What would a post coverage model history survey course look like?, Part I.

12 04 2011

I’ve written a fair bit in this space about chucking my textbook in this semester’s survey course. I haven’t mentioned the other thing that I’ve chucked: my lecture notes.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: When I got my first job, someone told me to find two textbooks I like. Then assign the second best one, and write your lecture notes out of the first. After all, it’s only plagiarism if you actually read your notes verbatim and I never did that even in my earliest days. I only had them around in case I had a total brain meltdown while lecturing, but I’ve been teaching long enough now that all I need to do is take five minutes with my slides before class and I’m good.

I used to think I wanted to get all my lecture notes down to a single page. This new model comes from doing book talks. General readers don’t want a dull lecture, why should students? Therefore, I’ve boiled things down to the basics.

Everything I need to prompt me to say the right thing is on my PowerPoint slides (titles, pictures or quotations – almost no slides of professor-generated text). It was easy to do that when talking about the book because I spent so many years researching it, but I’ve been teaching the second half of the American history survey four times longer than that. I’ve realized that I can do the same thing with my survey class now too.

There is one key sacrifice when doing things this way, namely the level of detail that you can provide. There are quotes in the PowerPoints and the occasional statistic, but the general level of detail I’m imparting to students is a lot less when I’m working mostly by memory because my memory can store only so much. Trust me, they still need to know facts. I’ve just stopped providing the thick description that I used to offer with every key name, law or event.

The advantages of this approach, however, far outweigh the disadvantages from where I sit. First, since I’m looking at the class almost the whole time I’m talking, very few of them ever reach for their phones. Second, they’re more prone to ask questions for the same reason since they know they’re not interrupting me while I’m reading. Third, it’s much easier for me to concentrate on presentation when I’m not reading anything. In other words, I think I’m a better speaker doing things this way.

I think the most important effect of chucking the notes and the level of detail that goes with relying on them is the freedom to experiment. I’ve been using short clips followed by discussion for years now (and apparently so are a lot of other people), but there are so many other things worth trying. While I have no class bigger than 40 people, I’ve come to believe that even a large class doesn’t necessarily have to be all lecture.

I’ll try to cover some new classroom activities that I’ve been thinking about doing on this blog tomorrow.




5 responses

12 04 2011
Middle Seaman

The first question I would ask myself is what are the short and term goals of teaching a class. I don’t believe there is much of a difference on that between a class in history and a class in computer science. As the post says, there is only that much we can remember. Therefore, details make little difference; why waste the students’ time. Long ago, I concluded that I plant concepts in students’ heads. They will remember the concept, and if needed, they will fill the details by themselves.

In short, there are no short term goals worth our effort. We can impart a discipline, we can leave concepts, we can try and make students love a certain area, some of us can impress potential doctoral students to work with us, etc. Your way will do it.

Many cultures teach way differently than we do. Muslims, Jews and several Asian cultures teach by discussion, argumentation and expansion to depth and width. These approaches require preparations, we, for a reason I don’t understand, would never impose that on our poor students. These approaches clearly solve all your problems.

Qualifier: since I teach some very ‘mathematical’ topics, I do go into the smallest details; I must. I do not have any illusions; the majority of students forget the details once out the door.

13 04 2011
Jonathan Rees


I’m not sure that post came out right. Even now, I teach detail too but I’ve stopped trying to convey the impression that I teach EVERY detail. Let’s see if it’s better explained in part two, which I’m about to start writing now.

13 04 2011
What would a post coverage model history survey course look like?, Part II. « More or Less Bunk

[…] tools can make what students do learn so much more useful. Wait a second! That’s where I promised to start this post today, wasn’t […]

15 04 2011
What would a post coverage model history survey course look like?, Part III. « More or Less Bunk

[…] a post coverage model history survey course look like?, Part III. 15 04 2011 Part one is here. Part two is […]

24 08 2011
“Always something breaking us in two.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] today, not just the dead world of the past. That’s why I’m so smitten with whatever the opposite of the coverage model of history survey classes happens to […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: