History 316Z, Prof. Zahavi

Paper Topic Suggestions

 Please note that the following are merely suggestions. You are free to select your own topics -- AS LONG AS YOU CLEAR THEM WITH ME.

  1. William Cronon argued that "English fixity sought to replace Indian mobility; here was the central conflict in the ways Indians and colonists interacted with their environments." Examine the economic and subsistence activities of a tribe outside of the northeastern U.S., suggesting how you might modify Cronon's assertions about the distinction between Indian and European ecological interactions.
  2. "Marketplace capitalism came late to America. The relationship between producers and merchants and between farmers and the marketplace was such in the 17th and 18th centuries that one can hardly characterize that era as market-dominated or 'bourgeois.' Entrepreneurial, profit-seeking, market-oriented activities were peripheral, and not characteristic of the rural folk who comprised the vast majority of colonial society."

    Respond to this in an essay, utilizing the assigned readings (as well as recommended readings and/or any other relevant books, articles, or primary sources you might want to bring into your analysis).

  3. Write an essay exploring and comparing the evolution of "gendered" economic roles of men and women in a North American Indian tribe during the colonial or early national period. Suggest why and how men and women's economic roles changed over time.
  4. "There were two family economies in the Ballard household, one managed by Martha, the other by Ephraim." In an essay of 5-7 pages, explore the significance and broader implications of the "female-managed economy" described by Martha Ballard and her interpreter, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
  5. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich emphasizes, the diary of Martha Ballard "does not stand alone." Ulrich utilizes supplementary sources to uncover the content and meanings hidden behind the casual and often short entries in Ballard's diary. But she also brings her own values and imagination to the task. She warns us, on pages 32-33 of the introduction: "To understand Martha's world we must approach it on its own terms, neither as a golden age of household productivity nor as a political void from which a later feminist consciousness emerged." Does Ulrich succeed in her task? Or does she bring to it too much intellectual baggage from late 20th century America? Simply put, explore the possible distortions or interpretative transgressions that may be present in Ulrich's interpretation of Martha Ballard's diary and life.
  6. Explore the "liberating" and/or "repressive" nature of the New England mill experience.
  7. Many Americans living in the early 19th century felt uncomfortable about factories. Some argued that they were incompatible with republicanism. In a 10-12 page paper, examine this early debate and evaluate the merits of the arguments made by advocates and critics.
  8. Explore the critique of capitalism, class relations, and work that lay at the heart of the utopian socialist movements of the early 19th century. Try to explain why some individuals and groups found them so appealing. You'll have to use additional sources to do justice to this topic, so select it only if you have the time, interest, and ambition to pursue it through further reading.
  9. "In slavery and in freedom, African-American workers in the American South continually demonstrated their ability to shape and broaden the confining circumstances of their working lives. They demonstrated an uncanny ability to force compromise after compromise from white masters and planters."Utilizing assigned and recommended readings, suggest in a 10-12 page essay the various ways in which Southern African-American workers accomplished what the above suggests. Modify the topic as you please to make it manageable within the confines of a short essay.
  10. Write a 10-12 page paper on the ideology and behavior of slave masters. Focus your paper on any specific aspect of slaveholding that interests you, from the ideological justification of the institution, to management practices, to the complex relationships masters had with male and female slaves, and so on. Select a topic that can be covered in a brief paper. Don’t be overly ambitious!
  11. Historian Jacqueline Jones wrote that: "Black women’s distinctiveness is historically rooted in their devotion to the traditional roles of wife and mother as the only significant way to protest against white domination and tyranny. If liberation for white women in the late nineteenth century meant loosening the bonds of the ‘family claim,’ freedom for black women meant adhering as closely as possible to family roles." Explore the merits of this argument in a short essay (10-12 pages).

