Energizing the History Survey

Professors say even introductory courses should make students think like historians.

January 10, 2017
 

DENVER -- Students and professors tend to loathe survey-style history courses for the same reasons: they’re often large and impersonal, cover long periods of time in little detail, and amount to a slew of dates, events and names over something more meaningful. Yet (or perhaps as a result) survey courses are, for many undergraduates, the only history courses they’ll ever take.

Can the history survey be invigorated? A series of sessions offered over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association seemed to ask and answer that question, in the affirmative.

“A lot professors don’t want to teach a survey class, but I take the opposite view,” said Kyle Longley, the Snell Family Dean’s Distinguished Professor of History at Arizona State University. “It’s an opportunity to recruit majors.” Longley spoke during a session on teaching the U.S. history survey in a global context; he and other panelists said the approach has become increasingly popular during the last two decades and promotes making connections and other aspects of historical thinking. It doesn’t mean abandoning U.S. history, but rather situating key events, ideas and figures within a more international context. So parallels may be drawn between the Jim Crow U.S. South and South Africa under apartheid, for example.

Global Spin on U.S. History

Laura A. Belmonte, chair of history at Oklahoma State University and co-author of a new textbook, Global Americans, said the global dimension also helps students re-examine aspects of U.S. history with which they’re already familiar. “It’s a different spin,” she said. “They have to fundamentally rethink things.”

Charles Cavaliere, executive editor at Oxford University Press, said he wondered whether survey courses should even be called survey courses anymore. “Turning the course into an introduction to the history discipline or the professions might be a better idea, and taking a global approach is a powerful way to do that.”

Longley said the more global take on U.S. history is here to stay, but questions going forward include “How much farther do we go, how much father can we go, and still write a very good narrative? … What’s the resistance on the other end?”

Resistance to this kind of U.S. history was on the minds of several other panelists, including Belmonte, who mentioned the recent, related controversy over revisions to the new Advanced Placement U.S. History framework. While she acknowledged that globalizing the American story poses challenges to American exceptionalism, she said it also provides opportunities to highlight it. “The global ramifications of the Declaration of Independence -- it’s a remarkable story how other countries were affected by that,” for example, she added.

Fellow panelist James Sabathne, a history teacher at Hononegah Community High School in Illinois, added, “Realistically, you cannot prove American exceptionalism, if that is your goal, without bringing in some evidence.”

Beyond political concerns, Belmonte and others shared practical challenges associated with trying to improve upon the survey course. It’s always hard to decide what to teach and what to leave out, they said, and globalizing U.S. history adds another layer of complexity.

“I remain struck by how difficult this is,” she said. “You can’t really talk about the global ramifications of the Declaration of Independence if you don’t understand it in context. … The practicality of doing this is something that forces you to make choices.”

Longley said he relies on a good textbook to cover the basics, then focuses class discussions on themes and models. He avoids lectures and uses the Socratic method, and tries to humanize concepts. Many of his students in Arizona are already attuned to immigration, for example, he said, but he also has included in his syllabus a novel about a Mexican immigrant, The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez.

Similarly, Belmonte said she relies on case studies, aided by a recent “explosion” in scholarship with a transnational bent. She also tries hook students who may have never traveled abroad by starting with a local reference point -- Walmart, movies or Sriracha sauce, for example -- and then linking it to both American and global history.

Fun fact: Sriracha’s mother brand, Huy Fong Foods, is named after the freighter that brought founder David Tran and thousands of other Vietnamese refugees to the U.S. in the late 1970s. Another fun fact: Belmonte said Soviet officials used the film version of The Grapes of Wrath to promote the idea that capitalism leads to economic and social ills, but many citizens were left instead with the impression that in the U.S., even the destitute have pickup trucks.

“You see how easily this can get weedy pretty quickly,” Belmonte said. But the result of thoughtful curation is “incredibly rich material, and students connect with it.”

Regarding coverage, or depth and width of a course, Sabathne said that history teachers have “never covered everything -- we’ve never been able to. We’ve always been lying. The best thing is to be really considerate about it.”

Making Comparisons

Another survey-focused session centered on encouraging students to think historically by making comparisons, either between perspectives represented in texts and sources; individuals, events and developments; or across periods of time and locations. The panel was led by Lawrence G. Charap, senior director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at the College Board, who said AP courses now place a much bigger emphasis on historical thinking, including making comparisons, than on mere facts.

Angela A. Lee, a teacher of history at Weston High School in Massachusetts, echoed the American history panel, in reverse, saying that she makes specific connections to U.S. history in her world history class. That’s including in a unit focused on Indian Ocean trading patterns. The professors in the audience somewhat awkwardly obeyed her instructions to form groups and discuss how various regions were impacted by the introduction of trade, but quickly came to life as they brainstormed answers. Elaborate slides featuring maps and traded goods served as a backdrop to Lee’s presentation.

In contrast, Christopher Capozzola, associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, kept his PowerPoint spare, as he said he does in class. It’s a way to encourage students to search for historical texts and media in class, instead of using social media or otherwise tuning out. He also asks students to visualize things, he said, such as one American car and one Soviet car. (Go ahead, picture that Ford F-150 and that Yugo -- we’ll get back to them.)

To illustrate how he encourages historical thinking through making comparisons in his survey classes, Capozzola presented a talk called “The Cold War as a Question of Scale: Contexts and Comparisons.” Calling the Cold War a “fundamentally comparative enterprise,” Capozzola said it can be looked at through the lens of American history, European history or world history, respectively, and whichever one gravitates to first tells something about one’s view of the conflict. Next, Capozzola said he asks students to think “with” the Cold War (for example, that it’s a political conflict between economic superpowers) and “against” the Cold War (for example, that “cold” is a “lazy” adjective, since it was anything but in, say, the sciences, or that Germany was arguably more united by the Berlin Wall in the long run than it was divided), before they think “about” the Cold War.

Capozzola said he was recently able to realize a dream of co-teaching the Cold War with a colleague who reached the 1950s in her Soviet History class at about the same time he reached the period in his modern U.S. history survey course. The collaboration further enabled him to ask students to think about not only what was different between the Soviet Union and the U.S. but what was the same. Behind the Iron Curtain, for example, cars were considered an achievement of the industrial state, but also a threat to the collective paradigm.

Recalling a recent reference by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the so-called Kitchen Debate of 1959, Capozzola said the Cold War also represents an engaging opportunity for students to compare the past with the present. “Are current U.S.-Russia relations like the Cold War or different?” he asked.

Surveys for Nonmajors

Another session called “The Grass Is Greener Where You Water It: Recruitment and Retention in the Undergraduate History Major” also had implications for the survey course. Moderator Catherine O’Donnell, associate professor of history at Arizona State, said prior to the panel that her department has created freshman courses for majors that aren’t surveys. That’s not because the university is anti-survey, but because many majors test out of such courses through programs they took in high school. For students who do take surveys, the university is developing an early American history course that uses adaptive software and active learning, such as debates and role-playing, to enliven the process.

“My sense is that improving courses for majors and improving surveys are linked, in that thinking clearly about what both sets of courses should offer and to whom they should offer it is better than trying to have every course serve every purpose for every student,” she said.

Maria Montoya, an associate professor of history at New York University who moderated the U.S. history survey panel, also said many of her survey students are nonmajors, for similar reasons. But historical and critical-thinking skills are still important to instill in, say, business majors, she said.

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