Why the coverage model must die.

14 03 2011

My paper copy of the Journal of American 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. Therefore, I started digging around in Sipress and Voelker’s footnotes. It was easy as so much of it was in the JAH itself and therefore available through History Cooperative.

This interesting 2002 piece in Perspectives by Lendol Calder led me to a multiperson JAH interview on teaching the survey course from 2001 that feels like it was written before the flood. Calder criticizes the participants for not being well-versed in the scholarship of teaching and learning, but I’d criticize them more for being stuck in about 1965.

With one exception, I know none of the historians here personally and since she’s the hero of this post I’ll only name her when the time comes. If you want the source of the other quotes, then follow the link. If you do, you’ll see that I could turn this analysis into a four-part series if I wanted to, but even a smattering of quotes from this interview clearly demonstrates many reasons why the coverage model (a.k.a. everything but the kitchen sink) must die.

Example 1: It promotes teaching from the textbook.

When I first taught the first half of the survey course almost twenty-five years ago, I did not use a textbook. Instead, I lectured about various themes in American history placed within a rough chronological sequence and used monographs and primary documents as the readings for the discussion sections. Over time, I came to realize that many of the students, but not all, had a very weak background in American history. As a result, I now use a textbook and continue to gear my lectures to broader themes and issues – again within a rough, chronological approach. But rather than using the textbook as a point of reference or general reading, I have found that I have had to reinforce some of the general ideas and issues in the textbook so that the students will take the text seriously and pay attention to its content.

Good luck with that.

Example 2: It promotes dull, institutional history.

For me, whatever else an American survey includes, it should address the central political events and structures of the United States. It should give students a basic literacy in American political history. Beyond that, I place political history in its economic, social, racial, gender, ideological, cultural, and natural contexts. Even though I am not a political historian, I think the “political narrative” is a critical and necessary foundation for the American survey.

Have you ever heard anybody say, “I really think my students need to know more labor history?” I didn’t think so.

Example 3: It forces you to use your textbook as a crutch.

I do assign a textbook, but we rarely discuss it in section. Instead, it functions as a fallback for students who want to check a name or date that they missed in lecture. I also rely on it to give the details of certain topics that I do not have the time to cover in depth in lecture, and I am very explicit about directing the students to it for this purpose during lectures. Between the textbook and the primary sources, I probably ask students to read in the vicinity of 200 pages a week (I have the luxury of teaching at a school where most students do not have full-time jobs in addition to full course loads).

That was me. I always felt guilty for not integrating my textbook into the lecture, but now I only pick documents that I already lectured about anyways. It has been great.

The one voice of sanity in this whole discussion is the MIT Historian Pauline Maier. [And I'm not just saying that because she's spoken to one of my graduate classes before.] She’s the only there who doesn’t sound as if she has it all figured out, or who thinks that (to quote a disturbing sentiment from that Lindol Calder piece) “If I mention it…that means they learned it.”

This is just about the best advice in the entire article:

“Think of what you want the students to have in their heads when they leave the classroom, and structure the class accordingly,” recommended Pauline Maier. “When I began teaching I was, like so many new Ph.D.’s, terrified I’d run out of material, and prepared the most information-packed lectures imaginable. By the second year I realized that what I had tried to teach in one class was enough for a full week.”

That was me too. Unfortunately, it has taken fourteen years of teaching for me to begin to fix that problem.

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4 responses

15 03 2011

I’m with Maier, too. I have some colleagues who think that because they’re standing up lecturing that that’s what the students are hearing, writing down, and learning. Now I’m not one for hippy-dippy multimedia gimcrackery, but I find it baffling that people who are (in theory) educators think that that’s how education works.

Didn’t they go to high school or college themselves, I wonder? Didn’t they ever doodle or write a letter to a boyfriend or girlfriend instead of taking notes? Are they unfamiliar with the concept of daydreaming? We don’t even need new technological distractions like smart phones to figure this $hit out, man.

15 03 2011
Jonathan Rees

While you’re here, Historiann, thank you for your part in de-programming me. History textbooks are just another facet of this same problem.

7 04 2011
Less breadth, more depth. « More or Less Bunk

[...] to be a glorified version of their high school history anymore. When I first contemplated what the demise of the coverage model would bring, I wondered what should replace it. Now I [...]

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

[...] his textbook” too! Rees’s blog, “More or Less Bunk,” included some interesting posts about why history surveys aren’t working and reminding me of the really innovative work being done by Lendol Calder of Augustana College in [...]

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