  12. According to Jonathan Wiener, "Postwar southern development was not following the same path as the North, in an evolutionary manner, because the landlord-tenant relation was of a different type than the capitalist-proletarian relation prevailing in the North. The key difference was the coercive mode of labor control the planters developed in their conflict with the freedmen." The "invisible hand of the market" did not shape relations between planters and workers; coercion and class conflict did. Explore this idea, or any aspect of it, in a short 10-12 page essay.
  13. The strength behind the Great Strike of 1877 was tied to the combination of all ranks of workers. On the railroads brakemen, flagmen, conductors, firemen, and engineers went on strike together. To what extent did the events of 1877 reflect a fully realized "class consciousness" on the part of American workers? To what extent did craft, ethnic, and racial solidarities continue to undermine class unity?
  14. Explore one community's response to the upheavals of the 1877 strike. How did the local press treat news of the event? Where did local support come from? Local critics? Since Albany, Schenectady, and Troy newspapers are readily available, you might focus on one of these communities.
  15. Analyzing the IWW, Socialist Party, and the AFL in terms of ideologies, organizational strategies, and personalities, write an essay exploring each's relative success/failure.
  16. Some historians claim that the success (albeit short-term) of the Industrial Workers of the World was due to the fact that it represented "an indigenous radical tradition" which emerged out of specific American social and economic conditions; it was not a "foreign transplant." Explore and evaluate this thesis.
  17. In a 10-12 page essay, evaluate the thesis that race and ethnicity were major obstacles to the achievement of working class unity in the U.S. Feel free to narrow or broaden this as you please, as long as you define your horizon clearly in the paper.
  18. Historian David R. Roediger, writing about the pre-Civil War era, has recently argued that "working class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the US white working class." He, like W. E. B. DuBois and Sterling Stuckey before him, analyzed "whiteness as the product of specific classes’ attempts to come to terms with their class -- never simply economic -- problems." Projecting "longings onto a despised race," or distorting and enhancing differences, were two ways in which this process occurred. A similar argument, as the frequent references to "manliness" by labor and strike leaders suggest, can be made for the gendered development of working-class identity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Explore either one of these notions in a 10-12 page paper utilizing assigned films, novels, and non-fiction readings. If you’re interested in David R. Roediger’s specific argument for the pre-1865 period, see The Wages of Whiteness" Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991). I'll also be putting an audio file of a talk that Roediger delivered on the WWW page.
  19. Select one of the films assigned to the class. Evaluate it as a historical critic. What is the point of view of the filmmakers? How do you know this? How historically accurate is the film? To what extent do the filmmakers distort historical facts about their subject? Why? How might the content have been better presented? Your factual criticisms of the film should be documented with references to secondary and primary sources
  20. Look closely at Out of This Furnace. Evaluate it as a historical critic. What is the point of view of the novelist? How do you know this? How historically accurate is the novel? To what extent does the writer distort historical facts about the subject? Why? How might the content have been better presented? Your factual criticisms of the novel should be documented with references to secondary and primary sources.
  21. Industial capitalism directly and indirectly transformed the lives of women and men, yet in distinct ways. According to one historian: "Since men and women were differently situated in the family, the workplace, and the community, their experiences of these institutions may have diverged. . . . Women and men experienced, used, and conceived of the family, religion, work, and public and private space differently. The factory imposed distinctive burdens and offered divergent opportunities for women and for men. Explore this idea in a short essay. You may focus on Out of This Furnace, if you wish, or bring in a host of other assigned/recommended readings. Narrow the topic appropriately.

  22. Between 1880 and the 1920s, corporations sought, through a variety of means, to achieve greater control over labor and the process of production. In an essay utilizing assigned (and recommended) readings, evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies they adopted to accomplish this.

  23. Explore and explain the rise of the CIO through an examination of one union or one industry -- either nationally or locally.

  24. Explore any aspect of the following question, on either a local or national level. Was the rise of a militant industrial union movement in the 1930s representative of a major psychological and cultural transformation of American workers, or was it merely an episodic event?

  25. Explore women's involvement in the rise of industrial unionism in the 1930s and 1940s by looking closely at one industry and union organization. How important were women in the growth of the union? To what extent did women formulate their own goals and agendas? How did these differ from male members' goals and agendas? How responsive were union leaders to the demands of women members?

  26. Explore the notions that "women make the best strikers" and/or "working women have been less ready than men to make the initial sacrifice that trade-union membership calls for." Under what circumstances is one or the other true or false? Utilize books, novels, films, secondary and primary sources. Be as specific or general as you wish (one union, or many; a decade, or a half-century), so long as your thesis is manageable within the 10-12 pp. length of the paper.

  27. Discuss John Steinback's In Dubious Battle in reference to actual organizing efforts among California's agricultural workers in the 1930s. How did Steinback shape and/or distort the past to serve his aesthetic vision?

  28. Some recent historians have argued that a dramatic and forgotten civil rights struggle took place in the 1930s, both within and outside American trade unions. In many ways, it was more revolutionary than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, because it challenged economic privilege. Explore any aspect of this "forgotten movement," either locally or nationally.

  29. Compare the impacts of World War I and World War II on workers, work, and trade unionism. You may narrow your focus to a particular group of workers if you wish.

  30. Some historians emphasize the role of the Cold War in weakening organized labor in this country. Explore this issue either broadly or narrowly (through an examination of a single union, a single community, a single industry, or by limiting your temporal horizons).

  31. Examine Vonnegut's Player Piano as a commentary on modern industrial America. How convincing and accurate is it? Bring in non-fiction sources to help you evaluate and comment on his critique.

  32. Examine any major issue or crisis in modern U.S. industrial/"post-industrial" life and its impact on workers. Place it in historical context! (See me if you don't know what this means). You may define your "issue" or "crisis" in narrow or broad terms -- examining a very specific event or a major sea change in the economy, just be sure that you can do justice to your topic in the 10-14 page length of the paper. Possibilities include deindustrialization and "off-shore" production, mechanization and computerization or work, global or regional trade relations and American workers, repression of labor (organized or non-organized), workplace and wage equity/fairness issues (affirmative action), and so on.

  33. Construct a WWW exhibit on any one of the many topics presented in class, in your readings, or on video/film. It should strongly reflect your own work and analysis -- in other word, I don’t want an exhibit merely filled with links to other people's web pages. Some links, however, are just fine.

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