Approaching New Models for Texas Survey Courses: Struggles and Surprises
By Nancy E. Baker
Following recent national trends, Sam Houston State University, the institution where I teach, has seen declining numbers of undergraduate students choosing history as a major. Starting about four years ago, with the support of the AHA Tuning Project, my colleagues and I began discussing how to improve our undergraduate curriculum and attract more history majors. We found that the history survey course is a vital component to the recruitment of undergraduate history majors.
I found the AHA’s Texas Conference on Introductory History Courses an unsettling yet energizing experience. Over the course of presentations, small group discussions, and informal chats over lunch, a theme emerged: embracing depth rather than breadth could result in more effective learning and more engaged students. Educators I spoke with struggled with the idea of letting go of comprehensive coverage, worrying that the history survey course might be a student’s only chance to learn US history. The conference called into question some of my own practices in the 220-seat surveys I teach and left me wondering just how much my first-year students remember a year or two later.
Keynote speaker Lendol Calder of Augustana College threw down the gauntlet at the start of the proceedings. Calder insisted that an “uncoverage” approach to teaching survey courses was a more effective pedagogy than what he called MOOOPs (Massively Obsolete Ordinary Operating Procedures), in which one seeks to cover as much content as possible. He advised that, rather than trying to impart a detailed narrative that students are expected to reiterate on exams, professors instead inculcate historical thinking skills that students will likely retain longer than memorized facts.
In his own 20th-century American history class, Calder selects seven topics and devotes three class sessions to each, with an introductory lecture, the use of primary sources to develop historical thinking skills, and the comparison of two accounts of the same event written by historians with opposing interpretations. Intrigued but concerned, I asked how one could adapt this approach to large auditorium sections of the survey. Keith Erekson volunteered that he had done just this in his own 300-seat survey at the University of Texas at El Paso, refusing to be hampered pedagogically by class size. He suggested employing “clicker” technology and devising frequent, low-stakes opportunities for participation and writing. More than one person recommended looking at Beyond the Bubble, a Stanford University website devoted to History Assessments of Thinking (HATs), for fresh ideas on how to incorporate more writing that can be briskly graded and can provide feedback on whether students are successfully developing historical thinking abilities.
One attendee recalled a comment historian Peter Filene once made: “Teaching is choreographing an intellectual experience.” We took the opportunity to consider what such choreography might look like in a history survey course and how the effort could add depth to a student’s learning. In the “Creative Assignments” discussion group that I co-facilitated, participants contributed ideas and pondered the challenges of choosing nontraditional assignments over exams and term papers. Bravely, one participant told us of a creative assignment that failed, and the ensuing discussion revealed that creative assignments often require more advance thought and preparation than traditional ones might.
Energized from the creative ideas but still feeling misgivings about curtailing content, I participated in a small group discussion on dual-credit courses with high school history teachers, community college instructors, and university professors. We pooled our goals for students who had completed a college-level survey course and devised a list. Consistently, we valued skills such as critical reading, the ability to paraphrase a document, and knowing how to correctly cite sources. Not one of us prioritized specific narrative content. The realization that we all valued skills more than specific content opened my mind further to the possibilities of experimenting with an uncoverage model in my own surveys.
Impressed by the talent and energy in history classrooms across the state, I look forward to future meetings and will urge my colleagues to attend. Moreover, I would encourage other states to follow suit in holding their own conferences on teaching the undergraduate survey.
Nancy E. Baker is an associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.