A manifesto against "coverage" January 8, 2009May 7, 2015 / Historiann Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading...
0 thoughts on “A manifesto against "coverage"”
I won’t say where, but I just TA’d an Early American History class that was not much better: one week for “African Americans”, one for “Native Americans” (it’s all better, you see, because we use the nicer names!), and women appearing only in the first lecture, when the subject was the fecundity of Virginia’s virgins. The other 10 weeks? What Madison was thinking when he wrote the Constitution. That’s only very slightly an exaggeration.
Luckily, every other year the course is taught by a specialist in Republican women’s history.
I’ve pitched my “coverage” approach and now aim for an episodic approach to the US survey. It’s a balancing act, for administration insists we keep by the course catalog description, but because it’s relatively vague I offer two-three week examinations of particular topics in immigration, politics, war, etc. As I tell students, as opposed to a coverage class that’s mile long and an inch deep, we’ll stive for depth. It’s an adapted Calder model.
Students love it and tend to perform better too, since class becomes more than just a turbo-charged AP high school history class. Some of my colleagues, however, are less convinced, and I can understand why — our students are woefully ignorant in US history and pitching the coverage model passes on one last chance to give them basic historical literacy. How can you teach interpretation and analysis when they have zero grasp of the essential facts? Doesn’t analysis without some factual backdrop become an exercise in b_llsh-tting? My poli-sci colleague struggles with this in his US government classes. But how many students actually remember coverage class material one minute after completing the final? The three outstanding students sitting up front may, but the other thirty-two probably do not.
The other plain benefit of the episodic approach (at least for me) is that it is far more interesting and stimulating for the prof. Right, coverage is easy for us — just plug me in, hit the play button, and I can lecture three straight times on Progressive Era. I’m an automaton. But a topical approach allows me to pick subjects I enjoy talking about as well as ones I think students enjoy. Hell, I may even get a chance to bring in some of my research for class purposes. Imagine that, in a survey class! If I’m enthused, there’s a fighting chance they might be too.
One last note. Have you ever begun a survey class, day one, by asking students “what do you think I do for a living? What do historians do?” That can be disheartening. Coverage approaches reinforces the popular notion that historians are mere fact-checkers and story-tellers, liberal arts lightweights useful for anecdotes and knowing what happened on this day in history.
Funny that I read this as I am desperately trying to put together this semester’s World Civ course (1400-present). I’ve changed books, hoping to have gone to something better, and instead ended up with something the students really can’t handle. I’ve written about some of the pitfalls of World History before, but it’s nice to see that they are recognized by Americanist colleagues as well.
One of the problems you haven’t really talked about is the drive from the bottom. The reasons I teach the World Civ survey are two: 1) We have an Ed. program, and all primary school teachers in our state have to take WC, and secondary Social Studies teachers have to take it, and; 2) SLAC’s president is all about the Global. Zie’s a social scientist/lumper type. I’ve been teaching WC for years, and am still not sure how to do it most efficiently within the time constraints of a semester. Thematically makes sense, but offends me as a practicing historian, because it requires that we ignore an awful lost of that pesky contextual stuff. Say, for example, we were comparing the lives of women in Reformation Europe, Qing China, and parts of the Seljuk Empire. We might see all kinds of things that said that women in the 17th C were under the control of the men in their families, were legally second-class citizens, were considered less morally pure … and then you get to the, “so women were oppressed, and they aren’t so much now, and see! We’re so much better than our ancestors!” view that is exactly NOT what I want my students to take away. I want them to understand the different cultural reasons that something like this can happen — and to see that some of these things are not the same, if we look below the surface.
Um … yeah — I don’t have the problem of not being able to teach gender and race as an integral part of the course. Often, what I do is to focus on primary sources that deal with these topics. But there is still the coverage problem. How do we give the students the fundamental framework — the Gradgrindian Facts — when they are not motivated to learn them themselves, and in ways that allow us to jump into the timeline and teach them how to be historians themselves?
And how do we teach The World without privileging western history — or appearing to? How can I explain the Columbian Exchange unless I also explain the events in Ren/Ref Europe that drove people to the Americas? But if I spend time on the Ren and Ref, how can I fit in China under the Qing, or Tokugawa Japan, or Mughal India? The simple answer is to make the students responsible for knowing what’s in the textbook. The realistic answer is that my students aren’t prepared to handle the info dump of WC, because all they’ve learned about History is Facts — and they are incredibly resistant to the idea that they should read anything I don’t cover in class.
