Rethinking the History Survey Course


Steven Mintz of the University of Texas has some good ideas to get more students engaged in the study of the history through the required survey course.  Here are some of them:

  • 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?”

Read the entire piece at AHA Today .  Of course no discussion of innovative approaches to the history survey course is complete without considering the work of Lendol Calder.  Lendol has been talking and writing about these matters for years.

One thought on “Rethinking the History Survey Course

  1. I’d like to hear how these experiments worked out:

    “… 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).”

    My school looked into that several years ago in conjunction with a broad review of our General Education program. “Climate change” was even one of the foci that was suggested for the proposed team-taught, interdisciplinary course being contemplated. I was curious if anything like that had been done before and asked around among my older colleagues in the profession, and indeed, it had, back in the 1960s and 1970s. Obviously it had not caught on, and the anecdotal evidence I was able to collect indicated these experiments had not gone well at all. It was a non-scientific survey, of course, but the negative reports were unanimous, and often quite adamant.

    That experience prompted me to look into the history of General Education reform efforts, and I found that one of the problems in the literature is that there is little in the way of follow-up studies or reports regarding these sorts of innovations. The journals are full of excited descriptions of creative programs that are being proposed or launched at this or that school (going back many decades–I discovered that General Education has, apparently, been in a crisis since at least the 1920s), but what happens to these programs once implemented rarely gets written up. Specifically, one almost never finds a detailed description of programs that failed.

    I concluded that one of the problems endemic to General Education reform efforts is that there’s little in the way of instituional memory, because we rarely track these programs once they’ve been implemented. I suspect there aren’t that many educators who are attracted to writing about programs that have failed, especially if they themselves have been involved in the program (and they are usually the only ones who have enough knowledge about the program to write its history).


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