Spicing Up U.S. History

Professors consider ways to improve the content and teaching of survey courses.
April 24, 2006

Bring show-and-tell to the college classroom? Incorporate field trips into the syllabus? The mere mention would give many professors a good chuckle. But Sallie Shanahan, a history major who expects to graduate from the University of Maryland University College next spring, says these methods – tailored to a college audience – would work.

A former pre-school and kindergarten teacher, Shanahan regularly brought in artifacts when teaching history to her tots. As a student who previously attended the College of William and Mary, she fondly remembers a professor who took a class to Jamestown for an archeological dig. In most cases, though, Shanahan said her professors have been short on classroom innovation when teaching survey history courses.

Stopping short of criticizing the conventional lecture format, Shanahan, speaking during a session at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, said that history classes -- even introductory courses -- need an infusion of creative lesson plans that deviate from the chronological information dump. While her touch-taste-smell approach is perhaps extreme for the college setting, her concept of diversifying the curriculum drew a uniformly positive response from panelists.

“There’s a thought among historians that classrooms are just about delivering a rubric of information,” said David Settje, a history professor at Concordia University, in Illinois. “That model is old,” he said, and encourages straight memorization rather than critical thinking. “We were boring the crap out of students,” he said. “The acknowledgment is finally out there that we have to talk about how to teach.”

As a way to train students to think non-linearly, Settje said he asks them to adopt the perspective of a character from history, such as considering the Revolutionary War through the prism of a British soldier. Panelist Kathleen Riley, an associate professor at Ohio Dominican University, called for “bold experimentation” in the classroom.  She said professors have to get it out of their heads that the only way students can learn is through listening to lectures.  “I’m missing three days of classes to be here,” she told session attendees. “How will they learn the 1950s without me? Well, they can read. It’s all part of letting go.”

As part of her 19th- through 20th-century U.S. history course this spring, Gayle Olson-Raymer, a professor at Humboldt State University, asked for volunteers to participate in a classroom debate about the U.S. House of Representative’s immigration bill. (Her scheduled lesson plan for that day was the Civil Rights movement.) She instructed students to research the history of immigration reform and to present their findings as part of the debate. “Pedagogy tells us if you give students more responsibility, they’ll rise to the challenge,” said Olson-Raymer, who trains educators from junior high through college on methods of improving history instruction.

The underlying assumption, panelists at both of the sessions dedicated to teaching history survey courses agreed, is that students need more variety -- and more practice distilling and analyzing information. A recent survey by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics found that fewer than one in three graduates is considered “proficient” from a literacy standpoint.

Panelists acknowledged that today’s student is often less willing to read multiple texts for a single class, and needs instruction on how to properly conduct historical research. When one speaker mentioned that a student had used “Wikipedia,” an online encyclopedia that the general public can edit, as a definitive source, many in the audience winced.

Mari Jo Buhle, a history professor at Brown University, says it is important for faculty to choose textbooks that offer varying perspectives. “We need a synthesis that isn’t just damn fact after fact,” she said. “We have to tell multiple narratives.”

Thomas Bender, a history professor at New York University, warned that some professors who teach introductory courses try to be too broad in their syllabi and do their students a disservice by rushing through lectures. He is an advocate of one-semester survey courses where research and interpretation are the focus. Bender said universities should assume students are armed with a basic knowledge of history and shouldn’t “chase [them] away with information they already know.”

Many speakers disagreed with Bender’s premise and alluded to a great disparity in historical knowledge among students entering their freshman year. And the reality, some pointed out, is that the sheer size of lecture classes makes specificity and creativity unattainable goals.

Olson-Raymer, who still uses lecture as the primary method of teaching, said one solution is to divide up a large class into smaller segments and provide them with micro-projects. Robin Bowden, an adjunct at Cuyahoga Community College, advocates separating students into groups based on prior experience with a subject. She hands out “What do you know?” surveys on the first day of class to determine what topics need to be more rigorously covered. “We end up going in directions I never thought we would,” Bowden said.


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