Oy. Sorry for the rantiness. But you’ve written an excellent post on what is for me a sore subject.
Eduardo–it sounds like you’re teaching survey classes to reasonable numbers (35?) of students. When I teach the survey, it’s to 123 students. (Like that nice round number? Guess why it’s 123: that’s the number of desks in the lecture hall!) I’ve developed a thematic model like you, but it’s a hard sell on these larger classes, where students really just want a boring “coverage” survey with a boring textbook. They don’t want to do the analysis and writing that I require. (All of which begs the question: why the heck do you stay in MY class, when there are at least 12 other survey classes going on that would fulfill the same requirement?)
Arrgh. And Liz: I feel your pain. Like Faulkner said, the past isn’t over. It’s not even the past. (Or something like that?) My former chair would love your professor. He really knows “coverage,” doesn’t he?
Another Damned Medievalist writes: How do we give the students the fundamental framework — the Gradgrindian Facts — when they are not motivated to learn them themselves, and in ways that allow us to jump into the timeline and teach them how to be historians themselves?
I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on pedagogy, but this I know is true: students are responsible for a majority of their learning. All we have to do is set up an interesting syllabus, put together some decent lectures, model historical analysis, provide feedback on graded work, and make ourselves reasonably available if students need extra help. If students don’t take it from there, if they don’t choose to pay attention in class, to do the reading, and to put time and effort into completing their assignments–then there’s nothing we can do about it. So if your students aren’t doing their work, and they find themselves lost when you “jump into the timeline” and start discoursing on the different ways of evaluating the short- and the long-term effects of the Columbian exchange (or whatever), that’s their problem, not yours.
I say this as someone who assigned F’s to 18 out of the 101 students who completed (or thought they completed) the last survey class I taught. There is nothing you can do about people who choose not to work–and with the numbers of students I’m supposed to deal with, it’s sink or swim, baby. Either you’re ready to take responsibility for your life, or you still need your mommy to wipe your butt and help you get dressed.
“Coverage” sounds an awful lot like the Trivial Pursuit approach to education. It also sounds an awful lot like the outcomes part of “Outcomes Assessment.” Emphasis on “awful.”
In other words, I’m with you!
It’s a nice theory, and to some extent, my administration will back us up. But SLAC is not a selective college, or not at the moment. And it prides itself on teaching. in any given survey, half the students don’t have the tools to be in the class — I’ve seen freshman files that show we’ve got people who scored less than 500 on their reading/writing SATs. And even the students who are good and motivated often have trouble handling as much information as they are supposed to be able to deal with. If half the students — or even a quarter of them — are having major problems, then it’s my problem. It affects the class personality, it drags down the good students, and it depresses the hell out of me.
And, in the end, it hits my evals. They count at SLAC. A lot. So somehow, I have to give them not only the tools that they need to do history, but also the ones they need so that it really is down to them when they don’t learn. Basically, I think it’s an ethical obligation: if we take large amounts of money from them, and they really aren’t qualified coming in the door, we have an obligation to help bring them up to speed so that their degrees mean something when they graduate. The alternative is to do what some of my colleagues do, which is to say, “they had a chance, and they blew it.” But that means sending people away with no degree and a lot of debt.
I totally agree that you are right in theory, and at most of the places I’ve taught, I’d feel that way, too. In fact, I’m perfectly happy to fail people who don’t do the work. It’s when they can’t do the work that I worry about making history accessible, given that we are supposed to cover so damned much!
ADM, as soon as I hit the “send” button on my comment, I realized that at Baa Ram U. (a big state U.) I’ve got the liberty to flunk 20% of my students, whereas you at SLAC don’t. I would say that your SLAC is putting you in an ethically untenable position–why are they admitting people who can’t do college level work? It seems to me that the college administration is responsible for the crime of taking their money in the first place. However, at least at your SLAC (I’m hoping, anyway) you’re not dealing with weak students in the numbers that I have here at BRU. You probably have more time to provide assistance.
