My Attempt at a New Approach to the U.S. Survey Course

As I mentioned earlier this year, I decided to do something different with my U.S. survey course this semester. It’s not the uncoverage model that I’ve written about before, but an experiment in trying to integrate historical methods and skills with historical content. I’m still not sure how well it is working out, but here are my reflections so far.

I decided to spend the first six class periods discussing historiography and historical methods, with the seventh devoted to an exam over the material. To help the students, I assigned Robert C. Williams’ The Historian’s Toolbox, 3rd ed.

Some things worked well. The discussion of what constituted history and bias went very well. I also blew my students’ minds (and mine, if I’m honest) by rearranging the tables and chairs so that the students faced one another so that they could discuss several controversial historical scenarios (the Confederate battle flag, the Washington Redskins name, and eugenics). The idea seemed to engage the students, but it was logistically difficult to do everything that I wanted to do with forty students in 75 minutes.

If I had it to do over again, I would do a couple of things differently.

1. Instead of using a textbook, I would assign chapters or essays from various sources. Williams’ book is good at times, but it also is very choppy. My impression is that the students found it difficult to follow.

2. Students seemed very uncomfortable with not jumping right to traditional historical content. Despite my attempts to explain the rationale behind talking about the historical process before addressing the content, I don’t think students bought into the idea.

One other challenge that has left me puzzled is what to do when I teach the second part of the U.S. survey in the spring semester. I typically have a significant number of students who take both halves of the U.S. survey from me, so it doesn’t make sense to discuss the same things again. On the other hand, I always have new students who won’t have the methodological foundation that my repeat students will have. Any suggestions that you might have on dealing with any of these problems would be welcome.

I’m conducting midterm evaluations next week, so I should be able to find out if my assumptions about the class so far are correct.

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2 Replies to “My Attempt at a New Approach to the U.S. Survey Course”

  1. I have done something like this in my early US survey course. I found using Davidson and Lytle, After the Fact to be a useful way to integrate both content and historical methodology into the class. For a 75 minute class I would give a lecture for about 40 minutes then 5 or 6 times a semester discuss a chapter that corresponded generally to what I lectured on. I wasn’t able to do much small group activity for a class of 50 students but did find we had useful discussions. I did not give a whole exam on methodology but did give a couple small quizzes and one response paper. Their book also covers the second half of the survey with different methodological issues so could be useful for the repeat students.

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