Teaching Blog #2: Writing Eugenics into a Survey Course: A First-Time Instructor Reflects

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Writing Eugenics into a Survey Course: A First-Time Instructor Reflects

Sean Scally


During the Fall of 2020, I taught my first class as Instructor of Record. The class – a 100-level undergraduate survey course – mandated a broad overview of US history from 1865 to the present. Given that such class galvanized my own interest in US history during my time as an undergrad some years ago, I was keen to replicate the same pedagogical electricity and sense of engagement that I had felt then with my own students. Though making the shift from teaching assistant to instructor was a challenge, the experience provided an opportunity to hone my teaching skills as well as a crash-course in teaching ‘difficult’ material responsibly.


I had first been made aware of American eugenics during my time as an undergraduate. However, while I found the subject engaging, I failed to understand the sheer scope of US eugenics history (and eugenics historiography) until my first semester as a PhD student. A timely reading of Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization focused my interests on Progressive Era gender history, though it was not until I had read the landmark work of Wendy Kline and Alexandra Stern that the gendered dimensions of American eugenics gripped my attention. I settled on merging these interests and chose to explore the intersection of eugenics and Progressive Era masculinity as my PhD dissertation topic. As I settled into the process of researching and writing, I was offered the chance to build upon my previous work as a teaching assistant and make the step up to instructor.


As I had expected, designing and implementing my own course for the first time was not without challenge. Aside from dealing with the pressures of outlining and drafting my lectures and assignments (not to mention a summer’s worth of seemingly endless WebEx tutorials and associated tech jargon), I was still left wondering how to fit my own research interests into a class with such a broad scope. Certainly, I felt that it was not possible to teach a class on twentieth century United States history without discussing eugenics. However, as I began to map out my course, I found it difficult to determine exactly what to include. Similarly, as survey courses like this can easily descend into a kind of whistle-stop tour of major events and themes (and especially so during a semester truncated as it was due to COIVD-19), it was difficult to balance this tone with an issue as complicated or weighty as eugenics.


I chose to largely focus on my own area of expertise. Beginning with a module focusing on the Progressive Era, I made a point of weaving the development of eugenics into a wider discussion of progressivism in the US. It was my hope that by taking this approach students would be able to both understand the context of organisations such as the Eugenics Records Office (ERO), as well as get a sense of how eugenic discourse engaged with various social issues in the US at the turn of the century. My students were stunned by Theodore Roosevelt’s endorsement of Charles Davenport [1] and by the fervent racism of Madison Grant, to the same extent that they were bewildered by the films such as The Black Stork [2] or the Fitter Family contests of the 1920s. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ruling in Buck v. Bell confounded them as to how the legal enshrinement of forced sterilization could be so dispassionately accepted by such high authority, in the same way that our discussion of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment provoked the student’s anger and revulsion.


It was difficult at times. The outlandish aspects of certain episodes clashed with the raw brutality of others, all of which compounded the often-uncomfortable business of having to discuss why eugenics appealed to so many for so long throughout the twentieth century. I worried that students would lose focus on the bigger picture and remember only the ugly case studies. I was also anxious that focusing on such shocking episodes could have descended into a kind of cliched exposé of the ‘hidden’ aspects of US history, undermining the analytical skills that I had been trying to engage in my students throughout the semester. Unpacking the politics of the birth control movement and support for eugenics expressed by figures such as Margaret Sanger seemed a particularly intimidating task given that my first semester of teaching coincided with a renewed period of upheaval surrounding the issue of birth control and contraception in the US [3].


However, these concerns proved to be largely unfounded. Despite much of the information coming as a shock to students, I was impressed by the how they responded to the lectures. I enjoyed seeing my students work through their initial reactions to a deeper level of trying to unpack and understand how and why issues like forced sterilization or birth control emerged in the US in the first place. Despite my best time-keeping efforts, student’s questions sometimes led to longer discussions that ate into other parts of my carefully structured lectures. However, I came to appreciate that digressing from the script was useful if students’ questions yielded fruitful discussion. At times, I was happy to act as a kind of moderator, allowing the conversation to develop as organically as possible. In fact, conceding a degree of control was probably the most valuable thing I learned as a first-time instructor.


In hindsight, though my insecurity – or hubris – as a first-time instructor may have at times led to a somewhat uneven focus on my own area of expertise, I was nonetheless relieved to experience such a reaction to the material. Including eugenics in my survey course created a discourse about why students hadn’t learned much about American eugenics previously. In turn, this led to a wider discussion about reconciling difficult historical memories with accepted historical narratives, as well as why such pared-down narratives prevail in the first place. By introducing the ‘difficult’ topic of eugenics into my survey course, I certainly gained new confidence in my pedagogical abilities. Moreover, and more importantly, it is my hope that in writing eugenics into a broad overview of US history my students gained insight into the development of eugenics as well as a more thorough understanding the history of the United States itself.



[1] Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Charles B. Davenport, January 3rd 1913, American Philosophical Society, https://diglib.amphilsoc.org/islandora/object/letter-theodore-roosevelt-charles-b-davenport


[2] Released in 1917, The Black Stork was a pro-eugenics film which dramatized the 1915 Baby Bollinger case. An overview of this source is available via the Eugenics Archive: https://diglib.amphilsoc.org/islandora/object/letter-theodore-roosevelt-charles-b-davenport


[3] The dismantling of access to contraception under the Affordable Care Act during the Trump administration, as well as renewed discourse surrounding Roe v. Wade in the wake of Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court provoked much discussion in class.



Sean Scally is a PhD candidate at Central Michigan University, where is he is working toward completing a dissertation focused on the intersection of masculinity and eugenics in Britain and the US during the Progressive Era. He tweets from @SM_Scally.



Glad to hear you're using the film The Black Stork. If your students are confused by it, you might have them read 3 short encyclopedia entries I wrote that might help:
“Eugenics,” “Haiselden, Harry,” and “Black Stork,” in Encyclopedia of American Disability History, ed. Susan Burch (NY: Facts on File, 2009), pp. 114-15, 333-37, and 418-19..
Of course chapters from my book The Black Stork would be a good follow-up.
Martin Pernick

Thanks Martin - I used your book a lot when conducting background reading for my dissertation, and also to plan some of my lectures here. One of my favourites on the topic!