When I was a graduate student, one of the professors I TA’d for taught the survey like, well, a survey. We “visited” a variety of places examining not only the history but the ways in which the place had remembered that history. So, for example, we visited Santa Fe and thought critically about the Fiesta and the way the Fiesta remembered early colonial history. We visited the National Museum of the American Indian with its walls of guns and colonial Williamsburg among other locations.
The idea behind the structure was really solid—using a place to help students orient themselves to the past and then trying to help them think about the ways historical memory reinforces today’s cultural norms. Unfortunately, much of the course structure and content went over the students’ heads. They couldn’t understand why the course functioned the way it did and they weren’t really interested in trying to figure it out.
As a graduate student without a lot of teaching experience, some of the finer points of the class structure went over my head as well. I didn’t always have the ability to help my students learn and think about the topics in this unorthodox structure. I did take some pieces of the course with me—active lecture style class sessions on the way Boston and Philadelphia were built differently—but I walked away from the semester fairly confident that a “survey-style-survey” was not for me.
Now, with more years of teaching under my belt and a better sense of how to direct class discussion, I’m thinking about a “survey-style-survey” again. The idea of rooting students in a place and using that place to help them build an understanding of the time period is attractive to me. Here is what I’m thinking:
- 13 locations
- Approximately one location a week
- Monday—lecture/active lecture about the place and time period
- Wednesday—Discussion-based class looking at primary or secondary sources
- Friday—Activity-based class focused on a modern use of the past
So, for example:
- Monday—Salem, Massachusetts Lecture covering in particular Puritan belief system, the creation of the colonial governments, and the witch trials
- Wednesday—Primary source discussion using trial documents.
- Friday—Students bring in references to the witch trials in popular culture. We look at how the witch hysteria is being used, why it is being used that way, the historical accuracy of the reference, and how the hysteria shaped future generations.
I would certainly have to give up content in a course designed like this. But, I think I could gain time to really engage in critical thinking. Students would also (hopefully) learn more about how the present uses ideas about the past.
I’m not yet sold on this idea, but I want to try something new next semester. What new ideas are you thinking of trying next fall?
Bonus: Here are the places I have on my list so far. This list is really preliminary and I’d love feedback and suggestions:
- Stono, SC
- Reading, Pa
- Edenton, NC
- Danville, KY
- Washington DC
- Defiance, Oh
- Lawrence, KS
- New Orleans