Building a Better History Course … Part Four: Initial Attempts

Now that the semester is over and course evaluations have been completed (and I have a moment to breathe … and avoid marking), I want to reflect on my semester-long attempt to implement some of the principles of Lendol Calder’s “uncoverage” model of undergraduate history teaching. This post builds on the grand plans I made last fall while on sabbatical, and which I’ve written about here, here, and here.

Briefly put, I was unhappy with the way I was teaching my introductory world history survey–particularly the hyper-fast pace and hyper-rich content level imposed upon me by the textbook which drove the course, and by the consequent shortage of opportunities to talk about the nature of history, historical methodology, and the meaning of past events for today. The result was a decision to ditch the textbook in favour of a new “signature pedagogy” (to invoke Lendol Calder once more) focusing on key questions:

  • What do historians do?
  • What (or how) do historians think?
  • What do historians value?

The idea was to build an introductory or survey course around a cycle of class sessions:

  • an overview lecture to provide a foundation for the unit
  • a primary source workshop in which we could analyze sources which shed light on the important people, events, ideas, or themes
  • a special topics class in which I could lecture in more depth on some facet of the history of the period we were considering, perhaps in conjunction with a helpful history journal article
  • a making meaning lecture, in which I could try to sum up what was important about this particular period in history and make connections between the past and our contemporary society or world–once again, perhaps with the aid of a short article from a history journal or some other contemporary publication.

Two other related ideas deserve mention: 1) such an approach would mean giving up trying to “cover” everything important about world history from 1500-2000 (think for a minute about this audacious goal for a first-year course and see if you can avoid laughing), and 2) such an approach would involve teaching more about the questions, skills, methods, and attitudes of historians–and to actually try to teach students to be historians (as opposed to–again–just learning content).

The result was a fundamentally altered HI 142 World History since 1500 syllabus. Here is the course schedule from this past semester–each topic is a class session:

What is History?
Christianity and History
Historical Methodology
History and Contemporary Life

Overview Lecture: Empire, Ecology, and Eucharist
Primary Source Workshop
Special Topics: Asian Empires
Making Meaning: Early Modern Europe

Overview Lecture: States, Societies, and Science
Primary Source Workshop
Special Topics: Religion and Politics
Making Meaning: Freedom and Order

Overview Lecture: Industry, Ideology, and Imperialism
Primary Source Workshop
Special Topics: Constitutions and Parliamentary Government
Special Topics: Belgian Congo
Making Meaning: Defining Modernity

Overview Lecture: Generals, Genocides, and Generations
Primary Source Workshop
Special Topics: Nazism and Holocaust
Special Topics: Decolonization
Making Meaning: Globalization
Preparation for the Final Exam

Not only did the course schedule change significantly–so did the assignments. Along with group presentation on documents and the final exam (both staples), I added 10 one-page notes (“Tickets to Class” a la Lendol Calder) and two other assignments: one was an article analysis, based on a great idea I got from Brent J. Ruswick’s article, “Teaching Historical Skills through JSTOR: An Online Research Project for Survey Courses,” History Teacher 44, no. 2 (February 2011): 285-296. Students could choose any history research article from JSTOR as long as it fell in the 1500-2000 time frame. They then wrote an analysis of its content and argument.

The other new assignment was my idea–it was based on the kind of research I did for a book chapter on American Liberal Protestant responses to the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, for which I drew heavily on newspaper coverage of speeches and protest events. The assignment takes advantage of the riches to be found in the New York Times historical database we have access to at the Ambrose library. Here is the assignment:

The recent growth of digital resources has significantly enhanced the ability of historians to research the past. One of the most important papers in the world is the New York Times. You will learn how to access the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database of the New York Times (1851-2009) in class, then write a five-page investigative report, based on one of the following searches:
Search “Munich and Olympics” with a date limit of after September 3, 1972
Search “Sarajevo” with a date range of June 1, 1914 to August 25, 1914
Search “Canada and Confederation” with a date range of January 1, 1867 to July 31, 1867
Search “the Beatles” with a date range of before January 1, 1966 and select the subject area “music”
Search “Billy Graham” with a date range of before July 1, 1957 and select the subject area “religion and churches”
Search “liberation front Quebec” and select subject area “french canadians, issue of”
Search “Armenia massacre” with a date range of before 1930 and select the subject area “atrocities”
The format of this assignment is as follows. Reorganize your search results in chronological order. Scan the search results to find between five and ten important articles on your subject. Read these articles carefully, making notes about things you think are important or interesting. Then, write a short history of the people or events your newspaper articles describe, based only on those sources. Provide some context, identify and explain important issues, and be sure to take into consideration the question of what might make these events significant for us today.

With that, I think I’ve described the most important changes I made to my introductory history survey course. Next post I’ll reflect on what I think did and didn’t work. Once I see the students’ course evaluations, I’ll report further on what they said about things … especially if it’s really positive! 🙂


4 thoughts on “Building a Better History Course … Part Four: Initial Attempts

  1. Interesting approach that raises a lot of questions. One might be around how you are defining Modernity and Decolonizing, and if that is different than what appears in the usual intro text, which treats especially decolonization as a definite thing (which we know its not). Another question might surround your third question: “What do historians value?”, since that will vary widely and wildly from region to region (globally), especially since academic history is a feature of university life in European and non-European societies.
    Interesting to see what your students thought!

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Tony. It’s an introductory course, so modernity revolves around revolutionary politics (constitutional gov’t, bills of rights, parliamentary rule, etc.) and industrial society (mobility, industrial production, class, mass culture, etc.). Decolonization revolves around political independence, but of course we discuss other indirect forms of imperialism that continue. Latin America serves as an example. I discussed more about what the questions (including the value question) mean in the previous post in the series, but it revolves largely around nature of the discipline. It’s a set of ideas that is shared wherever the Western academic tradition holds sway, though of course there are cultural variations. As time goes on, I’ll keep refining the content that fills these various topics, and much of the extra work for me will be on the non-Western side of things. I too am eager to see what the students thought.

  2. It’s 2017 and I have been reading your 4 posts on restructuring your survey course. Thank you for describing your process and your sources on this! After teaching university and high-school students for 10 years, I have had time this winter to research options for more effective survey teaching. I am excited to discover some great materials and approaches, including several you note in your posts. Following your thought process as you developed your approach has been particularly helpful to me as I work out my own goals and course structure.

    I would be very interested to know some of your reflections/experiences with an “uncovered” survey since your posts and initial teaching experience in 2012-2013. Any possibility of this? Perhaps you have done so in another venue; if so, would you post that? Your energy and thoughtfulness in describing your process leaves me wishing for a follow-up.

    • I’ll try to write a follow up on this topic. The short answer is that I found students split on the merits/demerits of going without a textbook, and so I ended up adopting a smaller text with lots of documents that I could use. But we have shifted our program significantly towards historical thinking and historical skill development–to good effect.

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