Tag Archives: college survey courses

Leaders, wars, and the survey course

Last week we administered a survey/quiz in our Western Civ course, asking students which of the topics we’ve covered interested them the most.  The results were a little surprising, at least to me.

Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon, via Wikimedia Commons

The most common answers involved subjects that many academic history tend to downplay: wars and leaders.  More students claimed they wanted to learn about strategies, battles, kings, queens, and presidents than anything else.  They wrote that they’d enjoy taking an entire course on the origins of World War I, the major campaigns of World War II, Napoleon, or the Romanovs.  What captivated these young scholars was the same sort of material that many academic historians dismiss as old-fashioned.

What accounts for these students’ responses?  I think it boils down to two factors.  First, political power—especially the relationship between modernity and monarchy—was an organizing theme that undergirded the course as a whole.  Our professor spent quite a bit of time analyzing the ways personalities, institutions, and change intersected, and he did so in such a captivating manner that students couldn’t help but want to explore these questions further.  In other words, good teaching leads to engagement with the subject matter.  It was a valuable lesson for us TAs, who will be thinking about how to organize our own courses in the future.  As I said a few months ago, the opportunity to observe great professors in the classroom is one of the biggest benefits of grad school.

The second reason so many of the students found wars and leaders so engrossing has to do with the subject matter itself.  At the end of the day, it’s hard to deny that battles, alliances, campaigns, and the lives of powerful men and women are pretty darned interesting.  After all, these were the very topics that prompted the first historians of classical antiquity to take up their pens: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, and so on.  And in our own time, the commercial success of military historians and biographers such as Andrew Roberts, Rick Atkinson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Antony Beevor, and Antonia Fraser speaks to the enduring appeal of this approach.

These were the sort of topics I used to feel guilty about spending time on as an adjunct.  As much as I loved lecturing on Xerxes, Alexander, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, the Crimean War, and Operation Barbarossa, going into detail on leaders and wars always seemed like an indulgence.  Every semester I chipped away at my coverage of conflicts and great men and women.  Maybe I should’ve let them be.  When we start making those hard choices about what to omit from our survey courses, perhaps we should leave space for these subjects that still take hold of the imagination, even the imagination of Generation Z.

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Getting paid to learn from the masters

Ayers Hall at the University of Tennessee. By Gragghia at en.wikipedia (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ayers Hall at the University of Tennessee. By Gragghia at en.wikipedia (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I was sorry to see my semester as a graduate assistant at the McClung Museum come to an end.  It was a fantastic gig at a great institution with wonderful people, and reminded me how much I enjoy museum work.  I’m hoping I end up back there before my career as a Ph.D. student runs out.

Still, being a teaching assistant again has its perks.  What I love most about it isn’t so much being a teacher as being a learner.  Because TAs attend the professor’s lectures in addition to conducting the weekly discussion sections, we’re basically getting paid to learn from top-notch scholars.  It’s a pretty sweet deal, especially when you consider that most students have to pay or take out loans to take these courses.

And since graduate students usually get a new TA assignment every semester, we get to see the survey courses taught from a variety of different perspectives and using multiple approaches.  By the time we finish our degrees, we might sit through both halves of American history, world history, or Western Civ twice from beginning to end, hearing a new professor’s take on the material each time.  I doubt any other group of people in the world gets the benefit of such a wide-ranging education in history as we’re able to get just by showing up for work.

Graduate school can be grueling.  There’s no doubt about that.  But those of us who are able to work as apprentices to great professors should remember how lucky we are.

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Rethinking history and picturing deep time

Louis Figuier’s 1863 book The World Before the Deluge was a time machine between two covers.  By the mid-nineteenth century, geologists knew that different rock layers and the fossils entombed in them corresponded to distinct periods of time, ages when animals and plants unlike any known to modern man had populated the globe.  Figuier took his readers on a grand tour of these geologic periods—or rather, he did so with the assistance of Édouard Riou, whose evocative engravings brought these extinct environments back to life.

Each engraving showed readers a primordial landscape characteristic of a phase of prehistory.  The result was a sort of highlights reel of earth history, a sequential arrangement of what the historian of science Martin J.S. Rudwick calls “scenes from deep time.”

