By Deverell, William
California History , Vol. 87, No. 1
One of my favorite teaching techniques in a big California history lecture class is to make the blackboard into North America. Of course, we have the blackboard for the entire term, and I write all over it. But it also makes for a good map, and it's easy to get the students to focus on it. We start in New England with many a lecture, so I point to the upper corner of the blackboard and write this or that reference there. Over the course of the term, we get to move across that board east to west (and west to east); we come up from Mexico; we wander around off the western edge of the blackboard in the Pacific. You get the point: it's important to the architecture of the course to place California in cartographic context immediately, and my blackboard prop is an easy way to do this, both at the outset and throughout the duration of the course.
I am going to have to come up with some other device pretty soon, given the ways in which the study of California is increasingly couched within far wider, even global, contexts. My blackboard tool is mostly a continental cartographic crutch: I use it to divide the nation east and west, north and south. I use it to explore the Wilmot Proviso and the fate of California. We draw the overland trails on it. We let antebellum New England abolitionists and Southern proslavery types ponder the future of California and the Union in the era of the Compromise of 1850. We come cross-country with the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. We talk about the Great Basin and Mormon diasporic migrations to California during and just after the Gold Rush. …