Whither the Survey (broadly speaking)?

I’ve been spending a lot of time, along with others, thinking about innovative ways to tackle the survey. I teach the second half of the US survey (the version at my institution starts in 1877), and I can’t imagine the problems I face are all that different from those instructors face across institutions. Coverage or uncoverage? Textbook and lecture; themes and primary sources; question based format?

Personally, I have found myself vacillating quite a lot, as my recent post on Scavenging the Survey demonstrates. On the one hand, I like lecturing. I think I’m good at it (though maybe I just like to think that way). I like being able to present students with a well structured, reasoned argument that gives them a new perspective on what their textbook reading might otherwise indicate. I also enjoy discussing primary documents, pulling them apart, getting students to understand how we piece together evidence from the past.

Yet these pedagogical approaches to The Survey, in my case, US 1877-present, lead me to another question about the structure of curriculum. Aren’t surveys inherently flawed in their structure? As Jonathan Rees points out at The Historical Society blog, the to-the-present courses keep getting bigger, and at some point something has got to go. Of course, those of us offering a survey of 125 or so years of events have it easy; consider the amusement park ride through world history that begins at the dawn of time to the 1500s. My colleagues teaching World Civilizations would likely point and laugh at my angst. But aren’t there other issues with these courses that go beyond my shenanigans to try and make it to the present?

As a College Board study published in 2005 by the AHA suggests, from course offerings to themes covered to exam structure, the study “demonstrate[s] remarkable stability and uniformity in the design and structure of the U.S. and European history introductory courses.” Indeed, Robert Townsend concludes, “There was little shift in chronological and topical breakout of the courses from past survey data collected in the 1990s, and faculty tended to agree on the major chronological and topical subdivisions.” We historians seem to be pretty set in our ways, no?

I’ve been looking at the way history departments structure their introductory courses. A few have done away with the survey structure surveyed by the College Board that I describe above (I’m compiling a list, which includes Carnegie Mellon and a few others) and replace them with thematic courses. Most offer some variation of the same: World Civ I, II, and II, US I and II. My alma mater of Vanderbilt University broke their US survey into four chronological parts offered at the introductory level, and added a joint major in Economics and History where students take history of American Enterprise. Their extensive offerings of focused introductory level courses have expanded, though the structure is not radically different from when I was an undergraduate.

Is the time coming when we will be rethinking and doing away with this structure? If we are to sell the importance of the humanities and the study of history — even if we radically restructure these classes and their approach — it seems we have some heavy lifting to do. If non-history majors only take one or two history courses in college, are there better ways to structure, and perhaps more significantly, market these courses? I offer this not just as a thought in the ongoing conversation about how to battle (or coexist) with MOOCs, but as a way to rethink introductory history courses in general.

If given the keys to the Chancellor’s office and all the compliance in the world: how would you restructure these courses? What would they look like? Assuming a blank slate, how would you structure and market introductory history courses to convince non-majors that history ain’t so bad, and to lure in new majors across concentrations?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s