Other than providing–or asking the students to provide–a recap on the stuff they were expected to read before class, and to write a brief timeline on the board before you “leap in” for the day’s lecture or discussion, I don’t know what you can do for students who won’t or can’t follow along. After all, you don’t want to alienate the best students, who are reasonably bright but more importantly, who are doing the work. You want to teach to the best of them, not pitch your class to the weakest.
But I still say that this is part of their learning curve, even if they’re paying more for it (and risking serious debt) at SLAC. No one put a gun to their heads to go to college, and certainly no one told them that SLAC was their only option. Colleges are free to admit whomever they want, but it’s the faculty’s job to be the firewall in guarding the integrity of the educational experience and the degrees awarded.
Of course, how tough you can be at this point in your career as an untenured person is another question entirely. Does your department do peer evaluations of teaching, or do they just go “by the numbers” on the evaluations? Do you get the sense that kicking butts and taking names will be protected (or even rewarded), or do you know that you’ll be punished for mediocre or below-departmental average evaluations?
One of the things I LOVE about my departmental colleagues at Baa Ram U. is that student evals count very little, and the peer evaluations of teaching count a LOT. Only if there are consistent student complaints about something other than “there was too much reading” or “this class was too hard for an XXX-level course” or “why are you such a b!tch?” do we take a closer look. (My colleagues even count it as a badge of honor if students complain about how hard the course was or what a hard line the professor took.) Comments about courses being “boring” are ignored too–again, who put a gun to your head to sign up for this course? There is no required courses in our curriculum that aren’t taught in multiple sections on multiple topics–so find one you like or shut up and live with your bad choice.
I read Calder’s article when it first came out, and I do agree with your post and many of the comments. The problem is: teaching a coverage survey (although I do it more with “themes”) is simply the only way to teach large classes. Well, let me clarify. I’ve never seen this approach work in a big class. If I was teaching a class of 15 students who were on a comparable level and had the basic knowledge, the uncoverage approach would be a lot easier. I haven’t been teaching that long, but I do know a few professors who’ve tried this and they’ve only had success in the smaller, upper-division courses.
Also, like someone posted above, my students are woefully unaware of the basic facts behind significant events. Most did not know when the Declaration was written, thought the Emancipation Proclamation came in 1650, etc. etc. Whether or not this is right, I feel responsible for correcting these problems and I haven’t figured out how to do that in an uncoverage approach.
Basically, I like the overall idea but I just don’t know how to implement it. As I get more experience (and when I stop being a grad student) maybe it will be easier to envision an uncoverage U.S. survey.
In theory I’m all for the episodic approach. When I started planning a course on “Early Europe” last summer, I actually thought about taking just a few episodes and really doing them deeply. I didn’t, but instead stuck with a bunch of themes. And I think it’s not surprising that someone teaching US since 1945 finds that using 8 “problem areas” works well. And that is, ze is not constrained by trying to explain how you get from the “Dark Ages” (don’t hit me, ADM) to Carolingian Europe, or the Renaissance of the 12th C, or the Crusades. That is, the chronological and cultural leaps are much greater. And you run the risk (which I see in the approach I took this year) that the pieces are not well connected.
I think I will modify my thinking (and next year I have to teach the second semester of World History — 1491-present) but I think balancing the “what they don’t know” with manageable pedagogical practice is a key challenge when teaching further back (I assume it’s more difficult in the first part of the US survey than US since 1945). And I think the piece that I *really* care about as a historian is how things change.
I think that it’s probably the kind of thing that you can develop over time – as you accumulate resources for teaching. When I’m teaching and *not* on panic mode (OMG what *am* I going to say about the economy of Europe in the 8th century?) I try to focus my lectures around a research question. Oh, and we are stuck with a set up where lower level courses have three hours of lecture and a separate discussion section with a TA. So you have to think about how you use that time, which I have not figured out at all.
So — after a long-winded wander — I think maybe the thing we need to focus on is connection rather than coverage, and coverage is the easy way of managing connection.
I’m not an historian (though I sometimes feel like I play one on tv), but it seems to me that coverage (in history, in literature, in _any_ discipline) is, quite literally, fundamental. What fun to focus on “ideas, recurring issues and themes, and . . . analysis”! But a discipline is a way of knowing, and trying to teach the way of knowing as if it were separate from the objects of knowing (the data–all of it, not just the data behind a particular analysis) is impossible, and I can’t see how it can serve students–though it might well serve professors who hate “coverage.” But do they hate coverage because they are so in love with their own focused interests?
