Less breadth, more depth.

7 04 2011

It’s time for me to fill out my book orders for next fall. I’m only going to be a week late this year (which is fairly amazing considering how soon they’re due). I’ve already written here about the fact that I’m sticking with Milestone Documents instead of a textbook, which is an easy decision.

[The deadline is too early for me to wait for the course evaluations, but even then the number of actual comments I get on any of my course evaluations is close to zero. If I asked the students directly, I’d probably just hear what they thought I wanted them to say. In the end, I know I’m happier this way and that’s gotta count for something.]

The other books in the course, however, are not so obvious. This semester, I included some other documents books as a crutch because I was afraid Milestone Documents wouldn’t cover enough for me. Those fears are gone, in part because I’ve been suggesting additional documents and in part because the site has been growing anyways. It’s big enough now that I’m going to use it rather than those gigantic “Major Problems” books for my 1877-1945 class and I couldn’t be happier. The bookstore charges obscene prices for them since there’s nothing printed on the cover and I only end assigning like 20% of each book. That’s just inefficient.

However, I still need outside reading to use as the basis for my 4-6 page survey paper. I’ve been going through a biography phase the last few years. This book, for example, goes over very, very well. However, I just realized that without a textbook, the most obvious symbol of the coverage model, I’m free to experiment even more.

Those biographies (or any outside reading I happen to be assigning) has traditionally been the basis of my one paper for the survey course. The need to tie together three disparate people into one paper has been a successful plagiarism deterrent. Just try to find a paper on the web covering the lives of Jane Addams, Franklin Roosevelt and Muhammad Ali! It ain’t there. The thing is, it means I have to ask what turns out to be a very hard question.

Next semester, I’m going with three books on the same thing. This time I picked the New Deal. Maybe I’ll do the Civil Rights Movement when I get bored. Maybe Progressivism. I’m excited because I can show students things they wouldn’t see otherwise unless they became majors. For example, I can both simulate a research paper this way or even teach a little historiography.

Most survey students will never take another history course besides the survey. I don’t want that course 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 know.

The same way that secondary school students as young as fifth graders are learning history with primary sources, I can do the same things and more with college freshman. Wouldn’t it stink if secondary school history teaching gets reformed faster than the college survey course does?


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8 04 2011
Middle Seaman

“I don’t want that course to be a glorified version of their high school history anymore.” Two examples come to mind when the teaching of a fixed topic evolves. In elementary school, on another continent, we started very young with The Book at the foundation of a culture. First, it was simple stories, the second time around, it was the less simple stories, then it was a saga and eventually it became a world view, a foundation for a culture.

I teach a topic that is not simple to start with. We start with the easy cases, we then go on any cases. When we get to the graduate level we make everything formal (as in mathematical) and then we get to theorem and proofs.

My intuition is that the same can be done with history. After all, economics, political science, archeology all can be used.

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