our department had previously ignored. In the last two years, I have successfully encouraged participation in both regional and national student history conferences, so that thesis writers get the chance to present and defend their work before both their student peers and other history faculty.

Our honors program quite strong before I took responsibility for it. I am leaving the program in still stronger shape. In each of the past three years, our students have had exceedingly good success in winning university-wide grants to support summer research, both in the United States and abroad. The number of history seniors who are writing senior theses this year has risen to sixteen, with well over twenty juniors having submitted research proposals for next year. Equally important, our seniors have produced sterling work in the past few years, a measure of both their hard work and the quality of the intellectual community that I have helped to foster. Several senior faculty members who have recently served on our honors committee, which assesses submitted theses in April, have commented on the consistency of quality among those theses. Indeed, at the history graduation ceremony in 2003, the Director of Undergraduate Studies described that year's senior theses as collectively the most impressive the faculty had seen in years. Last spring, our students received external confirmation of their accomplishments at the regional meeting of Phi Alpha Theta at UNC-Wilmington, where a number of faculty evaluators stressed how accomplished the Duke seniors were, and where two of those seniors won awards for their presentations.

Directing the honors seminar has limited my ability to mentor undergraduates in my own areas of specialization, a pedagogical context that plays to my greatest strengths as a teacher. I was able to oversee one honors thesis in 2002-03, written by Tyler Will, a history-public policy double major who could not fit the honors seminar into his academic schedule. Despite this handicap, Will's thesis on the early history of the ResearchTrianglePark was a finalist for the best history thesis that year, and shared the Middlesworth Award for the best undergraduate research paper based substantially on materials from Special Collections. This semester, I am also supervising independent research by an economics major who is examining the labor management policies and marketing strategies of General Motors in mid-twentieth century South Africa. Although I have greatly enjoyed my time overseeing our honors program, I am looking forward to more regular opportunities to oversee this kind of independent work after my stint as director ends this April.


During my tenure as director of the senior honors seminar, and while I have developed the new courses on American business and legal history, I have spent a good bit of time reflecting on how to build a history curriculum that prepares undergraduates to pursue substantial projects of independent research. Partly, this effort has been prompted by the uneven preparation of many history thesis writers for the tasks they need to accomplish.

One of my responses to this situation has been to develop a freshman seminar, "The Meanings of American Freedom," organized around the cultivation of research skills. Students in this class analyzed debates among historians, tracked footnotes in order to evaluate historians' use of evidence, and got their feet wet in using web-based historical archives, as well as manuscript sources in Duke's Special Collections Library.

In a similar, but more extensive vein, I have also taken the lead in developing a legal history concentration with our major that seeks to provide intensive research experiences before the senior year. The department's Legal History Initiative, which has attracted a major course development grant from Arts & Sciences, will eventually comprise two core lecture courses that will introduce students to research methods (Modern American Legal History is already up and running), as well as several junior-senior seminars that will require major independent research projects. This past year, I oversaw an internal competition within the department for a course development grant to facilitate new seminars in legal history, which we awarded to Professor John French, who is currently teaching a course on the legal history of Brazilian emancipation.

During the past few months, I have sought to apply the principles underlying this initiative more broadly, offering Deans McClendon, Roth, and Thompson several ideas about how to foster undergraduate research across the university. The central idea I have promoted is that if Duke aspires to have more of its undergraduates pursue significant research projects, it must create a pedagogical "pipeline" in the first three years. (I have furnished a copy of the memo with my teaching materials). This suggestion has influenced the university's current Undergraduate Research Initiative, as well as our department's response to that initiative, which we expect to send to Dean Thompson this week. Our proposal has two main elements -- the development of new research intensive courses aimed at sophomores; and the further improvement of the senior thesis experience, through the creation a "writing studio" particularly for senior thesis writers, staffed by senior graduate students, and through a new annual regional conference for senior thesis writers, in which our thesis writers would be able to share their findings with their peers from other leading regional universities. Alongside these efforts, I have met this semester with professors from two other departments, English and Literature, each of whom wished to learn about how we structure the senior thesis experience in history.

As the foregoing indicates, I have put a fairly high priority on undergraduate teaching since coming to Duke. I have done so partly because I view teaching a crucial dimension of my vocation, and partly because of the enormous support and encouragement I have received from so many different quarters “ from Arts & Sciences, the Center for Instructional Technology, and the Markets & Management Program, all of whom have furnished timely curricular development grants; from my colleagues in history, who have been generous with their talents and time; from the university's librarians and archivists, without whose assistance many of my most challenging assignments would not be feasible; and from the graduate students who have taught with me, and whose suggestions have repeatedly improved the American Business History course in particular. But the investment in teaching has also helped me to refine my approaches to research and scholarship, making me more interested in exploring the evolution of business culture over broader swaths of time, and more self-conscious about effective techniques of narrative prose.