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Uncommon Sense

By Catherine E. Kelly · June 30, 2021

Time to reset your syllabi, Vast Early America

teaching 10 min read

By Catherine E. Kelly, OI Editor of Books

I came to the project that would become Thirteen Clocks: How Race United the Colonies and Made the Declaration of Independence the hard way – through the college classroom.

Before joining the Omohundro Institute, I taught American history first at Case Western Reserve University and then at the University of Oklahoma. I knew from experience that finding cutting-edge scholarship that could fit into an undergraduate syllabus was no small challenge. This dilemma isn’t special to early Americanists, of course; it’s built into teaching. Still, it was especially acute for the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the period that stands at the heart of #VastEarlyAmerica.  I was always struck by how the number of assignable choices increased once I cleared the 1820s.

Length was one problem—short books on colonial history remain in short supply—but it was not the only one.  Scholars working in early American studies writ large have produced dazzling work precisely because they were committed to stretching disciplinary, chronological, and geographic boundaries, because they were committed to exhaustive archival research and to exquisite, close reading.  Yet many of those books were directed at specialists. And many of the best of those books resisted the logic of syllabi that were built into the spine of a survey textbook.  As a scholar, I devoured that work. But as a teacher, I found myself translating it, pulling a couple of lectures from this book and a couple more from that one.  That was fine; it was my job, after all.  But I wanted my students to encounter more of these transformative scholars on their own, without me in the middle.  Not surprisingly, when I became Editor of Books at the OI, bringing the best early American scholarship into classrooms was a key part of my agenda.

Enter Rob Parkinson. 

Parkinson’s prize-winning The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution was an obvious candidate for some kind of classroom-friendly makeover. Hailed as “vitally important,” and “brilliant, timely, and indispensable,” Common Cause was arguably the most important book on the American Revolution in a generation. By meticulously retracing patriots’ communications networks, Rob demonstrated how patriot leaders, from the storied to the obscure, leveraged information systems to heighten fears of slave insurrection and Native American treachery and how they deliberately linked those fears to British rule.  Racial fear, it turned out, was at the heart of Americans’ pursuit of independence.  Common Cause was a brilliant intervention. At 742 pages, including three appendices, it had not been written for college classrooms.

During the first real conversation I had with Rob, I pitched the idea of publishing a teachable riff on The Common Cause.  What kind of riff might that be? There were notable precedents for straightforward abridgments. Consider Winthrop Jordan’s landmark OI book White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968), which was abridged six years after its initial publication as The White Man’s Burden; I read the latter as a college sophomore and the former in graduate school. As the Books staff warmed to the idea of what we then called CC2.0, we studied abridgments, trying to game out editorial strategies. Nadine Zimmerli, then Associate Editor, discovered, for example, that Jordan had slashed length more by removing examples and eliminating citations (!) than by recrafting sentences; a remarkably large percentage of the text that appeared in the second book was identical to that in the first.

In the event, Rob rejected a straightforward abridgment and instead returned with the first draft of Thirteen Clocks, a manuscript that had more new content than old and that focused on the tense months leading up to the Declaration of Independence:  a steady diet of news stories about proxy enemies kept colonists on edge through 1775. And when news arrived in 1776 that Parliament had deployed thousands of Hessian mercenaries to quash rebellion, a declaration of independence was all but guaranteed. The manuscript’s tight focus explains why patriots declared independence when they did, something I always struggled with when teaching the American Revolution. But in Rob’s hands, the focus also provides the scaffolding for a taut narrative. The manuscript was an “abridgment of sorts,” as Rob put it, one that promised to convey the most compelling arguments of his first book in an accessible, highly readable format.  

Figuring out how to deliver on that promise stretched us all.  We knew immediately that the concept was terrific. Execution was trickier.  Even Rob, one of the hardest-working writers I’ve met, was occasionally taken aback by the scale and detail of revision.  We worked on framing and pace. We debated what terms, individuals, and dates needed explication.  We worked on voice, a lot.  Rob is a fine stylist in any genre. But Thirteen Clocks needed a slightly different voice than the one he adopted in Common Cause: accessible but not colloquial. Threading that narrative voice through the whole manuscript was a key part of the final polishing that Rob and Manuscript Editor Kathy Burdette gave the book.  And because we know that folks really do judge books by their covers, the whole OI reviewed and rejected a series of covers.  The winning design was roughed out by Editorial Assistant Emily Suth during a Zoom meeting with our publishing partners at UNC Press.

Along the way, we road tested the manuscript. In addition to sending a complete draft out for formal peer review, we ran parts of it by teaching faculty who weighed in on everything from course adoption potential to chapter length to relative desirability of subheads. We created a course adoption packet.  Rob drafted two sample syllabi, one for a U.S. survey course and the other for an upper-level class on war and race.  This level of explication might seem excessive to readers of this blog.  But faculty who are not trained in early American history and who are nevertheless tasked with teaching it can find it helpful to see how a book looks in action. Finally, we sent the page proofs to more than a dozen scholar-teachers working in R1 universities, teaching-intensive colleges, and private high schools, asking them to consider the book’s appeal for their courses and their students. 

Thirteen Clocks is just beginning to make its way out into the world. It’s too soon to know exactly what shape its progress will take, especially as the OI launches its AcrossAmerica1776 initiative and as the nation prepares for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  For now, though, I’m happy to think about college students like the ones I used to teach as they encounter some of #VastEarlyAmerica’s most transformative scholarship on their own.

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