“You think it’s hot, but nobody else does.”

23 04 2012

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.

Towards the end of his remarks, Calder told an old Lyndon Johnson joke. Supposedly, Johnson had just heard a lecture on economics by John Kenneth Galbraith. After he was done, LBJ asked Galbraith if he knew what giving an economics lecture was like.

“No,” said Galbraith, “what is giving an economics lecture like?”

“Giving an economics lecture is like pissing down your pant leg. You think it’s hot, but nobody else does.”

Calder’s point was that most historians think they give great lectures whether they actually do or not. I actually would not include myself under that generalization though. I’ve never been happy with my survey lectures, which is why I’ve been messing with them from almost the moment I started teaching. Most notably, I’ve continually substituted lecture time for teaching other skills-related historical activity. This is why I was so taken with the Sipriss and Voelker article that I’ve linked to above. I remember thinking when I read it first read it, “You can do that?” Yes, you can. Their model for this was Lendol Calder, who’s given a name to the result of this intellectual process: uncoverage.

Ditching my textbook was the first step on the road to uncoverage. What I learned at this session was that I actually still have a long way to go. I have far too many remnants of the coverage model in my survey courses to consider myself at all innovative.

This session offered up an alternative. In his remarks, Joel Sipress outlined the framework for an argument-based model for a US history survey course. This struck me as a good thing is at allows historians to embrace a positive model for what introductory courses should be like, rather than just defining them by what they’re not. Here’s my transcription of his four points about what an argument-based model for a survey course would consist of:

* Organized around significant historical questions.
* Students systematically exposed to rival positions.
* Students asked to judge relative merits of rival positions on the basis of historical evidence.
* Students develop their own positions and argue for them on the basis of historical evidence.

Why would you want to organize your course this way? Lecturing is boring. I know I’ve defended it before and I still will (under limited circumstances), but I’ve favored teaching skills over facts for some time now in my upper-level classes. I’ve been inspired to practice what I preach all the time now.

Besides, your students aren’t learning anything in your coverage-based course (no matter how hot you think you are). It’s in one ear and out the other. How do we know this? As Calder pointed out, the scholarship of teaching and learning has come so far in the last decade or so that there is enough evidence for history teaching articles to have footnotes. None of those materials support sticking with the coverage model.

And after all, shouldn’t we base our arguments about a subject this important to our profession upon all the available evidence? “My professors did it, and their professors did it and their professors did it too.” – That just doesn’t cut it anymore.



7 responses

23 04 2012
Joseph M. Adelman

Not having attended OAH, I’m curious whether there was any discussion about how to use the uncoverage model within the context of teaching in public colleges and universities that have to fulfill state mandates to cover specific topics or subjects (in Massachusetts, for example, all surveys—both halves of the U.S. and Western Civ.—have to cover both the state and federal Constitutions). Any mandates, I assume, operate at best on the assumption that faculty are using a more traditional coverage model.

Have you or others found good strategies for how to integrate these mandates into an uncovered survey?

23 04 2012
Jonathan Rees


There may have been after, but since the audience discussion went overtime I had to leave before it got going.

I can say this, though. Uncoverage does not mean no coverage. You do some things deeply, and then some that would otherwise be covered superficially not at all. A state mandate would make it harder to do uncoverage because if you don’t like what they’re telling you to teach that would be a problem. However, should we really be mandating that anybody teach anything in particular anyways?

23 04 2012
Jonathan Dresner

I’m not convinced that the coverage and uncoverage models need to be seen quite a much in opposition as this. Even a full-bore coverage model involves selecting from competing narratives, emphases, and should involve some assignments that require consideration of sources, historical argumentation. Even a full-bore uncoverage model takes as its field of operation the whole range of the survey history, picking and choosing topics that represent important turning points (which requires understanding broader narratives).

Maybe it’s easier in US history, where language and cultural assumptions have greater continuity, but it’s extremely difficult to dive deeply into a Chinese or Japanese historical moment without a great deal of contextual work, to the point where you’re covering everything…..

30 04 2012
The Uncoverage Approach to the U.S. Survey Course « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

[…] Rees at More or Less Bunk recently posted about the “uncoverage” model of teaching the U.S. history survey […]

7 06 2012
In Defense of Online Teaching and Learning… | Stillwater Historians

[…] are challenged, and rightly so, at every turn.  Rees himself, not all that long ago, featured a great piece on his blog about dumping the coverage model for the history survey.  Historiann, in a recent comment thread, […]

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

[…] 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 Illinois, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting at a Conference on Faith […]

30 01 2013
Whither the Survey (broadly speaking)? | Katherine Rye Jewell

[…] the Survey demonstrates. On the one hand, I like lecturing. I think I’m good at it (though maybe I just like to think that way). I like being able to present students with a well structured, reasoned argument that gives them a […]

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: