Moving Forward with the Introductory History Course: Reflections from Texas

Every student currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a public college or university in Texas is required to complete six credit hours of US history, a standard that suggests more uniformity than it delivers. Conceived in 1955, when the Cold War had focused attention on the need to educate citizens for democracy, the six-credit rule has again become the focus of political discussion. Last August, the AHA’s Texas Conference on Introductory History Courses provided a forum for university and community college faculty, graduate students, and dual-credit high school teachers to bring their distinct and often considerable experience to bear on a conversation about the future and efficacy of college-level history surveys in different institutional settings. To get an idea of how various historians will use the insights from the conference, we asked a few to offer their own thoughts. Read their full posts online.

Imagining an Uncoverage Model

Nancy E. Baker, an associate professor of history who regularly teaches 220-seat surveys at Sam Houston State University, described the conference as simultaneously “unsettling and energizing.” Because the number of undergraduates choosing a history major at her school has declined in recent years, Baker and her colleagues are increasingly alert to “the importance of survey courses in the recruitment of undergraduate history majors.” And though Baker remains sympathetic to the concern that a “survey could be students’ only chance to learn the narrative of US history,” she was also intrigued by a theme that emerged throughout the conference, beginning with Lendol Calder’s keynote (listen online): that successful surveys aim for “depth rather than breadth,” forgoing the traditional goal of “comprehensive coverage.” After devising a list of goals during a small group discussion with high school history teachers who teach a dual-credit course, as well as community college instructors and university professors, Baker realized that for every participant, regardless of setting, “skills such as critical reading, the ability to paraphrase a document, and the knowledge of correct citation of sources” outweighed the value of narrative sweep or specific content. Baker looks forward to “experimenting with an uncoverage model” in her own surveys.

Addressing Diverse Needs

The conference made abundantly clear to Penne Restad, distinguished senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, that “despite broad similarities, we teach as individuals responding to complex learning environments.” In other words, the same survey course is often asked to satisfy very different needs. For some instructors, “this means using primary source readers to move students beyond memorizing ‘time, people, and places.’” Other instructors aim first to help high school students become “college literate.” Still others, hired to teach US history but trained in other fields, “are themselves learning new lessons.” Despite this diversity Restad, like Baker, watched many conference participants find common goals, chief among them a staunch commitment to teaching “good writing” and “critical thinking.”

Promoting the Discipline

J. Kent McGaughy teaches history and geography at the Northwest campus of Houston Community College and, like Baker, is dedicated to helping reverse the decline in history enrollments. McGaughy is particularly concerned that the Texas legislature not “abandon the six-hour history requirement in favor of the model used by every other state.” With that concern in mind, McGaughy would like to find better ways of conveying the discipline’s potential to those outside it—from skeptical colleagues to undecided majors and potential employers. McGaughy believes that a “focus on the skills that the history discipline offers that are applicable in virtually every other field” will help “promote the history degree as a gateway to success anywhere,” thereby enhancing “the vitality and value of the history requirement.”

Taking New Approaches to Teaching

Nicholas Roland brought a graduate student’s perspective to the proceedings, no small matter for a conference dedicated to rethinking the discipline’s future. Persuaded by several speakers that “students don’t retain much from a coverage model,” Roland is now interested in new pedagogical models. The conference gave him several to choose from. One speaker described a survey structured around “in-depth blocks,” in which students “take part in critical inquiry exercises with primary documents.” Professor Emilio Zamora (talk available online) described emphasizing “his own positionality with his students at the outset of the course,” encouraging them to reconsider “the ways in which their own lives are intimately connected to the past.” Along with the use of oral history assignments, this method aimed “to build empathy in students, a critical if often overlooked component of a liberal arts education.”

Incorporating a Global Perspective

Meanwhile, Gerald Betty, who teaches history at the two-year Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and also participated in the AHA Bridging Cultures project, stepped back from the immediacy of credit hours and teaching strategies to consider the global implications of history surveys. Occasions for “bringing the world into the US survey” abound, Betty believes, from “the Age of Exploration” to “studies of international revolutions, slavery, industrialization, urbanization, and social reform.” Betty too was interested in the use of “non-traditional primary sources,” from travel writing to foreign films and family genealogies. In his own surveys, Betty assigns genealogies to “get students thinking about the international origins of their ancestors,” thereby helping them “place their family history and US history in a broader global historical context.”

Reflecting on the AHA conference in the months that followed, Restad realized that she’d left with nearly as many questions as she did answers. “What should we establish—and defend—as our discipline’s boundaries?” she asks, “And on what should we yield?” Anticipating a few of McGaughy’s conclusions, Restad wonders: “should we honor the historian’s ways of knowing as useful in [their] own right, or seek to articulate and emphasize the parts of those skills specifically recognized as valuable in the marketplace?” Restad’s final question is one to ponder as we head to the annual meeting: “What shall we establish as a standard of disciplinary rigor that meets the abilities of a 14-year-old, who has just begun to dream of going to college and seeks dual-credit for the US history he has studied in high school, and a fifth-year engineering student in a top university who desperately needs, at the final moment of her college career, three more required credits of US history?” This is one of many good questions raised last summer in Texas to be discussed in Atlanta come January.

Compiled by Sarah Fenton

Contributors:

Nancy E. Baker
Gerald Betty
Penne Restad
Nicholas Roland
J. Kent McGaughy

These attendees’ full reflections, with thoughts on the conference and ideas for teaching history skills, are available on the Texas conference resources page, along with full audio of Lendol Calder’s first-day keynote, “Uncovering History in a History Survey Course,” a discussion between Trinidad Gonzales and Raymund Paredes on “History in Higher Education Policy,” and Emilio Zamora’s second-day keynote, “Empathy, Perspective, and Oral History in Teaching.”

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