Monday, May 21, 2012

When Is It Time to Stop Teaching Something?

Jonathan Rees

Those of us who teach the second half of the American survey course face a problem that only recent historians ever seem to face: our period keeps expanding.  Until there’s some kind of mass meeting where all we historians decide to move the dividing line in a two-course US survey sequence from 1865 or 1877 to 1900 or something, what counts as 1877 to the Present will only get larger.  This poses some problems for those of us who’d like to keep our courses current.

When I started teaching during the late-1990s, 1989 (with the fall of the Berlin Wall and all that) was a natural time to stop.  A few years ago, I rearranged my entire survey course in order to make it up to September 11, 2001, without actually covering it as everyone I was teaching still remembered it perfectly.  Well, those days have changed.  Listening to my students talk, I realized it was time to recall the events of that day and at least a few of the ones following it because they were barely cognizant of what was happening at that time yet have been living in its shadow ever since.

Besides needing to make room for the near present, I’ve been trying to update some of my other lectures from further back in light of recent scholarship.  When I first started talking about the 1970s, it was all Watergate all the time.  After all, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened was the first book on that decade to come out after it ended.  Jefferson Cowie has absolutely torpedoed that stereotype forever.  I’ve also tried to include some of the absolutely amazing material that’s been written about the rise of conservatism in recent years by people like Kim Phillips-Fein and Bethany Moreton.

My problem, therefore, has not been what to include in the new lectures I’ve been writing.  My problem has been what to cut out.  Cover new ground in any depth and something has to go.  Since I’ve also tried to redesign my course to include less lecturing, some of these cuts have been quite painful.

For example, I used to work for Stanley Kutler.  If you know Stan, you know that he was the first academic historian to write a book about Watergate.  When you get Stan to talk about Nixon, he won’t stop.  Therefore, I picked up an enormous amount of information about Watergate almost by osmosis.  I’ve cut my Watergate coverage down from a lecture all its own to about ten minutes.  It just doesn’t seem as important as it once did, anyway. 

Another subject from the survey class I used to cover in much greater detail is the New Deal.  That was two lectures:  First New Deal in the first one, Second New Deal in the second.  The Depression got a lecture all its own.  It still does, but I’ve got the New Deal down to one lecture by simply admitting to myself that the long string of Alphabet Soup programs that history teachers have been teaching since about the time that Roosevelt died is actually rather boring.  I now cover the programs that I think were crucial (NIRA, Social Security, NLRA, and a couple of others) and let my students read about most of the rest.

Similarly, I used to have one lecture for the Populists and another lecture for the Progressives.  Maybe that’s because I was taught by so many political historians as an undergraduate and graduate student, but I’d rather be talking about scholarship that dates from after I was born, thank you very much.  If I enjoy it, I think they’ll enjoy it more.  Just because you learned it is no reason that you have to cover the exact same material that your professors did. 

Ultimately, I think the question of coverage is the key here.  As Lendol Calder has been saying for years, our survey courses do not have to turn us all into walking encyclopedias.  (In fact, if we do our jobs right many of your students will come back for more in upper-level courses.)  Since covering everything will get even harder as time marches on, perhaps its best to change your approach before defeat becomes inevitable.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo.  He blogs mostly about technological and academic labor matters at More or Less Bunk, but still writes about history there every once in a while.


Jonathan Dresner said...

You've just admitted that the coverage model is thoughtful, adaptable, driven by appropriate historical and pedafogical considerations. What's the real issue? That there are bad teachers who don't go beyond the textbook? That's not going to change with more "uncoverage" textbooks.

Steven Cromack said...

It seems that American history approaches that moment when chronology no longer works. What professors and secondary school teachers must be trained in is themes.

Asking students what the role of the government was during the New Deal is far more important than the Alphabet soup programs. Now, students have a point of comparison. How did FDR's conception of the role of the government compare to Eisenhower, or Ronald Reagan? Now history becomes relevant for students. Once its relevant, only then will they investigate the rest on their own.

Chris Beneke said...

Thanks for the excellent post, Jonathan. What you've done for the First and Second New Deals, I've found myself doing for the First and Second Great Awakenings in my U.S. religious history course. I've now condensed the two discussions to a single one on the evangelical revivals. Frees up time to dig into other topics that engage them like Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism.

Jonathan said...


Just because I do want to adjust the way I cover things doesn't mean that everyone else does. More importantly, getting textbook publishers to adjust their coverage is like turning an ocean liner. To me, going textbook-less is by far the most appealing thing about uncoverage and has been my transitional step on that road.

hcr said...

Thanks for this, Jonathan. It's so important to have this issue on the teaching table.

I'm a bit of a broken record on this topic, but once again I have to recommend something along the lines of the Teaching By Design method outlined by Wiggins and McTighe in 2005. If you start by figuring out what you want your students to take away from your class, organizing it becomes much easier... and much more idiosyncratic. As your lens changes, so does what is important.

Jonathan Dresner said...

Jonathan, you write "perhaps its best to change your approach before defeat becomes inevitable."

That sounds an awful lot like "if you don't change, you will be defeated."

By the way, the shortest upper-level survey I teach -- the Chinese and Japanese equivalents to your US surveys in focus -- is 300 years. I'm not particularly challenged by adding a decade or two on the end there.

Lendol Calder said...

Deciding what goes in, what gets left out is interesting, sometime excruciating, intellectual work. Your story about updating your survey to include 9/11 and the new world disorder is my story, too, Jonathan. But the problem of content is not the only intellectual problem of the survey, though many history teachers talk like it is. HOW to teach the content we select is the more demanding intellectual problem. If anyone wonders how this could be so, or whether it so, check out the wiggins & mctighe book referenced by hcr. Applying the lessons of backwards design in that approach makes taking oral field exams for the phd seem like a breeze.

pingela said...

I happened to run into my high school history teacher the other day, and he says that my old school has "solved" this problem by eliminating US history before 1900 -- they only teach from 1900 to the present. Which leaves you time to cover modern history in depth, but I don't see how you can even teach that span on its own -- the entire first half of the 20th century doesn't make any sense if you don't have the context of the industrial revolution and America's rise to dominance and imperialism.

I like your solution much better -- to decide which things have to be covered in less depth -- but it's a much more difficult approach. But I applaud you for making that effort. And for recognizing that history has to extend farther as new generations come in. My high school curriculum barely covered Watergate, and had nothing at all about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Which made it really difficult to connect events from the 70s to the modern world, if you were 8 when the Wall fell and remember essentially nothing about it. t

Andrea said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post, and I also appreciate the follow-up discussion. Steven Cromack's idea works well, I think, because it forces higher-level thinking (drawing comparisons and contrasts between events that thus demand a student's facility with the facts at hand), and I agree that the textbook becomes increasingly unimportant to the way that we teach U.S. history, as Jonathan wrote in his follow-up comment.

Anonymous said...

I teach Western Civilization in a small high school, so my challenge is to cover 4,000 years in one school year!

When I started teaching four years ago (second career) I did well to squeeze in one day on the Cold War at the very end of the school year. This spring I realized I'm making the classic mistake that my high school teachers made 30 years ago - I'm not teaching my students about the world into which they will graduate.

This year I'm rearranging some topics so that I can teach my students about post-Cold War Europe. Unfortunately, that means we'll spend less time with the ancient Greeks and Romans. I feel the trade-off is worth it, though, as learning about modern Europe will be much more relevant to my 21st-century students.