The Uncoverage Approach to the U.S. Survey Course

Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk recently posted about the “uncoverage” model of teaching the U.S. history survey course.

In their 2001 article on the coverage model,  Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker describe the traditional approach to the U.S. survey course:

The dominant approach to teaching the history “survey” (as the introductory college history course is revealingly called) has long been a “coverage” model that emphasizes the transmission of knowledge from professor to student. In some cases, this knowledge is little more than a body of factual information presented in lectures and a textbook. More often, the knowledge covered includes a set of themes and concepts to be demonstrated in more analytically sophisticated exercises, such as papers and essay tests. In either case, the coverage model casts the professor (and his or her chosen texts) in the role of historical authority, with students assigned the task of absorbing and reproducing expert knowledge.

As I understand it, the uncoverage model takes the approach of trying to teach students historical skills by focusing on discrete topics or problems and helping them understand how historians deal with evidence, argument, bias, etc.

I’ve toyed with taking the uncoverage approach on a couple of occasions, but I’ve hesitated for several reasons:

  1. One of my concerns is that our assessment data indicate that many of our students do not know the basic facts of U.S. history required to tackle the uncoverage approach. Although assessment and experience satisfied Calder that his own students were not suffering from the lack of coverage in his survey courses, I’m not so confident that our freshmen  would be prepared for this approach. I’m also not sure how I would tackle their deficient knowledge of basic U.S. history.*
  2. Like Calder, I’m also concerned about the effect on history majors looking to teach at the pre-collegiate level, which describes most of our majors. His students continued to do well on certifying exams, which is cause for optimism should I go in this direction. Our students generally do quite well on the U.S. history portion of the PRAXIS, so changing something that seems to work is a concern.
  3. Another question I have concerns the chronological definition of the survey course. Calder’s 10-week survey course is defined as “U.S. History: WWII to Present.” That course would constitute one of our upper-division courses, most of which are structured to cover a limited chronological period.** The Jacksonian class, for example, covers from 1789-1848, while the Civil War class goes from 1848-1877. I wonder how our two U.S. survey courses, which last fifteen weeks and are chronologically defined, respectively, from discovery to 1876 and 1876 to the present, would fare under the uncoverage model.

What do you think about the uncoverage approach to the U.S. survey course?

* To be clear, not all of our students are deficient, but our data strongly suggest  that many of them are.

** Kevin Schultz also noted this point. H/t to John Fea for this link.

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6 Replies to “The Uncoverage Approach to the U.S. Survey Course”

  1. Mark, I have exactly the same concerns you do, albeit because of different pressures than you explain. As you know my classes are operated under the gun of that all important AP test; I would like to offer my students a college history experience where we are able to do in-depth analysis of select topics. However, before any analysis can be completed, they have to understand the basics of what we are analyzing. Then there is the uncertainty of what is going to be on the test – last year’s DBQ focused on Nixon’s responses to domestic and foreign problems facing the U.S. between 1968 & 1974. That was a pretty narrow window, and thankfully we had just recently “covered” that in class. Now I could have spent two weeks looking at that topic in class, but I have 70 class days to get from Columbus to Clinton, so it was a day looking at Nixon (as well as Johnson, Ford, and Carter). Let’s say I spent two weeks on Nixon and didn’t get any farther than that before the AP exam, and the DBQ is about how Ronald Reagan responded to foreign and domestic problems – now they’re screwed because that is 25% of their exam score. And if they’re screwed I’m screwed when my evaluation comes up next year. So coverage prevails.
    I have one more argument against the “uncoverage” model that I have had for awhile. When I first started teaching high school, integrated curriculum was all the rage. My colleagues and I worked to create interdisciplinary units that integrated English, science, and history. So we had a topic like “Outer space” and we learned about outer space in all our classes. If I’m a kid that hates outer space I want to stick a fork in my eye. Same with history. Some kids are going to find some parts more interesting than others. It is often better to see what topics interest them – provide them a survey – and build interest in topics which they can “uncover” later. Good article!

  2. Mark:

    I think the idea is that no matter how much history you do mention in lecture, that does not necessarily mean that your students will actually learn it. If a tree falls in thee forest and nobody hears it, did it really make a sound? I know it’s hard to recognize that what worked for you may be ineffective when you do it (heck, when anybody does it!), but that’s exactly what the scholarship of teaching and learning suggests.

    Besides, uncoverage doesn’t necessarily mean “no coverage.” It means you cover some important things better (in the course of teaching those skills) in the hope that that material sticks.

    I have a clear vision of hos I’m going to start doing this. I promise to post the link to my syllabus when it’s ready. However, I’m going on sabbatical in the fall (Yipee!) so I don’t have to get the whole thing ready until January.

    1. I understand your point that uncoverage doesn’t equal no coverage. Part of my dilemma is that our university is tuition dependent and lacks a tenure system. We are constantly reminded that retention is crucial and that we need to be able to prove (through assessment) that we are providing students with the education we say we are.

      Therefore, making a big change in the teaching of part of our general education core is a high-stakes decision for me, especially since I am also the history program director (our uni’s equivalent of a department chair).

  3. I agree. In my experience (teaching at a community college and state university, the students taking the survey course begin the semester with only a smattering of knowledge about US history. I think the survey should be designed to provide them a basic understanding of US history. The survey courses I have taught cover an enormous amount of material (colonial to the present), so it is difficult to incorporate much analysis. That does not mean, however, that you can’t introduce students to the historical profession by means of original sources or research topics. I have found that students enjoy a “hands on” experience with original documents. Arranging a visit to the special collections of your school’s library is a great way to show them original materials and to demonstrate what historians do

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