Tag Archives: college survey courses

Teaching what you know

Anybody who’s taught a history class can probably sympathize with the points raised here and here.  In some ways, it’s harder to teach the material you know really well than it is to teach material outside your immediate area of expertise.

As John Fea says, when I’m teaching the stuff I’m really into, “I always leave the lecture hall frustrated. As I walk back to my office I often obsess about everything I did not have time to cover.”  When you’re passionate about a particular topic, you want to give it the coverage you know it deserves.  Of course, this is usually impossible, especially with a survey course.  As a result, you leave the classroom feeling disappointed with yourself, and then you start wondering about whether you’re teaching any of the material adequately.

The lectures I’m most content with are the ones where my understanding of the subject falls into a sort of middle zone, where I’m familiar enough with the material to be comfortable but not so thoroughly schooled in it that I’m conscious of how much I’m leaving out.

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Textbook prices going into the stratosphere

Think the cost of health care has been going up?  Check out the cost of college textbooks.

Maybe we should all think about replacing our usual textbooks with something like Robert Remini’s A Short History of the United States.  Students would still be getting their background and context from a distinguished and reputable historian, but at a fraction of the cost of the glossy, illustration-heavy volumes put out by textbook publishers.  They’d also save time and money that could be spent on other reading material, material which would demonstrate what historians do and how they do it.

Or maybe we should ditch the background, textbook-type reading completely.  I’m gradually becoming convinced that survey-level history texts aren’t just overpriced—they’re a little superfluous.  When I teach survey courses, I spend most of my time lecturing on important historical trends, covering critical events, providing context, and so on.  In other words, I’m doing the very same thing the textbook is doing, except I’m doing it verbally.  Is the textbook really necessary when it does nothing but elaborate on the same material we cover in lecture?

In the past, I’ve tried to save my students’ money by replacing the supplementary source reader with material from the Internet History Sourcebook or another online primary source collection, and assigning the main text as the only book to buy.  Maybe I’ve been doing it backwards.  Perhaps we should all ditch our textbooks instead, and assign a good primary source reader along with an accessible monograph or two.  Thus we’d have lectures for background coverage, and assigned reading to learn interpretation and historical thinking.  Some professors have been doing this for a long time.  Is it time to take that approach mainstream?

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Down from the top shelf

I once heard my pastor (who also happens to be my uncle) quote another minister to the effect of, “The preacher’s job is to reach up and take it down from the top shelf, and put it in people’s hands.”  The preacher, in other words, must not only have a certain level of expertise in his subject matter, but also the ability to translate it into a usable form for people whose expertise is in some other area.  When I worked in museums, I used to see my job in pretty much the same way. The public historian’s job is to take it down from the top shelf and put it in people’s hands.

There’s an unfortunate tendency in academia to look down on public historians, as if curators, park rangers, and their colleagues at museums and other institutions are engaged in a less demanding enterprise than those who earn a paycheck from teaching and publishing.  But in many ways, the demands placed on the public historian are greater. The public historian, like his academic counterpart, must be able to conduct original research and make sense of the relevant secondary literature—to reach the top shelf. But his success will also depend on his ability to get that stuff down from the top shelf and into the public’s hands. That’s what distinguishes the public historian from the ivory tower historian.

A few days ago, however, it occurred to me that although I’m not in the museum field anymore, my job still consists of taking things down from the top shelf.  I make a living by teaching college survey courses.  My audience isn’t composed of colleagues or apprentices; it’s made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, each with different levels of interest and differing aptitudes when it comes to the study of the past.  I’ve therefore decided that teaching a college survey course is essentially an exercise in public history.

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Of individuals and their eras

Lately the historical Interwebs has been talking about the new Grant bio by H.W. Brands.  I read his life of Andrew Jackson several years ago and thought it was pretty good, even if the availability of Robert Remini’s one-volume abridgment version of his multi-volume work made another popular Jackson bio seem a little superfluous.

The Grant and Jackson books are both part of a series of biographies which will constitute a complete history of the United States, with Brands using each individual exemplifying a particular era.  It’s a pretty interesting idea.

