Thursday, October 27, 2011
Uncovered, a new approach to the survey?
Yesterday my department had a lunchtime brownbag discussion about Lendol Calder's new way of teaching the survey (although, as you'll see, him calling it "the survey" is a misnomer).
The idea, articulated in an influential 2006 JAH piece, is that attempting to cover everything that happens from 1865 to 2011 turns into a plodding along of facts that is pedagogically unsound. Students get bored, he says, and they don't retain the information. It isn't working. His "uncoverage" approach is instead a topical approach to history, working through big subjects (in his examples: "the Cold War" or "the civil rights movement") and forgetting about trying to cover everything. He then has his students uncover history for themselves, using documentaries, primary source documents, and dueling textbooks (Howard Zinn versus Paul Johnson is his example). He hopes that students will then leave the semester knowing: (1) a lot about the Cold War (and the other topics he's selected); and (2) a lot about thinking historically and understanding that history is contested ground but premised on evidence and interpretation. This is a thin summary, but you get the gist.
There is much merit this approach, and to his credit Calder (and my department's advocates for him) has got me re-thinking the way I set up my discussion sections and even some of the readings I assign in my 100-level survey. Indeed, after the brownbag I am even more impressed with the Major Problem series, which consciously sees history as a series of arguments with results based on documents.
On the other hand, there are several problems with Calder's approach, at least as it appears in the article. First, he's teaching a ten-week semester, for 30 students, on 1945 to the present. With such limitations, his approach is probably wonderful. But in my experience, a class of that description is not "the survey" but an upper-division class. In my 100-level classes, I get 120 students in a lecture hall with bolted down seats and two TAs who lead Friday discussion sections. We're talking apples and oranges here. When I teach upper-division classes, I'm most certainly taking another look at the article.
In addition to this complaint, the syllabus he proposes spends a full third of the classtime watching documentaries. One third! To me, this is just lazy lecturing. Plus, if he thinks sitting through a lecture is boring (is it, really?), has he tried to stay awake through "God in America" or almost any Ken Burns' documentary? I usually last about 15 minutes before the saccharine music and the long, panning skyward shots have got me reaching for my afghan and increasing my horizontal ratio. Plus, is using as a model of the "typical" lecture the famous scene from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" ("Anyone? Anyone?") really fair? It's certainly not my approach to the classroom, and I doubt it's anyone's.
On the other hand, Calder makes a good case for how we learn (and therefore how our students' learn).
One of his best arguments is that we learn when it matters, and a test isn't quite good enough to create "mattering." This got me thinking: what if I restructured my 16-week survey around 16 topics that slide chronologically forward. For instance, assuming that the industrial revolution is a meritorious starting point, what if we spend the first day going through technological breakthroughs in American life, then pull back to the late 19th century to see how we got to where we are today. The next week could be an investigation of, say, why Chicago (my city) is so racially segregated today. Clearly Reconstruction and the New South and the Great Migration would come up. Then third, the role of women in politics, which will highlight the Progressive Era movement toward female suffrage. Then the relationship between government and industry, a la the New Deal. Etc.
Of course, we'd need a concise textbook to keep the thread alive (go HIST!). But I wonder, has anyone with my kind of constraints tried this approach? Can uncoverage work in a real survey?