Building a Better History Course … Part Three: Preliminary Conclusions

In the first two parts (see here and here) of this series on building a better history course, I tried to defined the problem I’m grappling with as content overload (and its consequence–an absence of meaning) and looked around to see how others are dealing with the issue. I’ve been particularly influenced by Lendol Calder’s notion of “uncoverage,” and his attempt to arrive at a “signature pedagogy” for the discipline of history. If medical schools use clinical rounds to teach medicine and business schools use case studies to teach business, how should historians teach history? I was especially impressed with Calder’s comment, “A signature pedagogy, then, is what beginning students in the professions have but history beginners typically do not: ways of being taught that require them to do, think, and value what practitioners in the field are doing, thinking, and valuing.” (Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal Of American History 92, no. 4 (March 2006): 1361). I should add at this point that I’ve also been greatly impressed by the thinking of Mike Maxwell at his site,, which is devoted to the teaching of world history. His material on “Teaching and Learning World History and Geography” is really thoughtful, and will certainly find its way into my revamped world history survey course.

Lendol Calder’s own answer to the question of a signature pedagogy for history is to teach six “intellectual moves” historians all make (and which become second nature for practicing scholars): questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering other perspectives, recognizing the limits of our knowledge. I want to approach the question more from the point of view of the quotation above, and ask (and answer) the following questions:

What do historians do?

Most broadly put, we solve problems, answer questions, and explain the world by making meaning of the past.

Practically speaking, we engage in the research process: out of curiosity, we employ critical reading, ask probing questions, find compelling evidence, and make inferences (i.e. arrive at conclusions based on observations, which philosophers call inductive reasoning).

And then we communicate our explanations, whether orally, in print, or through electronic media.

It’s worth noting that the strengths of this process are that it focuses on real life (human experience), generates skills with disparate kinds of sources, fosters empathy and understanding (even wisdom?), and amounts to a coherent way of seeing the world. In other words, everything has a history and every phenomenon of life can be explained by understanding the processes that led up to it.

What (or how) do historians think?

In questions. I deal all the time in three levels of questions:

  1. who, what, where, and when … then
  2. how and why … then
  3. so what, or what does that mean, or why is it important to us here and now?

In most cases, I suspect, historians find themselves starting in the middle row of questions, wondering, “how did that happen?” or “why are things the way they are?”. They drop down to the first level of questions, work back through the second level, and then make meaning out of the past at the third level.

What do historians value?

Off the top of my head, if I think about what I value, I come up with things like:

  • asking questions
  • good data (i.e. good sources)
  • multiple perspectives (i.e. seeing various sides of a problem, not thinking in dualistic terms, embracing nuance and complexity)
  • careful thinking (i.e. thorough analysis, and not jumping to conclusions)
  • perspective (i.e. taking the long view of things)
  • uncovering stuff

It’s not that I haven’t believed in all these things for a long time, and I could have articulated them (for the most part) years ago. But I’ve usually approached course design from the point of view of the content to be covered, not the skills, ways of thinking, or values that I think the students need to learn. So let’s see how we could work through an introductory world history course (1500 to the present), creating a kind of signature pedagogy:

  1. Introduction: explain the nature and methods of history; unpack the signature pedagogy
  2. Provide a basic overview of the period or topic under consideration
  3. Identify questions worth answering
  4. Analyze primary sources (potential written analysis or presentation)
  5. Critically assess scholarly articles and other secondary sources (steps 4 and 5 might be reversed, depending on the topic and sources at hand) (potential written analysis or presentation)
  6. Make inferences, assess meaning, and communicate (potential written project, presentation, or quiz)
  7. Repeat steps 2-6 for subsequent topics
  8. Final exam as an exercise in synthesis, making meaning of the past at the level of the whole course

Potential periods or topics could include:

  1. Exploration and Empire (1500-1700)
  2. Religion and Science (1500-1700)
  3. State and Society (1500-1700)
  4. Economy and Industry (1700-1850)
  5. Enlightenment and Revolution (1750-1850)
  6. Arts and Culture (1750-1900)
  7. Nationalism and Imperialism (1800-1900)
  8. Order and Disorder (1900-)
  9. Canada in World History

Within these periods and topics, all manner of subtopics can be explored through documents and readings: slavery, Dutch Empire, microbial exchange, Luther, Galileo, absolutism, tulip mania, inventions, Opium War, American Revolution, Napoleon, Karl Marx, Romanticism, soccer, German unification, Belgian Congo, Meiji Restoration, First World War, Fascism in Italy, bureaucracy, Gandhi, United Nations, Cultural Revolution, advertising, just to name a few.

I have various ideas about how this could all come together in a survey course, but they need more work. Once I’ve organized the course into topics, activities, readings, and forms of evaluation, I’ll post the results and blog about how the course goes. Here’s hoping …


One thought on “Building a Better History Course … Part Three: Preliminary Conclusions

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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