I wonder if you could do the same thing for a survey course, organizing each lecture around the life of some historical figure.  Could students learn history just by getting acquainted with individuals whose life stories reflect their respective time periods or subjects?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Pocahontas for early colonial Anglo-Indian relations with her first encounters with the Jamestown colonists, her capture, baptism, marriage, and eventual death
  • Jacob Leisler for the evolution of the colonial-English relationship in the late seventeenth century
  • Jonathan Edwards for the intellectual/religious developments of the early eighteenth century
  • John Adams for the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, with the emergence of his commitment to independence and the development of his ideas on government
  • John Sevier for the trans-Appalachian frontier, with his career as Indian fighter, leader of a dissident separatist movement, land speculator, and state governor

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One of the reasons American history is hard to teach

…is because it keeps getting longer.

Of course, his lessons didn’t change on the day of the attacks, but once students started showing up who had completely forgotten about it — “18-year-olds who were about seven when 9/11 happened” — he knew he had to teach it. But there are only so many hours of instruction in the semester.

That meant he had to start making cuts in his lesson plans. Take Watergate. Once, he used to spend an entire lecture on the political scandal, but now, he covers it in 10 to 15 minutes. “The New Deal is another really good example,” he says. “When I first started teaching, I think I had three lectures on it.” Now he’s down to two, and that’s changed the way he teaches, too. “I try to do it differently so that I won’t overwhelm people with lots and lots of facts. And then they’ll be able to understand more history, hopefully, through only having to know a little less.”

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Getting oriented

It’s our first week back to class at LMU, which means it’s once again time to deliver my little beginning-of-the-semester spiel at the first class meeting.  I’ve developed a tradition of opening my survey classes with a somewhat crude metaphor.

Imagine that a complete college-level education in history is a big shopping mall, with a variety of stores that cater to different needs and tastes—Ancient Rome, the history of Nazi Germany, the American West, the history of women or warfare, and so on.  Students who decide to major in history, to devote their college careers to the study of the human past, get to go into these stores and spend some time browsing, trying on the merchandise and perhaps finding a few items that suit them.

A gen-ed survey course, like the ones I’m teaching this semester, is different.  In a first-year world history class, we usually don’t spend enough time on any one subject for students to get much of a feel on it.  Students thus don’t get to do much of what historians actually do, which is developing interpretations to answer questions about the past.  A survey course is all about getting oriented to the general contours of human history as a whole, just as the word “survey” in another sense denotes scoping out the general contours of a physical landscape.

If the upper-level elective courses are like stores in a mall, then a world history survey class is more like a mall directory sign, which tells you where the stores are located and what you can find in them.

This distinction is significant to me as a teacher, because it reminds me that I will inevitably have to make sacrifices in content due to the nature of a survey course.  But I explain it to my students because I don’t want them to confuse the experience of taking a survey course with the experience of doing history.

It’s a tragic irony that the very classes in which we’re able to engage non-history majors are the very same classes in which students don’t get as many opportunities to see what makes history so captivating.  In survey courses, there’s so much material to be covered that you can’t delve deeply into the kinds of problems and issues that occupy the attention of historians and advanced-level history students.  The students who really get to have fun with history are the ones who take the upper-level electives, and yet students who sign up for those classes have often done so because they already know how much fun they can have doing it.

I do my best in my survey classes to try to give students a taste of the discipline of history, even though most of our time will necessarily be spent doing the less appealing work of laying a foundation of basic historical knowledge.  But I realize that many of them won’t be inclined take a history class beyond the gen-ed requirements, and thus won’t discover that history is more than mastering general concepts and facts.  That’s why I spend a few minutes on the first day explaining my shopping mall metaphor.  The orientation that we do in survey courses is necessary and I try to make it compelling, but if possible, I want students to use my introductory class to find a few stores that intrigue them, so that when it’s time to take some electives they might consider going in for a closer look at the merchandise.

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Bits and pieces

One of the mainstays of history survey courses are collections of primary source excerpts that profs assign to supplement the textbook. The excerpts are invariably short, since the only practical way to expose students to a wide array of important primary documents is to cut them up into tiny little bits.

I’ve secretly wondered much students really benefit by reading these little snippets.  When it comes to shorter works like the Declaration of Independence, the excerpt system works pretty well.  But some longer sources don’t take to dismemberment.  How much insight can you really get from a few out-of-context paragraphs of Ben Franklin’s autobiography or the Lincoln-Douglas debates?  It’s like driving a golf cart through an art gallery at top speed while trying to catch glimpses of the paintings along the way. You can assign longer selections of fewer works, of course, but that’s a trade-off.

