This post is a broader application of Ben Wright’s post on organized lectures that don’t end with “that’s all we have time for today.”
What about the semester? The well-worn habit of college history surveys is to get bogged down in a particular period. In and of itself this is not a problem. The problems are our spontaneous solutions: we race through the very next section to catch up, or we simply lop off the topics at the end. The first solution can create the illusion, for instance, that nothing important happened between the Civil War and the Great Depression. This second solution is particularly problematic in universities that separate their courses with no overlap (US History to 1877, US History from 1877).
Yes, we are all uncoverage teachers now. But uncoverage should not be used as an excuse for constantly having to recover after getting blown off course. (so many puns, so little space). Here are a few ideas to help stay the course (that was too easy) in your teaching.
1- Create a plan that realistically addresses the places you will need/want more time. Put the time in before the semester. Ask yourself questions about the material, your teaching style, and your interests. Does your survey division occur in 1865, 1877 or is it a twentieth century course? Can you break away from the lecture and “uncover history,” or are you a lecturer at heart? Are you a Cold War aficionado, or does a correct understanding of all US History begin and end with Jacksonian Democracy? You have a set amount of time for the whole course, but there is no requirement that you spend equal emphasis on each period. By deciding before the semester begins where you will add time (and from what topic you will take it away) you will avoid the default answer at the end of the semester: “we didn’t have time to get to the 1870s (or 1970s.)” PS- Why is it always the 70s? Bias against the Grant and Carter administrations, I tell you. Or, maybe we just don't know what to do with inflationary and stagflationary panics.
2- Let students do the extra exploring out of class. We all create assignments in which students explore a topic more fully, but consider giving each assignment the flexibility of period and subject that allows students to pursue their passions. Thus, what used to be the professor getting “bogged down” in a topic during class time is now the student pursuing their interests and creating their own insights out of the classroom.
3- Build catch up days into the syllabus schedule. Plan for the unplanned. Professors (and their kids) get sick. University events and speakers who are perfect for your class get slotted during your class. You miss your connection flight returning from a conference. One section of the survey gets canceled while another goes forward. When you need them, you’ll be thankful you built in catch-up days. When you don’t, you’ll find yourself with a special opportunity to dig deeper, or have some fun with the subject matter.
4- Don’t confuse schedule with coverage. As mentioned above (and in TUSH posts here and here) current pedagogical trends are deemphasizing comprehensive coverage in the history classroom while privileging exploration of themes and problematic questions. I am a fan of this methodology. In fact, despite my love for Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty textbook, I’ve abandoned textbooks entirely and exclusively assign primary source readers in all my courses. I've also decreased lecture time dramatically, using the extra time to teach students how to read primary sources intelligently and to let them practice. I would suggest it requires more, not less, planning to implement an uncoverage teaching model. The process of exploration is not built naturally into the flow of the semester or books in the way periodization (i.e. coverage) is. Most students have read few (if any) primary sources, and even fewer know how to interpret them. Plan for them to struggle with the process; that way both teacher and student don’t feel rushed in the skills training portions of the course.
5- Don’t go back. My mother, an accomplished pianist and gifted teacher, often tells her students to “play through their mistakes.” Stopping a piece of music midstream to appease your perfectionism is jarring to the audience. No performance is perfect; just keep playing. Similarly, its okay to keep moving forward in the course even though you weren’t able to explain every nuance about the rise of industrial capitalism and its effect on domesticity. By keeping the history course moving you bring students closer to the course’s true Coda – a sense that they, too, are living through history.