U.S. History Survey—Redesign Diary

Man, I hate it when I get a classroom that looks like this. (pexels.com)

I decided at the start of the summer that I was going to attempt a big course redesign for my fall US history surveys—the introduction to American history courses that I teach at UNCA.

I’ve been playing with around big new teaching ideas in my head for a while now, but at UNCA the case for making some changes seemed particularly urgent. The UNCA history department is rare because they speed through American history at a double clip. Each survey course—the one before the Civil War, and the other after it—is just seven weeks long, and just 2 credit hours. Teaching this sequence last year, I felt there was a disconnect between the limitation of this format and the way I was teaching the course.

So this year, I thought, why not get ambitious and try redesign? I strongly believe that gen-ed, intro history courses can be places where meaningful, social-constructivist, active learning happens. It just requires some work.

Eventually, I hope to write up my experiment in some kind of formal article or essay. But before I get there, I thought I’d start by sharing a post or two on my humble blog. For now, I’m going to share some of the questions that have been driving the redesign, as well as some questions that have been rattling around in my head more generally.

Q1: Do I Dare Diverge from the Coverage Approach?

Scholarship on learning has long challenged us to reject trying to cover everything, but shaking away the idea that content is king in the teaching of history is easier said than done. For this course redesign, I’m attempting to use a “case study” approach. So we’ll look at just four events (broadly defined) for each half of the survey, rather than covering fifteen textbook chapters and all that each chapter covers.

I’ve long said that if a documentary like “American Experience” can drop viewers into the middle of American history without too much background and pre-history, why are we so afraid to do it in class? A case study approach presumes that students don’t need to know every single thing that occurred in the seventeenth century in order to start thinking critically about the eighteenth.

That said, I am developing some bulwarks against students becoming lost. In an effort to show how history can be gleaned from a diversity of sources, students will be using various sources for context, including the Oxford Companion to U.S. History, Paul Boyer’s Very Short Introduction to US History, the online textbook The American Yawp, and yes, even John Green’s “Crash Course” videos.

I also hope that this and other practices will encourage students to seek out their own sources for background information. After all, when you or I need to get reference information, we’re probably more likely to go on the internet than open a textbook. Why should it be different for students?

Q2: Can I Get Students to Write Authentically?

One of my goals, in this course, and others, is to get around what I understand as a central problem in college—that students are expected to tell their professors what they know, knowing full well that their professors already know it.

This crucial paradox creates a rhetorical problem, in the sense that skilled writers know that they must consider who their audience is. How do you get students to write authentically when their audience knows everything that they’re about to write?

The answer is well explained, I think, in Paul Handstedt’s book Creating Wicked Students. At the core of the book is the idea that students need to be placed in situations where they are the experts.

I’ll say more about the central project that I’ve designed that I hope will solve this paradox in the future. But essentially, my idea is that each of the “case studies” will aid students in developing certain “historical thinking skills”—what in Handstedt’s paradigm might be thought of as the sub-learning goals—in order to prepare for them their projects, which are defined by the course’s central learning goal.

Q3: Can I Have Students Do Research and Avoid Writing Research Papers?

Another idea I’ve long contemplated is that research is good, but research papers are bad.

Hanstedt cites John Bean’s excellent Engaging Ideas in critiquing assignments that serve as little more than “data dumps.” I haven’t assigned a research paper in a long time, but I want my students to do research. Maybe this project that I’m cooking up can work to get students not only to do research, but to deploy what they learn in a complex and authentic manner?

Q4: Can I Get My Students Excited About Their Topics?

This might be entirely me, but I’ve found that particularly as I teach courses in which I am prone to contract the virus of coverage-obsession, I’ve let independent projects fall by the wayside. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that I enjoy grading—and students seem to enjoy writing—assignments with some amount of leeway more than those that simply ask students to synthesize course content. (I’ve also found that writing recommendation letters is much easier when students have done papers with independently chosen topics.) So this question is two-fold, perhaps—can I find space in my compressed surveys for independent work, and then can I have students do the work in a way that is supported enough to develop some excitement? All under the constrictions of seven-week, two-credit terms?

Q5: Can I Encourage Students to “Read Laterally”?

Without discoursing on the state of modern media and politics, I will say that I think it’s important to get students to look critically not just at course content, but at content out on the web too, and I think that intro history courses could be a good place to do that work. So I intend one of the “sub-skills” to be working with the various contending and contradictory narratives that we find in scholarship, but even moreso, in public history environments.

* * *

I have many more questions to pose, but I’ll end here. I’ll also note that in addition to looking at Paul Hanstedt’s book as my primary course design guidebook, I’m using several others ideas and texts from the contemporary Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, including Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Jose Bowen’s Teaching Naked Techniques, and James Lang’s Small Teaching. If you want to become more informed on contemporary teaching and learning discussions, these are all probably good places to start.

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