Riou’s illustrations have long since lost their scientific value, but they still pack a visual wallop.  In this image, torrential rains hammer the surface of a newborn globe:

Trilobites and other marine invertebrates wash up on the shore of the Silurian sea:

The forests of the Carboniferous:

Two dinosaurs, depicted as the stocky and elephantine reptiles that early Victorians assumed they were, engage in mortal combat:

The emergence of large mammals:

A primeval flood inundates northern Europe:

The appearance of (notably white and European) humans:

And finally, a later, “Asiatic” flood, perhaps the one described in Genesis and other ancient texts:

If you’ve ever read a paleontology textbook, visited a natural history museum, watched a documentary on evolution, or stepped into a science classroom, you’ve probably seen a modern variation of these sequential deep time scenes.  Paintings in books, dioramas in museums, and CGI clips on TV often take the form of the “prehistoric highlights reel” that Figuier and Riou helped popularize.

And although the science of paleontology has changed a great deal since the 1860s, the organisms that populate our own scenes from deep time tend to correspond with those Riou associated with specific periods.  The dates assigned to the scenes have changed (and in the case of he dinosaurs, the physiology of the animals has changed, too), but the cast has remained much the same.  The scenes start out with marine invertebrates, then move on to primitive chordates and fish, then amphibians and early terrestrial organisms, then dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles, then mammalian megafauna, and finally humans.  I had a lot of books on prehistoric life when I was a kid, and the sequence of illustrations was pretty consistent across most of them: marine invertebrates, jawless fish, jawed fish, amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals, and Homo sapiens.

This sequence may seem inevitable; after all, it’s the order in which the major groups of organisms appeared.  But there’s a sense in which it’s misleading.  The illustrations tend to be much better at highlighting when groups of organisms appeared or were especially prominent than they are at indicating how long they flourished.

Take reptiles, for example. Many illustrators will throw one in around the late Carboniferous to mark the emergence of the first reptiles, or perhaps include a picture of the sail-backed Dimetrodon in the Permian. Pictures of reptiles then dominate the Mesozoic, and then tend to disappear from pictorial sequences and time charts altogether after the age of dinosaurs.

But reptiles didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago.  Nor, for that matter, did the dinosaurs themselves.  Birds are advanced theropod dinosaurs, and living bird species outnumber mammals species by two to one.  Extant reptile species outnumber mammal species, too.  But you wouldn’t know this from looking at pictorial deep time sequences and geologic time scales.  Illustrators are keen on reptiles and birds when they first appear, or when they’re the biggest terrestrial animals going.  Once you hit the end of the Cretaceous Period, however, it’s as if we assume that reptiles and their descendants ceased to exist, or at least ceased to be relevant.  Indeed, we call our own time the “Age of Mammals,” but it would be just as accurate to keep calling it the “Age of Reptiles.”

The artificiality of deep time imagery is even more apparent when you look at fish.  Illustrators highlight fish when they’re the only vertebrates around, but once amphibians show up and start colonizing the land, fish more or less vanish from the pictures.  Likewise, you don’t see many amphibians in illustrations of scenes dating from after the first appearance of reptiles.  And invertebrates tend to disappear entirely once animals with backbones evolve, even though they make up more than 95% of all extant species described so far.

These charts and sequential images also tend to favor terrestrial over aquatic life.  Marine organisms are plentiful in scenes of early eras, when there’s no life on land.  But once terrestrial animals appear, many geologic time scales omit marine life altogether, except for the occasional aquatic reptile from the Mesozoic (presumably included because they look really cool).

You can see the same sequence of organisms in illustrated charts and tables of geologic time.  Take a look at this one produced by CliffsNotes.  Invertebrates for the earliest periods populate the oldest periods at the bottom, and then it’s fish, terrestrial animals, dinosaurs, and mammals.  Not a single invertebrate after the first appearance of insects.

Here’s another one from a professional development site for teachers.  It’s pretty consistent with the one above.  Invertebrates, fish, plants, amphibians, dinosaurs, large mammals, and finally man up at the top.

The point I’m belaboring here is that pictorial sequences of earth history and illustrated geologic time charts are as notable for their omissions as they are for what they include.  There’s a sort of implicit narrative thrust at work here, focused on organisms that are vertebrate, terrestrial, and warm-blooded.  Organisms, in other words, that seem most relevant to our own origins.

Now, I’ve never needed an excuse to discuss extinct organisms here before, but this post isn’t one of my gratuitous prehistoric indulgences.  I raise the issue of scenes from deep time because it offers insights into the ways we think about the more recent, human past.

We might compare the treatment of some historical subjects in textbooks and survey courses to depictions of organisms in pictorial sequences of deep time.  Just as illustrators render some animal groups invisible once a more recent group arrives on the scene, so we tend to render Indians invisible after, say, King Philip’s War, Jacksonian removal, or Wounded Knee.  But Native Americans didn’t vanish after these important turning points.  They might have ended up in a different location, but they didn’t become extinct or irrelevant, any more than amphibians became extinct once animals started laying amniotic eggs.

