Assumptions and the Survey Course

My four year old is oh-so-helpfully sitting beside me while I write this blog post.  I told him I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about and he helpfully told me I should write about something “I really want to write.” Thanks kid.

Mostly he is mad because he wants to type nonsense words and have me attempt to pronounce them.  It is his favorite “computer game” and his endless fascination with letter combinations never ceases to impress me.  Thank goodness for his innate curiosity because a few comments on my course evaluations have me thinking hard about how we convey the purpose of history and particularly the history survey to our students.

Most semesters I get a few disgruntled comments from students who want me to give them The. Answer. Instead of spending time thinking about interpretations and nuance.  I shrug my shoulders at those responses and accept that I’m never going to convince all my students to appreciate me and my discipline.  This year, however, my evaluations included not just those frustrated that history didn’t come with clear answers but assertions that my job was about providing answers and not about making students question information.  Of course there were lovely comments too, but this insistence on answers and not questions combined with some discussions my program has been having about the purpose of our survey courses has led me to think about the assumptions my students and I bring into class.

I have always approached the American history survey course as an opportunity to have students confront their preconceived notions about America and Americans first and a way to show them alternative historical narratives secondly.  This approach means that my course is taught differently than our world history survey classes which generally assume that students start the course with almost no subject knowledge and will become better “global citizens” and critical thinkers by learning content alongside interpretation. My survey ends up being about assessing current beliefs as much as making new interpretations while the other history survey course is about building new knowledge.

The classroom for my course is the place we can explore students’ fundamental beliefs and assumptions; in other words, I ask them what they think a lot.  I also ask them what they know and how what we are discussing fits into their previous base of knowledge.  My first goal in the classroom has always been to acknowledge their implicit biases and then to help them construct new narratives.  There are consequences to this process; my students leave class with fewer pages of notes because there is less lecture, they have fewer “real answers” and more tools for forming their own opinions and narratives.

As a product of a liberal arts school and now a professor at a liberal arts school, I have brought my own assumptions into the classroom; particularly, the assumption that even though survey-level students may not know exactly what a liberal arts education is they have heard enough people talk about critical thinking and discussion-based classes to understand that they will be involved in knowledge-production in my classroom.  I have rarely taken the time to spell out my approach to students because, again, I assumed I didn’t have to.

I wonder if that is a dangerous assumption.  My students no longer have my four year olds’ insatiable curiosity and many of them feel parental and economic pressures that I didn’t face in the early 2000s.  Many of them assume that college is where they prove their ability to work a white collar job through hard work and good grades.  Others (however misguidedly) see the only real path to success through STEM majors and business degrees and my survey class is a hoop they have to jump through.  While these attitudes were common when I taught at a large public school—I assumed they would be less common at a SLAC.  I am beginning to think I was wrong.

This is only one of many assumptions I make about my classroom.  What assumptions do you make about the survey course? Your students? Your own teaching?

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