As my university goes through program prioritization and redesigns its undergraduate core curriculum to feature all the right buzzwords, I’m once again reminded of how broken the history survey course has become. I’m not the first to say it, nor will I be the last, but the thought woke me up again at 3:30 this morning, so I’m writing about it here.
English departments figured this out a while ago. They wrestled with the canon, yet–in my experience at least, as an English major and a former lit and comp instructor–they settled on a wide variety of representative works in their lower-division survey courses rather than pretending to cover literature comprehensively. In the broadest surveys that serve more non-majors than majors, there’s some poetry, drama (often Shakespeare), short fiction, and a novel or two. Maybe some creative nonfiction. But no one is pretending to offer any kind of coverage beyond “hey, here are some samples of a few genres that have proven particularly significant over time.”
I’m noticing the opposite is the case in many history surveys. Textbooks purport to share a comprehensive narrative. Publishers’ supplementary materials (ugh) offer quizzes that are more about fact acquisition than any skills listed on the top half of Bloom’s taxonomy–as if the point of the history survey is to ensure students know what caused the Panic of 1837, or what happened during the Salem witch trials, or that Gettysburg is often seen as the turning point of the Civil War.
Recently, my university revised its general ed requirements, and in order for a course to count toward those requirements, we had to send department faculty to a course design institute to ensure the courses met university-wide learning outcomes. I was actually fine with that, as we were allowed to be pretty damn vague about what would go on in each section of a course–e.g., “assessments may include, but are not limited to, essays, exams, and group presentations.” Recently, however, the people who run that program appear to have added another wrinkle: formative and summative assessments. Quantitative formative and summative assessments, across course sections.
And so one of my colleagues took the initiative to develop a proposed assessment for one of the survey courses we moved into the new core. It was a 10- to 15-question quiz that asked students to demonstrate some basic knowledge that any eighth grader who has just finished a (very) traditional Western Civ class should be able to pass. The idea is that students would take the exact same multiple-choice quiz at the beginning and end of the course, and voilà! We can measure and document learning with the quiz scores.
The gap between the university’s assumptions about teaching and what I think works grows ever wider.
I’m teaching the first “half” (Pleistocene to 1877) of the U.S. history survey this semester. It’s my third time teaching this course, and I struggle with it every damn time, particularly in the first six weeks or so of the semester, when I’m trying to adjust students’ expectations of what a history course is and their understanding of what a history course does.
The course schedule looks fairly traditional: readings from a textbook (I know, I know–I vacillate on this; I didn’t use one last time, and next time I’ll drop it again), punctuated by fairly formal writing assignments, a midterm (an in-class essay), and final exam (also an essay). But a glance at the syllabus does not reveal at all–at all–what happens in class.
So, for example, for yesterday’s class, we read Chapter 5 of Foner’s Give Me Liberty. It’s dry, it’s boring–think Stamp Act–but when I ask students here what most interests them about history, the Revolutionary War ranks right up there with the Civil War, so I feel compelled to give a nominal nod toward coverage of the subject.
Once we were in class, I asked students to summarize what the colonists who were protesting the various British acts wanted. After the students discussed this briefly in small groups, we made a list on the board.
I then asked students if today’s Tea Party adherents, who claim the Revolutionary era as their intellectual and political legacy, are actually in line, ideologically speaking, with the original Tea Party. My students agreed that, at first glance and even with some reflection, they did, if we’re looking at their political planks. We also discussed what today’s Tea Partiers find attractive, politically and culturally, in that historical moment, at least as it’s traditionally chronicled.
But, as I said to my students, “If there’s one thing you take away from this course, I hope it’s that when someone is drawing conclusions from history for political ends, you say, ‘It’s actually more complicated than that.'”
So, my next question for students was, “How does today’s Tea Party perceive and use Revolutionary-era history? And why does it matter how Tea Partiers represent history?”
We watched two videos that feature history as told by Tea Party darlings Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck:
The first is an easy one for students to analyze, Colbert’s enjoyable theatrics aside: Sarah Palin is a big Second Amendment rights advocate, and she tells a popular story in a way that emphasizes her concerns and inflates their importance.
The second is more complicated. Glenn Beck talking about black history in early America? And taking a vaguely art historical approach? What the hell rabbit hole have we fallen into here? On the surface, he’s asking for the same thing Clarence Walker does in Mongrel Nation, which we read last week: that Africans and African Americans be fully integrated into our stories of the founding of the American republic because it will change how we understand American history and race relations.
I encourage you to watch the video; it’s a very rich text that, on close reading, yields all kinds of insights into the hopes and fears–but mostly fears–of the Tea Party.
The first thing I highlight for students is that Beck is arguing for less emphasis on slavery as central to the black experience in the United States. As he explicates various paintings, Beck (along with everyone’s favorite early American historian, David Barton) names the African-American men depicted in them, then asks why we focus so much on slavery in telling the stories of black lives.
(Hint: Every single African American Beck names in that clip was a slave.)
My students and I talked about why Beck wants to downplay slavery, why Beck might believe the Tea Party should take an interest in black history at this time, and why this black history instead of the history Beck dismisses rather casually (Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement). It was a lively discussion among students from a broad political spectrum.
If this course were in the university’s new core–which many are arguing it should be, if only to keep enrollment up–how would we assess these students, formatively and summatively, in a quantitative way? Hell, I struggle to assess such learning qualitatively.
I feel just as some of us were beginning to push back successfully against the content coverage model that keeps student learning low–very low–on Bloom’s taxonomy, university administrators and the state board of ed (which, alas, controls all public education in Idaho, not just K-12) once again demonstrate they have no idea whatsoever what the humanities are or what they do for students.
Idaho in particular needs students who can engage in informed, reflective civic discourse, not students who can parrot information from a textbook or lecture. (Our statehouse is filled with party-line parrots.) My students would do miserably on formative and summative assessments like those proposed by my colleague. But which kind of person would you rather have participating in our democracy–a student who shows one-semester improvement on a quiz, or one who can thoughtfully evaluate politicians’ and pundits’ motivations for deploying history in political discourse?