And the descendants of Spanish colonists in the American Southwest didn’t cease to exist after the mid-1800s, when Anglophone Americans took political control of the region.  They were there the whole time, just as birds kept fluttering along through the mass extinction of 65 million years ago and the emergence of large mammals afterward.

In the same way, just as it’s misleading to ignore marine life and focus exclusively on terrestrial life after the movement of the first organisms into land, it’s also misleading for history books and courses to ignore the Southwest after the passage of the “frontier” era, or to be attentive to southern history only during the Civil War, New South, and civil rights eras.  And our discussions of such important changes as the Industrial Revolution shouldn’t blind us to the fact that most Americans remained tied to agriculture long after the first steam engines started puttering, just as most organisms remained invertebrates long after the first backbones appeared.

Our selective memory of history suffers from the same problems as our selective memory of the story of the life on this planet.  We need to remind ourselves to step away from selective scenes of the past to take in the sweep of the whole drama.  And we need to stop thinking of history in terms of a “highlights reel” of status scenes, and start thinking of it as a totality.

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Do history majors need the U.S. survey?

The U.S. survey course used to be a rite of passage for history majors, but more and more colleges and universities are dropping it as a requirement.  George Washington University is now one of them. 

The department eliminated requirements in U.S., North American and European history, as well as the foreign language requirement. Thus, it is possible that a student can major in history at GWU without taking a survey course on United States history.

The new requirements mandate at least one introductory course, of which American history, World History and European civilization are options. Yet, like at many elite universities, the introductory course requirement may be fulfilled by scoring a 4 or a 5 on the Advanced Placement exams for either U.S. History AP, European History AP or World History AP.…

This change was motivated by a need to “recruit students” and “to better reflect a globalizing world,” according to faculty comments to the George Washington University student newspaper, The Hatchet.

Faced with declining enrollment, from 153 majors in 2011 to 72 in 2015 to 83 in 2016, the history department decided changes were necessary, it reported.

Department chair Schultheiss told the Hatchet “the main gain for students is that they have a great deal more flexibility than they had before, and they can adapt it to whatever their plans are for the future. Whatever they want to do, there’s a way to make the history department work for them.”

I suppose this makes sense for students who already know they’re going to work on, say, the Byzantine Empire or twentieth-century Africa.  But discovery is an important part of the undergrad experience, as students sample a variety of subjects to discern what they want to do with the rest of their careers.  How many aspiring historians who have just declared the major know what subfield they’re going to specialize in?

Beyond that practical question, is there some sort of moral or civic imperative to make history majors at an American university take a U.S. history course?  Many critics of higher ed would probably say yes.  But given the increasing emphasis on education as preparation for global (rather than national) citizenship, and the growing appeal of transnational approaches to history, I suspect more colleges will make U.S. history optional, even for history majors.  That’s assuming state legislatures don’t try to step in and mandate otherwise.  Given the legislative involvement in higher ed that we’ve been seeing lately, that’s a distinct possibility.


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Can you see Russia from your American history class?


An Iñupiat seal drag made ca. 1900, one of the objects in the exhibit.  After killing a seal, the hunter slit the animal’s jaw and looped the leather thong through the hole, and then attached the loop to a longer line to haul the carcass across the ice.

Right now the McClung Museum has a special exhibit curated by Christine Dano Johnson, a UT grad and former intern.  It showcases items made by Yup’ik and Iñupiat people of Alaska in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and developed out of Johnson’s research into the museum’s collection of Native Alaskan and Pacific Northwest material.  She came back to the museum this week to discuss her research with an anthropology class.

When I sat in on her presentation, it occurred to me that I don’t recall discussing Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, or the inhabitants of these places at any length in any history class I’ve taken or taught, from grade school all the way to graduate seminars.  I’d wager the same is true of most history classes.

Do history courses need Alaska and its Native inhabitants?  My Ph.D. adviser asked my classmates and I a similar question during the first meeting of an early America seminar.  We were discussing the geographic and temporal boundaries historians use to define “colonial America.”  Alaska, after all, was a Russian colony in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  My adviser asked us to consider whether we need to incorporate this into our understanding of colonial America in order to make sense of it and to do the subject justice.  It’s an interesting—and provocative—question.  Most people associate colonial America with the eastern seaboard, while historians with a more expansive geographical vision have been careful to point out that the thirteen seaboard English provinces weren’t the only colonies out there.  The borders of colonial and early America have opened up in recent years.

