Teaching the U.S. History Survey Course Backwards

Caleb McDaniel

I admire Caleb McDaniel’s courage in the classroom. McDaniel teaches his United States Survey backwards.  He starts in the present and ends in 1848.

McDaniel’s approach is yet another attempt to apply Lendol Calder’s “uncoverage” model to the United States history course.  “Uncoverage” does not neglect content, but it is an approach to teaching history in which success is not based on “covering” every detail.  Instead “uncoverage” focuses on teaching students how to think historically.

McDaniel discusses his attempts at teaching backwards in a recent post at his blog.  Here is a taste:

My first version of the course was especially inspired by a first-week exercise that Annette Atkins uses in her backwards survey. On Day 1, Atkins begins by asking students to “list 10 issues that most concern them,” and then to “read the last chapter of the textbook.” On the second day, Atkins works with students to create a collective list of “issues.” Over the next several meetings, the class begins to think about their “issues” in light of the last 20 years of American history, noticing relations between the two and beginning to develop questions about the historical context in which we ourselves live.
In 2013, I took that idea and ran with it—to a fault, as you’ll see below. On the first day of class, I asked students to make a list of “issues that concern them.” We then arranged the list so that the issues most mentioned were at the top. Here were the top 10 from a list that ran to two double-spaced pages:

  • Gun control / guns / gun laws / guns in schools / shootings (x10)
  • Equal rights / gay rights / same-sex marriage / redefined family (x9)
  • Debt ceiling / debt crisis / fiscal cliff / taxes (x8)
  • U.S. world role / distinctiveness / foreign policy / Middle East (x7)
  • Party system / third parties / 2012 election / partisanship and gridlock (x6)
  • Legalization of marijuana / war on drugs / drug abuse (x5)
  • Death penalty / crime / incarceration (x3)
  • Immigration / immigration policy (x3)
  • Women’s reproductive rights / abortion (x3)
  • Technology / dependence on personal devices (x3)

Either in that class or the next one, I then introduced students briefly to the Five C’s of Historical Thinking. As homework, students were required to go to a Google Doc and generate historical questions about the issues we had listed.

I recall the results of that assignment as bracing. They revealed just how much I had typically taken for granted about how my students approached a history class. Many students asked questions about what the future held. Others focused on asking about what the United States should do about a situation—questions whose answers may be informed by historical reflection, but which are not the questions historians typically begin by asking.

In retrospect, maybe the default questions my students asked shouldn’t have surprised me. As Mills Kelly notes, many students “believe that history regularly repeats itself—so if we just pay close attention to what happened in the past, we will know what to expect in the future.”1 Simply by asking my students to give me some questions, I learned that I could not take for granted that they knew what a historical question was, much less that they could think like an historian about the question. Right away I learned that I would need to teach explicitly the kinds of questions historians ask.
Unfortunately, that was the sort of teaching I had prepared the least to do. I did spend the next two class meetings or so talking in greater detail about the “five C’s of historical thinking.” I hoped this would help students to see how they might reframe their questions as historical ones about causation or change over time. By the second week, we had whittled a massive brainstorm of questions down to a more manageable list that was also more historical in orientation.

Read the rest here.  

One thought on “Teaching the U.S. History Survey Course Backwards

  1. I am not sure I could ever work backwards in history in order to teach it. It is a novel idea, but I think I've spent so much time working from a beginning point to an end point moving forward that it would really require a serious readjustment. I do like the idea of isolating concerns from today so students could look for those concerns in the past to see how they have changed and developed over time.


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