Blogs > Cliopatria > Teaching the Survey

Apr 24, 2006 4:55 pm


Teaching the Survey



I'm part of CUNY's US History Initiative, which seeks to develop web-based modules for use in US history survey classes. Some of the modules are very good (for instance, on the Constitution or this entry on American evangelicalism in the early Republic). The project as a whole is a reminder that there's nothing irreconcilable between pegadogical innovation and maintaining academic rigor.

I thought of the initiative this morning in reading a piece in Inside Higher Ed on a panel devoted to teaching the survey at OAH. As our colleague Jon Dresner pointed out in the comments section,"nearly every 'new' technique mentioned draws directly on methodologies and themes of scholarship that’s been 'new' for at least two or three decades now: biographical portraits of non-elites; microhistory; material culture history; public history; etc." Incorporating historiography, then, automatically achieves"innovation."

Other suggestions at the panel, however, are a reminder that"new" and"innovative" do not necessarily mean"good." Thomas Bender advocated"one-semester survey courses where research and interpretation are the focus. Bender said universities should assume students are armed with a basic knowledge of history and shouldn’t 'chase [them] away with information they already know.'" In practical terms, at an institution like CUNY, this would mean assuming that students have gotten sufficient background on US history from the New York City high schools, a fanciful notion. But even at a school like Bender's NYU, a place exists for a course that provides students--especially non-majors--with an opportunity to get basic survey knowledge about the American past. Bender's recommendation--a one-semester class with research and interpretation the focus--sounds like most upper-division electives, not a survey.

Even more peculiar was a suggestion from Gayle Olson-Raymer, a professor at Humboldt State University. In her US since 1865 survey this term, Olson-Raymer said that she devoted the class on the civil rights movement to"a classroom debate about the U.S. House of Representatives' immigration bill," with students researching the history of immigration reform as part of their presentations. “Pedagogy tells us if you give students more responsibility, they’ll rise to the challenge,” she said.

The Olson-Raymer lesson plan exemplifies the dangers in the"skills" movement that currently exists in hgiher education. The students in her assignment certainly learned some oral skills, some critical thinking, and some research skills. They also, no doubt, absorbed their professor's belief that the current debate over immigration reform is a" civil rights" issue--as opposed, say, to a labor issue or a border security matter. But the class that Olson-Raymer described did nothing to teach the students about the civil rights movement--probably the single most important topic in a post-1865 survey. Innovation shouldn't be a substitute for content.

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Robert KC Johnson - 4/26/2006

Good catch--should have taken a look for it. The immigration assignment isn't even listed there--perhaps that's in the student presentation section.

A course on US history since 1865 with a requirement that paper topics can only deal with events since 1970? TWO Howard Zinn books as the chief readings for the class?

The course themes (http://www.humboldt.edu/~go1/hist111/themes.html) also make for interesting reading: it's not hard to see how this class is being taught.


Timothy James Burke - 4/26/2006

If you look at her syllabus online, I think her course probably does teach about the civil rights movement rather than just suborning it to background in the current debate over immigration. But on the other hand, the class definitely has a very, very strong ideological slant, so your concern in other ways may be justified.

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