Reimagining US History

 A case study in the promise and perils of course redesign.

July 13, 2015

This summer, I am designing a U.S. history survey course for online delivery at scale – maintaining chronological sweep while eschewing lectures and emphasizing active learning.

Before arriving at college, the typical Texas freshman has already twice taken a course in U.S. history: in 5th grade and 11th grade. Yet another course in U.S. history strikes many as redundant. Worse yet, too many consider history boring and irrelevant.

Too often, the state-mandated history course fails to alter their opinion. Few come away from this course with a love of history, a firm command of American history’s chronology, or the competencies that characterize history as a discipline: the ability to conduct research, critically analyze primary source, place events in contextual, and understand continuity and change over time.

So what might a reimagined survey look like – and what are the challenges that lie ahead?

The course I am designing is built around a simple premise: That the most effective way to learn history is to do history. Instead of being be a passive recipient of knowledge, a student will become a detective, a researcher, a myth buster, a problem solver, and a forensic scientist.

I want my students to investigate some of history’s most gripping mysteries and take part in some of history’s biggest debates. I want them to uncover the hidden history behind front page headlines as well as the stories behind everyday rituals and customs and songs. I also want them to critically examine Hollywood’s version of the past and explore the uneasy relationship between academic history and popular memory -- the traditions and popular misconceptions that exert a much more powerful grip on our imagination than does any history book.

After much thought, I developed a template for the course’s modules.  Each module contains a historical overview and background reading, followed by a series of active learning components:

Historical Debates
Students will enter a longstanding controversy raised by a particular period, drawing on primary source documents.

History Through Sight and Sound
Students will investigate the rich potential of art, music, and photography to provide fresh insights into American history and culture.

Reading Maps
Students will see what maps can tell us about the growth of geographical knowledge; the topography, resources and transportation networks of a geographical areas; the history of exploration and discovery; the process of migration; alterations in the natural environment; military tactics, and the distribution of social and political phenomena.

What If…
Students examine how American history might have been different if a single event had turned out differently.

Ethical Judgments
Students will wrestle with a complex, often troubling moral dilemmas posed by the history of a particular era.

Doing History Through…
Students will use an unconventional historical source to solve a historical mystery, answer a question, or trace change over time.

Hollywood Versus History
After viewing historically significant film clips, the students will evaluate how a particular Hollywood film treated a specific historical episode.

Reading Primary Sources
Students will reconstruct history through first-person testimony.

This outline makes these activities sound abstract, but in practice, the activities involve certain circumscribed topics. For instance, one example of history through the headlines involves the ongoing controversy over statues commemorating leaders of the Confederacy on the University of Texas at Austin campus.

Among the historical controversies that students will address is one that focuses on the essay contest that brought Jean-Jacques Rousseau to public attention: Whether the discovery of the New World enhanced or worsened human happiness. An ethical dilemma that students will analyze is why Alexander Hamilton took part in a duel with Aaron Burr despite his staunch opposition to the practice.

I dwell at length on the course’s details because it underscores the challenges faculty face in reengineering their classes.

1. The time demands: I am fortunate: Over the past decades I created a host of resources on my Digital History website (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu) that I can repurpose. Few junior faculty members are in a position to do this.

2. The production process: At most campuses, instructional designers and educational technologists will assist in placing materials online. But it is rare to have access to a team that includes content curators, assessment specialists, and developers of animations, simulations, and interactive learning experiences.

3. The students: An activity-driven course, without lectures, challenges student expectations. Learning by doing is invariably more stressful than passively absorbing and memorizing content.  Upsetting expectations is often a recipe for student discontent.

4. Grading and feedback at scale: One of my goals is to demonstrate that a writing-intensive course built around active learning can be scaled. But successfully implementing such a course won’t be easy. Even when the writing prompts are highly specific and the length of responses is limited, it will be difficult to provide students with the kind of prompt feedback they expect.  There are ways to address this challenge, but many inflict a cost. I can cut back on feedback, reduce the number of modules, or substitute multiple choice questions for written responses. I can also include some ungraded assignments, use some form of peer grading, or experiment with auto-grading.

5. Student engagement: Unless an online or self-paced course has a powerful social dimension, many students will feel disconnected and disengaged. One task that lies ahead is implementing collaborative projects or activities involving teams or cohorts or live, synchronous events to promote engagement.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.


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