Participation: Online Discussions of Democracy in America


The core reading text of the course is a classic: Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. This text is an inexpensive paperback, edited and abridged by Richard D. Heffner of Columbia University. You are expected to read chapters of Tocqueville in conjunction with the individual lecture units and to discuss them, relating them to the lecture, on the Facebook page of HIST 103. Here, then, is some introductory context for the book.


Democracy in America


First, let me point out the importance of Democracy in America as a primary document in American history. I suspect this is the most quoted, most cited of all sources on the American character and American nationhood. In other words, we are reading a classic, not some textbook. This is a book you ought to know something about.


Second, I'd like you to understand that Democracy in America is part of a specific genre of literature, that is, a particular type of writing common at a particular time. This genre still flourishes today, but its heyday was in the 19th century, Tocqueville's time. It's called a "travel narrative." Other examples of this genre were Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe; Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana; Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain; and The Oregon Trail, by Francis Parkman. In recent times we have Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck, and Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. A travel narrative commonly has certain themes--almost a formula. In a travel narrative, the narrator leaves civilization behind, and he does so with a quest in mind. He is looking for something. In search of that thing, he travels to far places and encounters exotic peoples. These experiences cause him to be changed somehow, to think in new ways--they make an impression on him. So then he returns to civilization, recounts the wonders he has seen, and tells how the experience has changed him, or what he has learned.


Third, you need to know a little something about the French Revolution. Tocqueville was interested in what was going on in America because of what was going on in France. Americans declared their independence from the British Empire in 1776 and soon afterward founded a democratic republic--a radical new form of government. Americans believed that in doing so they were fulfilling a destiny assigned them by God, showing the rest of the world the way to leave autocracy and aristocracy behind and follow the star of democracy. Then came the French Revolution in 1789. In some ways it was similar to the American Revolution, but in other ways it was different. For one thing, the French Revolution was a class struggle, a revolt of the masses against rule by the elite; it was more radical than the American Revolution. For another thing, the French Revolution took a more desperate and dangerous turn. During the Reign of Terror the revolutionary authorities executed countless enemies of the people. Moreover, the French republic, the French experiment in democracy, was vulnerable. If you know the story of Napoleon, then you know that after the fall of monarchy, France wavered between democracy and dictatorship. As Tocqueville said, "In the French Revolution there were two opposite tendencies which must not be confused; one favored freedom, the other despotism."


Reading & Discussing Tocqueville


The first things I want you to read for this course are the introductions, by both the editor and the author, to Democracy in America. Reading the introduction by Tocqueville himself, consider what he is trying to do in his book. Also read the background material provided by Heffner. Here are a few questions you might ask yourself and discuss online.


·         What sort of a man was Alexis de Tocqueville? What was his background?

·         Why did he come to America in 1831-32? What was his quest?

·         Why does Tocqueville want to study American democracy? Why is the subject important? What does he think of democracy? What is the future of democracy?


As you work through the lecture units and the associated readings in Tocqueville, here's how the online discussions work. By checking the calendar and the study guides, you will know what chapters you are supposed to be reading and discussing. When the time comes, post your comments to the appropriate Forum discussion in Facebook. Comments, what comments? Well, you can respond to one of the study questions given in the study guide; I expect most postings will be along those lines. But you also can write about other things. You can apply what Tocqueville says to American life, you can dispute what he says, you can express puzzlement with what he is trying to say. You are encouraged, too, to reply to one another, asking questions or giving comments, so as to improve understanding of the reading by all members of the class.


You don't have to comment on every reading assignment, but your contributions to the discussions are the largest element in determining your participation grade in the course. Quality of responses is considered along with quantity, but if by the end of semester you haven't posted ten or more responses to readings, I'd say you would be below average. Watch the Facebook timeline for additional guidance from your instructor about this.


What is the appropriate style and tone for writing these postings? The tone is conversational, as if you were writing a letter to a friend. This isn't formal writing, it's expressive writing, intended to convey your own response to the readings. On the other hand, it should not be sloppy. Pay attention to matters of style--clean up your grammar and punctuation, write good sentences, be considerate of your readers.


Please be timely and keep up with the work. The idea of these online discussions of Tocqueville is that by writing your impressions and responding to one another, you come to a better understanding of the readings than if you just did them alone. If you lag behind, and you post comments about one set of readings when others already have moved on, then you are not helping. Such late messages are just clutter and make the forum less useful for others. Of course, sometimes exchanges of discussion about a particular item can go on for some time, and that's fine--go with the flow. Just don't be negligent about the work and then try to catch up with messages that are not timely.


Questions? If you don't know what to do, write a message to the Facebook page and ask your instructor.


Evaluation of Participation


Online participation is a required element of the course. It counts for hard points. Indeed, it counts in two ways: your instructor evaluates both your individual contributions to the forum (75 hard points possible) and the performance of the group overall (25 hard points possible). So you need to be in there, contributing; you also have a stake in seeing that discussions go well overall in the class, so that you get the group points, too.


Students have asked for specific criteria to be used in evaluating online participation. Fair enough, here they are. Some aspects of the evaluation are quite quantitative, but others are qualitative. We have to read your work and make a judgment. Still, it is possible to say on what grounds we intend to make such judgment. Remember that participation is evaluated in two ways--as individuals and as a group (the class).


Criteria for Evaluating Individual Participation


Number of contributions to the forum. There is no set number required, but if you have less than ten, you are below average.


Timing of contributions. The dates of receipt of your messages should show engagement throughout the semester. A bunch of messages right at the end of term, or any other time for that matter, will count for little if you are a non-participant the rest of the time.


Quality of contributions. It should be apparent from what you write that you have read the assignment and thought about it. And you should take care to communicate your thoughts clearly and cleanly to your peers.


Criteria for Evaluating Group Participation


All the same things as are applied to individual participation.


The fostering and practice of dialog. This is supposed to be a discussion. We want to see evidence that you are reading one another's contributions, thinking about them, and responding to them.