Course Syllabus

HISTORY 404 US Constitution Seminar

Dickinson College       Fall 2010     Wednesday 130pm-415pm    Denny 112                              Matthew Pinsker       Denny 113 (Tel: 245-1350)

Office hours: Tue/Thu 3-4 & Wed. 10-12

Course Blog                  

Delicious Bookmarks  

Required Texts (On reserve / The Whistlestop Bookshop, 129 W. High Street)

Amar, Akhil Reed. Bill of Rights.  New Haven: Yale, 2000.

Beeman, Richard R. Plain, Honest Men.  New York: Random House 2010.

Farber, Daniel. Lincoln’s Constitution. Chicago, 2004.

Klarman, Michael. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights. New York: Oxford, 2006.


Cornell, Saul.  “Aristocracy Assailed: The Ideology of Backcountry Anti-Federalism.” Journal of American History 76 (March 1990): 1148-1172. [JSTOR]

Pinsker, Matthew. “The Limits of Presidential War Powers.” Insights on Law & Society 9 (Winter 2009): 12-15.  [PDF]

Attendance and Participation

Attendance is mandatory and participation will be evaluated.  Under ordinary circumstances, more than two unexcused absences will result in a reduction in final grades.  Good participation means: (1) Providing thoughtful questions and answers during class discussion, and (2) Presenting material from various types of blog posts in an effective manner.

Special Events

Students will be required to attend two special events — a Constitution Day lecture by Erwin Chemerinsky on Tuesday evening, September 22 and an all-day field trip to Philadelphia on Wednesday, December 1, 2010 to visit Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center and to meet with key personnel.

Case Summaries

Students will be assigned to make at least two blog posts during the second half of the semester concerning pivotal Supreme Court cases mentioned in our weekly readings.  Each post should include at least one featured image and multiple links to primary and secondary resources essential for understanding the case.  Good posts will provide effective summary of the decision as well as offering a helpful research roadmap that identifies principal figures involved in the case and relevant contextual issues.  Students will receive detailed instructions on how to submit postings to the course blog.  Students will also be asked to make brief presentations following each of their posts. Case summary posts must be made by the seminar when the case has been mentioned in the weekly reading assignment.  Late posts will be penalized at the rate of 5 points per day.

Word Clouds

Students will be asked to create at least two word clouds (or graphic representations of word frequency from selected texts using the online program that can help illustrate salient points about the debate over constitutional ratification.  Students may use text from the Philadelphia convention, the Federalist Papers, the ratification debates, or from Anti-Federalist essays and speeches.  Students must produce at least two word clouds in Wordle (saved to History 404 in the public gallery) and explain their value as teaching tools in a brief post to the course blog (with links to those student-created clouds) by Wednesday, September 29 at noon. Students will also be asked to make brief presentations of their clouds in seminar. Late word clouds will be penalized at the rate of 5 points per day.

Amendment Op-Eds

On the last day of the seminar, students will be required to present a proposal to amend the Constitution.  These proposals should be prepared and explained in the form of a 750 to 1,000 word op-ed or opinion column of the type that appears opposite the main editorial page in daily newspapers.  The op-eds must be posted to the course blog by Wednesday, December 8, 2010 by noon.  Students will receive both models for composition and a list of suggested topics in advance.  All good op-eds need clear ideas, persuasive evidence, and concise expression.  They do not require footnotes, but sources of specific information or quotations should be clarified in the text itself.  Students will be asked to present their proposals in seminar. Late op-eds will be penalized at the rate of 5 points per day.

Seminar Paper

Students will culminate their work this semester with a major research paper that analyzes the ideas of a “framer” of the Constitution defined broadly.  In other words, students may profile not only one of the 39 original framers who signed the document on September 17, 1787, but also others from the period who influenced the shaping of the Constitution or even later participants in debates over amending the Constitution or jurists who have since reinterpreted constitutional provisions.  The key point is that papers must be biographical in scope and focus on the constitutional ideas of the subject.  Final seminar papers must include the following: a cover page with descriptive title, 15-20 pages of original text, typed, double-spaced, with Chicago-style footnotes and a bibliography.  All papers must examine both primary and secondary sources.  Descriptive proposals (3-5 pages outlining topic, existing historiography, and key research questions) along with an annotated bibliography (including both primary and secondary sources) are due on November 17. Completed papers will be due via email on Saturday, December 18 by noon. Late papers will be penalized 5 points per day.

Learning Goals and Grade Distribution

Learning goals for students in this seminar include developing historical perspectives, expressing themselves clearly, locating relevant information, identifying key historical issues and debates, and supporting plausible historical arguments.

Participation                            35%

Case Summaries                      10%

Word Clouds                             10%

Amendment Op-Eds               10%

Seminar Paper                         35%

Day Date Topic Reading Assignment
Wednesday 9/1 Methods & Expectations
Wednesday 9/8 NO CLASS
Wednesday 9/15 Constitutional Crisis Beeman, 3-189
Monday 9/20 130-3pm, Constitutional Compromises Denny 104, Beeman, 190-358
Tuesday 9/21 Lecture:  Erwin Chemerinsky ATS, 7pm
Wednesday 9/22 NO CLASS
Wednesday 9/29 Constitutional Ratification

Word Clouds due by noon (course blog)

Beeman, 358-423

Cornell article (JSTOR)

Wednesday 10/6 Creating the Bill of Rights Amar, 3-162
Wednesday 10/6 Lecture:  Daniel Walker Howe Stern, 7pm
Wednesday 10/13 Reconstructing the Constitution Amar, 163-294
Fall Pause, October 18-19
Wednesday 10/20 Secession and Federalism Farber, 1-114
Wednesday 10/27 Presidential War Powers Farber, 115-200

Pinsker article (PDF)

Wednesday 11/3 Supreme Court and Jim Crow Klarman, 3-170
Wednesday 11/10 Brown v. Board of Education Klarman, 171-343
Wednesday 11/17 Civil Rights Legacies

UPDATE: Tue 11/23 Paper proposals due (via email)

Klarman, 344-468
Thanksgiving Break, November 24-28
Wednesday 12/1 Field Trip to Philadelphia 830am – 6pm
Thursday 12/2 Common Hour presentations Noon to 1pm  Denny 317
Wednesday 12/8 Amending the Constitution

Op-Eds due by noon (course blog)

Student Op-Eds
Saturday 12/18 Seminar Paper due by noon (email)

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