More Uncoverage

Here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home we have occasionally discussed the teaching method known as “uncoverage.” This method of teaching the United States survey course was made famous by Lendol Calder (pictured) of Augustana College in a 2006 article in The Journal of American History. The uncoverage model challenges the idea that the purpose of the U.S. survey course is primarily to teach students essential knowledge about the past.  Calder suggests that the survey course should be structured in such a way that helps students to “uncover” the past through a close reading of primary documents and carefully planned lessons in historical thinking.

Calder made an appearance at last weekend’s meeting of the Organization of American Historians to respond to a panel on teaching the U.S. survey course.  Jonathan Rees was there.  He reports on his experience at his blog, More or Less Bunk.  Here is small taste:


This session offered up an alternative. In his remarks, Joel Sipress outlined the framework for an argument-based model for a US history survey course. This struck me as a good thing is at allows historians to embrace a positive model for what introductory courses should be like, rather than just defining them by what they’re not. Here’s my transcription of his four points about what an argument-based model for a survey course would consist of:

* Organized around significant historical questions.
* Students systematically exposed to rival positions.
* Students asked to judge relative merits of rival positions on the basis of historical evidence.
* Students develop their own positions and argue for them on the basis of historical evidence.

Why would you want to organize your course this way? Lecturing is boring. I know I’ve defended it before and I still will (under limited circumstances), but I’ve favored teaching skills over facts for some time now in my upper-level classes. I’ve been inspired to practice what I preach all the time now.

Besides, your students aren’t learning anything in your coverage-based course (no matter how hot you think you are). It’s in one ear and out the other. How do we know this? As Calder pointed out, the scholarship of teaching and learning has come so far in the last decade or so that there is enough evidence for history teaching articles to have footnotes. None of those materials support sticking with the coverage model.

Meanwhile, over at Teaching United States History, Kevin Schultz reports on trying the uncoverage model in his American religious history course.