Unexpected experiment this last semester. I had two classes on the same topic (Am. Hist. II) at two different schools. I used two different textbooks and attempted two different approaches to teaching this survey.
At the Community College (CC), I used The American Journey, and they read one or two chapters per week. I guess you might call this “coverage,” meaning that we strove to get a comprehensive picture of historical events between 1865 and now. In class, I used directed discussions to reinforce what they had read. (I also used weekly online quizzes to compel them to actually read. And that worked.) I’m not certain how the students felt about the actual textbook, but I like it. The chapters obviously reflect the latest historigraphical trends, are engagingly written, and—happily—emphasize those things in American history that I like to teach. (For instance—the continuity and, ahem, evolution, of the conservative sensibility from before Scopes and beyond. The model of conflating the “60s” and “70s” as one giant headache—the stagnation of the New Deal coalition—is refreshing, and makes a perfect foil for understanding the Reagan Revolution.) The problem here is that after a quick discussion of the main points, that was pretty much it. Class over. (CC class, once a week after everyone comes from a full time job, is not the place to assign extra reading or keep them in class once we’ve got past the primary intellectual struggle.)
This is all real nice and ordinary, but compare it to my Four Year College (FYC) class. For them, I assigned the Major Problems book, plus a raft of articles from J-Stor. For those who don’t know, the Major Problems books are not comprehensive historical narratives, but chronologically arranged considerations of a “major question” about time periods in the American past. The chapters contain about a dozen primary sources, and two historical essays that (ideally) argue opposing points. I wasn’t really practicing the “uncoverage” model of survey teaching, but using the MP book eschews a comprehensive narrative in favor of analytical focus on discrete parts of the story.
And that was the problem. For most of the FYC students, this was the first, and probably only, history class they would take. And most of them were not liberal arts majors. (This is about the only thing they shared with the CC students.) So, they were completely unprepared to jump into deep analytical discussions of turning points in American History. They largely didn’t know American History. In museums, we might say that they were not afforded an opportunity to become oriented to their surroundings. And this became a major stumbling block in the first half of the semester as I pressed them to consider aspects of industrialization or immigrant life while they had absolutely no concept of what it even meant to be in the 1880s. No safety net of a popular song or style, no life raft of recognizable president or event, no toe-hold on a defining characteristic of an age. (Demonstrating in a small way that historical thinking truly is an unnatural act.)
I became frustrated as the discussions foundered and the students obviously didn’t know what to do. (I’m going to discuss this particular problem in another post.) I wanted desperately to chuck the MP book* and just give them The American Journey book because that would provide a large framework for understanding where we were and what is going on. Orientation is good, but this felt like a backwards step in the pedagogy of history. We solved this by cutting back on analytical discussion and introducing “coverage lectures,” wherein I devoted lots of class time to…well…traditional lecturing, in an attempt to provide students a starting point. I think this worked, as the analytical discussion of the MP essays and documents became shorter, but far more rewarding (particularly as they blended with my lectures.)
*If Ed Blum is reading this…don’t worry, I didn’t, and I’ll use this book again.
Point is, I felt like the comprehensive narrative reading and approach conveyed best the important points in American history that students need to know. But teaching surveys is decidedly headed away from this approach. I eventually reached a point at the FYC where I felt comfortable with using the MP book, but that happened because I devoted more time to preparing for class, and didn’t get a thing done on my dissertation.
The other point is this: FUTURE EMPLOYERS—I am flexible, always learning and experimenting, and always turning to SOTL to improve my classes. This is a thing you want in a department member.