That’s the thing about teaching a survey course.  It’s all about trade-offs.

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For globe-trotting Americanists

It’s time for those of us who make a living by teaching to get back to the business of turning America’s youth into godless Marxists who despise their country.  A lot of us who are specialists in American history will find ourselves outside of our comfort zone, teaching the world history survey courses that have become mandatory at many colleges and universities.

I’ll be teaching two sections of pre-1500 world history this semester, trying to cover everything from the dawn of mankind through the medieval era before Christmas break.  Teaching these surveys is fun and challenging at the same time.  As I’ve said before, history is a big tent, and the difference between studying classical Athens and studying the Revolutionary War is as profound as the difference between geology and zoology.

I was lucky enough to be able to take a pretty diverse array of world history courses as an undergraduate, but in grad school I focused on the early history of the U.S.  Now that my bank account’s replenishment depends heavily on teaching world history, I’ve spent a lot of time going back to subjects I’d neglected for a long time. That has meant reading a lot of general works on ancient and medieval stuff.

Since there are probably quite a few other Americanists out there who’ll find themselves in the same boat, I thought I might change gears here and recommend a few of the resources which have been particularly helpful to me in preparing these courses.  Let me stress that these are only general works; I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to build comprehensive bibliographies of this kind.  I’m approaching this post not as a seasoned trail guide, but as an often-bewildered and very green hiker who just happens to have found some decent maps to share.  I make no claims that any of these books are the best of their kind, only that I’ve found them handy as I’ve grappled with the Herculean task of walking a classroom full of students through the first few millennia of the human past.

The New Penguin History of the World (5th ed.) by J.M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad.  This acclaimed work has gone through several different updates, and the latest revisions actually came after the death of its original and primary author.  It’s much stronger on modern history than it is on earlier periods, and much stronger on the history of the West than it is on other civilizations.  As a one-volume overview, it’s necessarily brief on pretty much everything, but it’s a handy volume to have on hand when you find yourself putting together an outline on some subject that’s not that familiar to you.

Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean by Charles Freeman.  Anybody who’s teaching the first part of the world history survey should get this book.  It’s clear and comprehensive, covering the political, social, and cultural aspects of three of the major civilizations that shaped the ancient world.  I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Ancient Iraq (3rd ed.) by Georges Roux.  This is a very popular introduction to early Mesopotamia, written by a former petroleum company employee who acquired a love of the ancient Near East.  It’s quite readable, and covers most of the major developments in the Fertile Crescent from the beginning of civilization to the later first millennium B.C.

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. by Ian Shaw.  This book, which covers Egyptian history from the earliest archaeological traces through the Roman era, is the result of a collaboration by a group of Egyptologists, each of whom contributed a chapter.  Like many such books, the quality of the individual chapters is somewhat uneven, and the text as a whole is pretty dry and sterile.  If you’re unfamiliar with the basic outlines of Egyptian history, I’d recommend you read the Egyptian chapters in Freeman’s Egypt, Greece, and Rome before tackling this volume, since the authors seem to assume that the reader already has some familiarity with the subject.

Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts.  There are, of course, several good general works on ancient Greece in English.  One of my professors assigned an earlier edition of this text for a college course I took on the ancient Mediterranean, and I recommend it highly.  It’s very inclusive in its coverage, but it’s also clear and well-organized.  The same publisher came out with a similar textbook on Rome that I haven’t read yet.

The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor.  This has become the go-to introduction to medieval Europe for the interested layman.  Cantor is best at guiding the reader through the major intellectual and religious developments, but the whole book is worth the investment of time, and it includes a great list of recommended readings.

A History of Medieval Islam by J.J. Saunders.  This book is a little old, and it doesn’t have the high profile of more recent works on the Islamic world by such eminent scholars as Bernard Lewis.  But I like it for its conciseness and clarity; it offers a very helpful refresher in an easily digestible package.

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin.  The forgotten half of Christendom that maintained the legacy of the Romans after the empire in the West fell tends to get short shrift in historical memory.  This is a fine guide to a surprisingly vibrant society.

I’m still in the market for good overviews of the major eastern civilizations, so if anybody out there would care to recommend some general works on China or India, feel free to do so.

