By Steven Mintz
Nothing concentrates the mind, Samuel Johnson quipped in 1777, more than the prospect of a hanging. And nothing focuses the minds of instructors of history survey courses quite like flagging enrollments, a loss of majors, and student disengagement.
History survey courses, once a crucial foundation of a college’s general education curriculum and an attractive gateway for history majors and minors, are in peril as more students take these classes in high school or from various online providers and as a growing number of institutions make history one of a number of options within their undergraduate core. Worse yet, many students regard the surveys as redundant and irrelevant to the majors they seek to pursue.
Yet the real problem with many survey courses is more profound: A widespread sense that these courses do not really accomplish what the gen ed curriculum is supposed to do: cultivate cultural literacy, strengthen students critical thinking and communication skills, and develop the modes of inquiry characteristic of history as a discipline—historical thinking, historical methods, and an ability to connect past to present in a nuanced manner.
A growing recognition that the conventional approach to survey courses—lectures rooted in chronology and coverage—is failing to accomplish these larger goals has led an increasing number of faculty members to design and test new models. A recent conference organized by the Gardner Institute in Houston brought some of these fresh approaches to light.
▪ Thematically Organized Surveys: One striking example at the University of Kentucky focuses on citizenship: historical controversies over the rights of immigrants, voting rights, marriage rights, and other rights.
▪ Interdisciplinary Clusters: Georgetown, UCLA, and the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with paired and team-taught courses that combine the insights of a variety of disciplines on a topic (the 1960s, for example) or problem (climate change).
▪ Career-Aligned Pathways: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley redesigned the pathway through the biomedical sciences to emphasize professional identity formation, with students taking a history course in the history of disease and public health, a literature class on the literature of pain and illness, a philosophy course on medical ethics, and an art history class on representations of the body. The University of Texas at Austin has an introductory-level course on the history of engineering.
▪ Inquiry-Driven Approaches: The University of Michigan’s History 101, which focuses on the question “What is history?,” offers an overview of the approaches historians have taken to studying the past and how they analyze and interpret historical sources and uncover the meaning of history for life today. My own inquiry-driven US history survey course focuses on solving historical mysteries, wrestling with troubling moral dilemmas rooted in history, interpreting a wide range of historical sources (artifacts, architecture, fashion, film, hairstyles, maps, naming patterns, paintings, photographs, and political cartoons, among others), and responding to such questions as “What if?” and “How do we know?”
Equally exciting are novel approaches to assessing student learning that focus on higher-order thinking skills. One convening participant described how she created document-based multiple choice questions in which students must respond to questions about authorship, perspective, credibility, and context. Others described performance-based assessments and team-based projects, including digital stories, virtual tours, collaboratively produced class websites, podcasts, annotated texts, oral histories, and archival-based projects.
Too often, I fear, such innovations take place in a vacuum. Not only are innovations in design, pedagogy, and assessment not shared, they aren’t even widely publicized. Nor is teaching treated as a research activity, in which the efficacy of new approaches is rigorously evaluated.
The time has come, I am convinced, for the profession as a whole to truly treat pedagogy and course and assessment design as subjects that deserve just as much collective attention as conventional scholarship. We need to build on the scholarship on teaching and learning in history and generate more cross-institutional conversations about teaching. We also need to create repositories where instructional resources can be more easily shared, platforms where ideas can be distributed and debated. Certainly, steps in that direction are emerging, for example, through the AHA’s Tuning project, the University of Wisconsin Press’s Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History, the Stanford History Education Group, the DQP Assignment Library, or teachinghistory.org. But much more needs to take place. The time is now.
Steven Mintz, who previously directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center and chaired the OAH’s Teaching Committee, is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.