[The prof who hyperfocuses on “what Madison was thinking” is over-focused on his own stuff, but the problem is the hyperfocus, not the fact that it’s political history, right? The exclusion of folks from political agency is an aspect of political history, right?]
I’m intrigued by the connections between this post and the previous one that valued historiography so highly: both posts might well fit into a “teach the conflicts” model of pedagogy, but to put it bluntly, those conflicts have a history that, unless I’m mistaken, is usually grounded in the data–so that a solid knowledge of the basics is still essential to understanding the conflicts?
In grad school, I moved from the hard sciences to the humanities, and one of my hard-science friends said it was an interesting move: in the hard sciences, one does one’s groundbreaking work before one is thirty (he said)–before one’s thinking grows inflexible. In the humanities, this guy suggested, one accumulates a greater and greater understanding over time, enabling one to constantly synthesize across larger and wider gaps and fields. That is, across a career, one gets greater and greater mastery of a greater amount of everything: raw data, the critical tradition, etc. If that’s right, coverage is exactly what makes it possible for scholars in humanities disciplines to grow, as opposed to over-focus on the narrowest questions in one’s field.
It’s been true for me, I think: as I’ve grown older, I’ve tackled bigger and bigger research questions, ones that have demanded greater attention to and deeper understanding of broader swathes of my field. And yet I also recently had an argument with a colleague whose research method was to grab all the library books on a topic he was interested in, and read exactly the parts of those books that related to his research question: leaving the rest of the books unread (this discussion was in the context of an electronically mediated search/research process, vs. an “old-fashioned” material-text mediated process). Call me old fashioned, but I feared his research process focused on “ideas . . . and . . . analysis” at the expense of coverage. I think he saw me as a dinosaur, stuck in an old mode of thinking and operating; I didn’t see how reading an extract out of context was sufficient.
But which model works for us all in terms of a lengthy career? And how, exactly, do we translate between what we do–not in an individual project, but as scholars and thinkers and lifelong learners–and what we do for our students? In short, don’t _we_ gain by our ever-growing coverage? But somehow our students don’t?
Sorry for the rant, Historiann.
Great post. I have been thinking a lot about this lately. “Coverage” reinforces the “cultural literacy” approach to liberal arts education. In other words, we all need to know certain facts so that somewhere down the road when some organization takes a survey of what college students know about history we can all pat ourselves on the back and affirm that history produces good citizens. The problem is that students have been doing poorly on these cultural literacy tests since they were first introduced around the turn of the twentieth century. There never was a bygone era when a large percentage of the population could tell you who wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Instead, we should be using the one crack we get at general education students to teach them how to think historically. I won’t go into detail here about what I mean by that because I have been blogging about it a bit over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. (Blatant self-promotion! Read my blog! Read my blog!).
Hi Historiann — sorry I missed all your MLA posts. could have added a little juice here and there, but we’re on to other things…
In English depts the coverage question comes up in relation to the survey. You know, American lit to 1865 and Am lit 1865-1845 — the break usually a US War. And then the surveys of British lit. Depts have moved away from this, though not completely, as they have moved away from single-author courses. But in my old age, I have come to miss the survey, although I find thematic approaches help take up the questions you bring up rather than focus on the so-called great works. For example, I did a course called “The Conquest of America,” which was comparable to a survey in that we moved from the colonial/contact period to the early 19th century, and I could do a lot with gender/race/nationalism while mixing up some of the usual suspects with other voices. The goal was not coverage but it did provide a view of different works over time.
Happy new year!
I think the medievalists and others in early fields have given up on coverage long ago — chiefly because we are assigned such ridiculous passes of time to survey. I’ve never taught World History, but even within my own “specialty” I am expected to cover 1,000 years of a continent in my classes. No modernist would ever be asked to think or to teach in this way. The American academy still enshrines the whig assumption that early fields lack the complexity of modernism, and that therefore one can easily teach a survey that’s framed in such a way. After all, “nothing happened” in the Middle Ages, right? That’s why it’s the “middle:” a millennium of stagnation between the glories of Rome and the rebirth of the Renaissance.