But Alaska?  I think it’s a rare study indeed that considers its colonial experience to be part of either colonial or early American history.  Alan Taylor’s especially expansive and inclusive overview of colonial America is, of course, a notable exception.

Changes in geographical perspective can lead to interesting chronological reconceptualizations, too.  It’s no coincidence that Taylor’s continental studies of colonial America and the Revolution have later chronological end points than other, more geographically restrictive accounts.  Alaskan history forces us to reconsider when colonial America ends as well as where it ends.  It remained a European possession a century after those British colonies gave their king a pink slip.

A broader geographic perspective also has implications for teaching the second half of the American survey, and can help us correct demographic and cultural oversights that tend to characterize the post-1865 or 1877 history course.  Note that the Iñupiat seal drag in the photo dates from around the turn of the twentieth century.  How largely do indigenous people figure in most survey courses after the lectures move past, say, 1890?  Native Americans didn’t just vanish after Wounded Knee, as if they were figures in Marty McFly’s family photo.  Indeed, members of Native Alaskan communities continue their traditions of whaling and sealing today, mixing older practices with more modern technology.  (In fact, part of Johnson’s work in our collection involved consultation with these communities in an effort to better understand the cultural context of these objects.)

My point is not that every history course “needs” to cover Alaska and its inhabitants, but rather that greater attention to places we dismiss as marginal can prompt us to think and teach about the whole fabric of American history more creatively and intelligently.  If we want to shake up the ways we conceive of geographical, temporal, and demographic boundaries, Alaska could be a good place to get started.  The next time you’re putting together a syllabus, a little subarctic air might just prove invigorating.

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It’s been a summer of traveling for me: Virginia, Florida, and California, all within the span of a few weeks.  Just a few days ago, I visited the La Brea Tar Pits with a couple of friends of mine.  I think the tar pits are sort of obligatory for paleophiles who visit L.A.  

It’s got to be the most famous fossil site in California, if not on the West Coast as a whole.  It’s also a very recent site, as far as fossil deposits go.  Most of the specimens from La Brea date from about 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, give or take a few millennia.  In geologic time, that’s practically yesterday, and much, much more recent than the terrible lizards that really interest me.  Dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago, and flourished until the K-T extinction event killed off the non-avian dinos 65 million years before the present.  (I say non-avian because scientists now consider birds to be advanced theropod dinosaurs, the same group that includes the big carnivores.  T. rex is actually more closely related to a parakeet than to Triceratops.)  While checking out the exhibits at La Brea, I couldn’t escape the notion that all this stuff was really new.

Now, here’s the weird thing.  A few weeks ago, as you may recall, I was in Jamestown.  I’m fascinated by seventeenth-century colonial history, but my foremost historical interest is the American Revolution.  As an aspiring early Americanist who spends most of his time studying the end of England’s American empire, the founding of Jamestown seems almost like the Big Bang to me.

But when you consider that anatomically modern humans have been around for about 200,000 years, 1607 isn’t that long ago.  Indeed, it’s not even particularly early in the history of European adventurism in the New World.  The Spanish had been making their mark in the Americas for more than a century when the English started building their fort on the banks of the James River.  And four hundred years is hardly worth noticing compared to the gulf of time that separates us from the animals that roamed Rancho La Brea in the Pleistocene.

When I was standing within the reconstructed palisade of Jamestown’s fort a few weeks ago, I was thinking like an aspiring American historian, and it was like being present at the creation.  At La Brea, on the other hand, I was wearing my dino aficionado hat, and those 40,000-year-old mastodons, sloths, and saber-toothed cats seemed like they’d been around just a few moments ago.

History classes tend to reinforce these skewed perspectives of time.  The world history survey is ostensibly in the business of teaching students what humans have been up to during our tenure on this planet, but most of human existence gets covered in the first lecture or two.  The rest of the course is about human history since the end of the Neolithic.  In other words, we devote only one class meeting to something like 98% of humanity’s past.

The American history survey distorts time, too.  The first half zips through thousands of years’ worth of pre-Columbian history in about an hour of lecture, and then spends months on the few hundred years between Columbus and the end of Reconstruction.  The second half devotes the whole semester to less than a century and a half.  There isn’t really any sense to the way survey courses split American history in two.

The way we define fields of specialization makes no chronological sense, either.  There was twice as much time from Roanoke to the Rev War as there was from the Rev War to the Civil War, but both Roanoke and the Rev War are the business of early Americanists.  The Civil War?  That’s for those nineteenth-century historians.

The passage of time defines what historians do, but I don’t think we’re any more astute than a random person on the street when it comes to conceptualizing time accurately.

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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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