The way you teach your history survey course has a history.

6 03 2011

I really shouldn’t be at all shocked to find out that everything has a history. After all, I do claim to be a historian. Nevertheless, this article in the JAH (which you don’t even have to have a subscription to read) by Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker really rocked my world. I’ve been worrying that I was teaching in an “industrial paradigm,” but it turns out that that paradigm has a specific name: the coverage model, and its reach is so universal that most of us historians don’t even think about it.

By all means read the whole article, but here’s a taste of Sipress and Voelker on that last point:

The coverage model is so deeply embedded within the culture of our profession that its ultimate objectives (those that transcend particular courses) are rarely discussed. From the beginning, the coverage model rested upon the assumption that students lacked the historical knowledge to engage in serious historical thought and that this deficiency had to be remedied before students could move on to more sophisticated forms of historical study. Over time, the profession came to see the introductory class as a vehicle to provide college students, most of whom would take only one history course, with the cultural knowledge deemed necessary for responsible citizenship. With the rise of the various “new” histories, the knowledge considered necessary for citizenship has changed and expanded dramatically. Nonetheless, the belief that there are certain things about the human past that an educated person simply must know persists, as does the assumption that the main purpose of an introductory history course is to remedy deficiencies of cultural knowledge.

I remember discussing in graduate school whether it was better to build a new room on the house for the new social history or to invite it into the parlor with everyone else (or something like that – it would still be a bad metaphor even if I remembered it perfectly). Nobody ever discussed blowing up the whole house and rebuilding. Now I wish they had. Even the critique of the coverage model from the late nineteenth century is damning, but the modern one is better:

Put simply, present-day reformers insist that facts do not and cannot come first. The widespread embrace of the facts-first assumption within the discipline of history helps explain why, despite a century of drilling content into the minds of high school and college students, so many such students remain woefully ignorant of the knowledge that historians deem necessary for effective citizenship. With the facts-first assumption exposed as a fallacious lay theory of student learning, the entire edifice of the coverage model simply collapses, as does the cultural literacy justification for the introductory history course. The contemporary pedagogical countermovement thus challenges the discipline—in ways that earlier reform efforts did not—to reexamine the ultimate purposes of the introductory history course and to develop a pedagogy that flows from those goals.

This still leaves the question of what the new house would look like. Getting rid of the history survey textbook, which most students don’t even read, would be just the start of this exercise. There are some ideas at the end of the article, but obviously they haven’t caught on yet.

I’ve been thinking about course outcomes (even if I wasn’t ready for a total redesign) as part of my general unhappiness with how my surveys have been going lately. As a result, I began a list of skills rather than facts that every student should know when my course is over. I wrote this last fall:

1. How to think like a historian.
2. How to express that kind of critical thinking in a written format.
3. How to read critically.
4. How best to conceive of history in general (rather than memorize specific historical facts).

Ideally, more than a few historical facts will slip in while this teaching of skills is going on. After all, you have to teach your students some facts or else they won’t have any building blocks for their arguments. The difference is that they get to pick the facts. The information they learn that is most useful to their lives will likely be the facts they use in answering my questions, and will hopefully then be most likely to stick.

Yet even this analysis is still stuck in the coverage model. Reading that again, I can see that I was basically apologizing for not focusing most of my attention upon teaching students facts. Perhaps it’s time for me to shift my paradigm even more.

Think of history as a discipline closer to math. If you know math, you could put any set of numbers in front of student and they can add, subtract, multiply or divide them as necessary. What if we taught history the same way? With any particular set of facts in front of them, they could then historicize them. Isn’t that would you do when you prepare to teach a course that you haven’t taught before? Why shouldn’t your students learn the same way that you do?

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5 responses

6 03 2011
Jack Rip

Being ignorant about the history teaching process, I can still comment on the preamble to teaching a knowledge based topic. Engineering cannot be taught without a solid mathematical foundation. Although, many engineering classes don’t use a substantial part of the need math foundation, it will still be folly to skip math as a starting point.

The same holds today for biology, chemistry, physics, some psychology, medicine, etc.

Others probably are aware of many other topic with similar patterns.

7 03 2011
Matt_L

Nice Post! – I will have to go look the JAH when I get back on my campus network… Check out Dan Segal, “‘Western Civ’ and the Staging of History in American Higher Education.” _American Historical Review_. (June 2000) vol 105 Issue 3, 770-805. Its a similar critique of the Western Civ curriculum.

Yes, I agree, teaching a problems oriented class in the survey is crucial, but it would be better if we could get rid of the Western Civ and US surveys. The problem is two fold:

1. some colleagues in the department don’t want to change, because that is the way they are used to doing it.
2. some colleagues outside the department don’t want to change because they think history is “just one damn thing after another” and believe that a three credit survey in history is part of the “four year cultural suntan” afforded by the Gen Ed requirements.

If we could change those two things, there are the history and social studies “standards” in secondary ed… Anyhow… Lets keep changing the survey one class at a time!

Cheers,

Matt

14 03 2011
Why the coverage model must die. « More or Less Bunk

[...] History came today. I was looking forward to reading the rest of the teaching forum that included the Sipress and Voelker article I recommended the weekend before last, but they were nowhere near as good as that first piece. [...]

23 04 2012
“You think it’s hot, but nobody else does.” « More or Less Bunk

[...] While I was at the OAH in Milwaukee over the weekend, I went to see a session entitled, “The End of the History Survey Course.” The commentator, who actually did very little commenting on the papers at hand, was Lendol Calder of Augustana College. I went because I had read about him at John Fea’s blog, and because two of the main papers were by Joel Sipress and David Voelker, the co-authors of a JAH article that really changed the way I think about teaching surveys. [...]

16 11 2012
Building a Better History Course … Part Two: Some Research « Kyle Jantzen

[...] pleasure of meeting at a Conference on Faith and History a few years ago in Oklahoma. Rees also blogged about an article in the Journal of American History, by Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker, called, “The End of [...]

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