From Seminars to Surveys: Cultivating Critical Thought while Teaching 250 Students

This year I’m teaching history surveys. A lot of them.

Last year, as part of a postdoctoral teaching fellowship, I taught several small, narrowly focused, writing-intensive seminars at an elite private university. The seminars were a pedagogical dream: their small size and narrow focus offered wonderful opportunities to encourage critical discussion of common material, allowed for a dynamic, flexible syllabus, and thrived on student-led discussion and activities. But what about large history surveys? How do you scale up?

Kevin M. Schultz noted on this blog some time ago
that Lendol Calder’s now-ubiquitous “Uncoverage” model grew from Calder’s experience teaching a 30-person, post-World World War II American history course—a small upper-division history course, not a large, introductory history survey (the subtitle of Calder’s article, “Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Schultz noted, was a misnomer). But Calder’s plea for targeted, active-learning history courses is a worthy one. I saw how well it worked in small seminars, and I’m trying to make it work in large surveys.
Much, I think, can be achieved through simple framing. I present the history survey itself as an intellectual challenge (What do we choose to remember? What do we choose to forget? Is there a core narrative to American history, or is it merely a never-ending series of narrow, individual experiences?). From there, I propose large, course-framing questions (Who is an American? What have “freedom” and “liberty meant to different actors?) that we return to throughout the course. And just as I organize the course around common themes, I avoid a rolling chronology of events (“one damned thing after another”) by framing individual classes around particular questions (including the old standbys: How radical was the Revolution? Was America founded as a Christian nation?). Following these threads, I hope, allows concepts, themes, and debates to emerge at the forefront of students’ conception of history.
In-class lectures offer context and introduce key questions. Although I don’t require a textbook, I recommend Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! to students who want further reading or need greater context. (If only we had a free and online, collaboratively built alternative …)
Instead, my surveys pivot around primary sources: documents, images, music, and short videos or film clips that address historical questions and problems raised at the beginning of the course or in individual classes. Each class period involves at least one major primary source (and often a small collection) and I always devote a substantial portion of class-time to discussing them. I’ve realized that debates and conversations, if moderated correctly, can work well in large classes (at least in my experience teaching surveys with fewer than 100 students). But since large class size must nevertheless stunt participation levels, I turn to the web as a supplement. Throughout the year, I have students complete online discussion assignments in which they craft historical arguments from primary materials, share them online, and respond to each other’s thoughts. We discuss several of the most popular discussions in class. The exercise is designed to allow us to carry on debates in and out of the classroom.
Throughout the course, I also assign tried-and-true, thesis-based book essays that ask students to engage large questions surrounding the production of history (in my pre-1877 surveys this year, for instance, I have students read Twelve Years a Slave to reflect on the historical role of autobiography, and a popular history of the Mexican-American War, told from the Mexican point of view, to consider how American history might appear differently if viewed from beyond its borders).
Question-based lectures, in-class primary-source discussions, online debates, tried-and-true essays: these are just some of the modest tools that I use to enliven the survey. I’m always on the lookout for new models and strategies and my courses are constantly evolving. The large history survey is great precisely because it’s challenging, and I look forward to reading about others’ experiences and suggestions throughout the year.

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