Reviving the Sleeping Giant: Historians Tackle the College-Level Survey Course
By Jermaine Thibodeaux
Undeterred by Hurricane Harvey, a dedicated group of history educators gathered at the Houston Community College campus to strategize ways to revive struggling introductory history courses at two- and four-year universities. Attendees at the AHA’s 3rd annual Texas Conference on Introductory Courses were treated to rousing presentations by those in the trenches and by state policymakers determined to breathe new life into these struggling courses.
Steven Mintz (Univ. of Texas at Austin) kicked off the conference by offering a rather dire assessment of today’s US history survey course. Having taught the history survey for decades, Mintz cited historically low enrollments and lack of student interest or engagement in the classroom as reasons for the survey’s demise at four-year institutions. All is not lost, however, assured Mintz. The key to reigniting students’ interest in history courses, which for many begins with the survey, he said, is simply “reimagining everything.” By broadly rethinking pedagogy, assessment, and delivery modes, Mintz argued, the lackluster survey course can be saved, with great benefit to students and teachers.
While the gathered historians had likely heard sweeping diagnoses like Mintz’s before, he was able to offer a wealth of anecdotal evidence, best practices, and examples of engaging and exciting instruction that did not at all compromise higher order thinking. For example, in his own US history survey course, Mintz forgoes the standard midterm and final exam, opting instead for consistent formal assessment and weekly online modules that combine essay writing with content checks in the form of thoughtful multiple choice questions. Mintz encouraged history teachers to shun traditional models of instruction and instead embrace a combination of approaches that would make the introductory course more meaningful for students.
Testing novel approaches yield other benefits, too, such as attracting more students to the discipline. Mintz made three suggestions to shake up the conventional survey and cater to student interests: teach the histories of various professions and industries as a way of aligning students’ professional interests with curriculum dictates; teach from a presentist stance to get students to locate the origins of various contemporary controversies and cite change over time; and finally, allow students to research topics at personal and local levels while creating public, usable historical resources. Completing neighborhood or family histories, for example, can draw students into doing history.
A faculty panel of local history professors also offered glimpses into their respective classrooms and highlighted some practices they have deployed over the years to cultivate introductory history courses that best serve their students, their individual teaching philosophies, and their institutions. Todd Romero (Univ. of Houston) described how his students’ lived experiences inspired him to make changes to his early American survey. Realizing that many of his students worked part-time, Romero reorganized the course to reflect that reality. He often relies on the flipped classroom model (where instructional content is often delivered before the class session, so that debate, process, and analysis can take place collaboratively in the classroom) and has abandoned “high stakes exams” as modes of assessment. He also incorporates local Houston history into his class and insists on student-peer evaluations for assessing group projects and presentations. In eschewing the traditional lecture model of teaching, Romero places his students and their particular needs first.
Similarly, Ben Park (Sam Houston State Univ.) asserted that one of his goals in teaching the US history survey is to get students to “think beyond their own shadow.” Organizing his classes thematically, Park insists on assigning at least one monograph to his students. Closely reading historical interpretations and assessing and evaluating different information sources, Park maintained, are crucial skills that historians must teach students in this digital age. Park challenged history teachers to tap into their imaginations to create well-crafted assignments that maintain student interest and yield interesting final products.
Kent McGaughy (Houston Community Coll.), also on the panel, echoed many of the themes and suggestions offered by Romero and Park. Highlighting the nontraditional students that enroll in his smaller classes, McGaughy discussed incorporating career path research in his survey course. By centering student needs and interests, rather than checklists of content specific information, the panelists exemplified ways to attract more students into history classes and improve the performance of those who do enroll.
In small breakout sessions, attendees also spent time discussing best practices and reflecting on the information presented earlier that morning. Participants discussed ways of assessing learning goals and, once more, doing what it necessary to meet the specific needs of their students. Overall, the conference provided an optimal environment to share, critique, and simply learn from other history teachers from a diverse set of institutions. The conference made clear that the survey, clearly on life support, is in need of serious revision. If anything, this gathering of concerned historians is poised to return to their campuses eager to re-energize the introductory history course.
Jermaine Thibodeaux is a history doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. He is completing a dissertation that interrogates the role of the Texas sugar industry in the development and expansion of the state’s prison system. His research interests also broadly consider notions of masculinities, criminality, slavery, and racial capitalism. He is advised by Dr. Daina Ramey Berry. He tweets @Thibs27.
This post first appeared on AHA Today.
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