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Too much scope can be a bad thing

I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to teach both specialized, upper-level college courses and introductory survey courses, and I’ve long maintained that doing the latter is much, much more challenging than doing the former.  For one thing, in a survey class you’re going to be covering material that’s outside your comfort zone.  For another, each student in a required general studies course will have his or her own levels of familiarity with history, depending on background, educational experience, and aptitude.

To me, though, the hardest thing about teaching survey courses is the sheer amount of material covered and the speed at which you have to do so.  Your standard World History II course will encompass five centuries.  This semester I’m teaching a section of World History I, which whirls through several millennia, from the origin of man to the Renaissance—all in just a few months.

This approach invariably means that you have to make serious sacrifices in terms of content.  Nobody can responsibly cover everything in the survey textbooks in the short time allowed, and the textbooks themselves often reduce complex issues down to the barest minimum, simply out of sheer necessity. Last semester I taught the second half of World History using the fourth edition of Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, by Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler.  In terms of similar books, I think it holds up pretty well. 

Yet it does what so many textbooks have to do, which is boil things down to the point where there isn’t much left.  The entire American Revolution takes up a mere three pages.  The war itself is wrapped up in two paragraphs:

     It was one thing to declare independence, but a different matter altogether to make independence a reality.  At the beginning of the war for independence, Britain enjoyed many advantages over the rebels: a strong government with clear lines of authority [I wonder if Burgoyne and Howe would agree!], the most powerful navy in the world, a competent army, and a sizable population of loyalists in the colonies.  But to wage a war in a distant land full of opponents, Britain had to ship supplies and reinforcements across a stormy ocean.  Meanwhile, the rebels benefited from the military and economic support of European states that were eager to chip away at British hegemony in the Atlantic Ocean basin: France, Spain, the Netherlands, and several German principalities contributed to the American quest for independence.  Moreover, George Washington (1732-1799) provided strong and imaginative military leadership for the colonial army while local militias employed guerilla tactics effectively against British forces.

     By 1780 all combatants were weary of the conflict.  In the final military confrontation of the war, American and French forces under the command of George Washington surrounded the British forces of Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia.  After a twenty-day siege, the British forces surrendered in October 1781, and major military hostilities ceased from that point forward.  In September 1783 diplomats concluded the Peace of Paris, by which the British government formally recognized American independence.

And there you have it.  On to the French Revolution!

Of course, I’m being more than a little unfair here; I doubt anyone could adequately handle this material in so little space.  And when I set up my lectures, I was able to devote only about half an hour to the American Revolution.  There was simply so much to cover.  That’s why I’ve started to wonder whether the World History survey course is too unwieldy for its own good.

I understand the purpose of replacing Western Civ or American History classes with World History courses.  The world isn’t as big as it used to be, and college graduates can’t afford to be as parochialas their parents and grandparents. 

There comes a point, though, where inclusivity stretches a class so thin that it snaps.  Consider that history is one of the few disciplines that tries to cram an overview of its entire body of knowledge into two semesters.  “World History” pretty much equates to everything that’s ever happened.  It’s equivalent to having “Science I” and “Science II,” instead of breaking first-year science courses up into different sub-disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), which is the standard practice.

There is, of course, a very important role for international history, utilizing a comparative approach to politics, religion, and so forth across various times and places.  But in terms of an introductory survey class, I think aiming for “the world”  is casting the net too wide.  Maybe we should emulate the sciences and pare down our introductory classes into manageable subjects.

This will undoubtedly mean that non-history majors will graduate with a narrower perspective on history than they would by taking a World History course.  I think, though, that the benefits would more than compensate for this loss.  Students taking survey classes so rarely get to do history, to take the time to examine contradictory explanations for things and sort them out, to become comfortable enough in a subject to poke around in the corners and see what’s there.  So many people see history as a set of facts to be learned, rather than a means to arrive at an understanding, and it’s little wonder.  Only history majors get to experience the thrill of learning to think historically and do what historians do.

I’m sure there are many instructors teaching World History surveys who are able to engage students in thinking historically, and who take the time to make the subject come alive; I was lucky to have such instructors.  But I’m also pretty sure that many of them do it by sacrificing the comprehensive approach.  They do in the classroom what we might want to start doing in our course catalogs, sacrificing some breadth for depth.  The guy driving a speedboat covers more territory than the guy wearing fins and a snorkel, but he doesn’t get to see much, except for the waves.  Deciding when and how often to stop the boat will be one of the toughest decisions instructors make this semester, and one of the most important.

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