Yay! squadratomagico for saying something else that I forgot! Hell — last semester I taught the period between about 950 and 1400, and still went all theme-y (but then, I had upperclassmen, so I could expect them to have read the book and got the facts down!).
Susan — Late Antiquity/Early MA! You can do it! don’t give in to the madness of false periodization (which feeds directly into what squadrato is saying!)
Oh, yes, I do see the late antiquity/early ma piece. I was teaching fall of Rome to c. 1700. (I I decided that next time I will split the course, and teach it over two semesters. At least then I’ll have a medieval and an early modern course.
And while I agree with Squadrato, I think the problem of helping students see connections is the key one.
Tom–no apologies needed–Rants R Us these days! But, to your point: do you really think that 1 or 2 semesters of survey classes can convey “the data–all of it?” So, since you have to choose which data points to include and which to exclude, what do you do?
My post here is not anti-data. (Remember, like the periodic tabel, it’s necessary but not sufficient.) My post is against the fiction of “coverage,” and the various political abuses of “coverage.” It’s not fair to suggest that being against “coverage” is narcissistic or somehow an underhanded attempt to teach only about our pet interests. It’s about teaching courses that are meaningfully and thoughtfully designed, with intelligently chosen parameters of both time and subject matter. What I’m suggesting implicitly here (or at least I hope it’s clear) is that we should ask who designed these survey courses that are supposed to cover 8,500 years, or 1,000 years, or 500 years, and why? Who said C.E. 0-1,000 is a meaningful unit of time? Who says 1492-1877 is meaningful? I have an idea: let’s just pick dates out of a hat, and design courses that way. How much more random could it get?
Maybe historians will in the end decide that teaching about 400 to 8,500 years in 15 weeks to 123 students per course is the exact right way to teach history. Maybe those are exactly the right numbers. I’m skeptical that most would find this optimal, but we historians haven’t asked these questions or re-thought these dumb courses that were probably invented at least 40 to 60 years ago. And about how much of the curriculum can we say that? Are we really teaching the same upper-division and grad courses from 60 years ago? I think not.
(To some extent, the modern U.S. historians who teach the second “half” of the survey, which is somehow only 131 years long, or shorter, are not part of this discussion. As Susan pointed out, if one’s “survey” covers just 63 years in one nation-state, then that is what we early modernists and medieval historians would call a highly specialized course, to say the least.)
And those of you who have been reading here for a while know that I’m for freedom of choice: Rad Readr’s “survey” of early American lit sounds like a thoughtfully designed course that also covers a few centuries. (Most of the upper-division courses I teach cover 300+ years–more than all modern U.S. history surveys. In colonial North American history, 1492-1800 happens to be a meaningful and intellectually defensible timespan.)
Last year my contributing editor Darren Grem did a whole series on his “uncoverage” approach to his American religious history survey, with many of the same thoughts and philosophies you discuss here; you can see his concluding reflections at http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2008/05/degs-dispatches-part-x.html,
and then follow backward from there.
Thanks for the link, Paul. I think where I and my commenters here–who are mostly early modern or medieval historians–get caught up is in applying “uncoverage” to teaching survey courses that cover 300-8,500 years, not the specialized “survey” courses that cover U.S. history 1945-present, or focus only on American religious history. (To those of us teaching pre-1800 history, those sound incredibly specialized, and hardly like “survey” classes at all.)
I still think it’s worth it, however broad a time span you teach–I’m a bit of a Trotskyite or Malcom X: “by any means necessary” blow up your survey!
Pingback: Random history course generator : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present
Our department is currently talking about doing just what you’ve suggested-keeping the survey as is since all students in CO have to have one history class, but requiring a separate set of courses for majors that are structured thematically, and emphasize skills and methods rather than content. This allows us to give them the skills necessary to think like historians, but still retains some sort of context for evaluating events.
We’ll see how it goes-It is going to require major curriculum changes, so it won’t actually happen for a while!
ej–why couldn’t “all” students take one of your thematically structured courses with skills and methods? Why would that not be an acceptable option? (I think I know the immediate answer, which is that the state legislature thinks they’re better curriculum designers than we are, but my question is larger. Why not, indeed?)
Just a quick response to your response, Historiann–of course a survey course cannot convey all the data. But my point is really about grounding, and I am serious in my belief that (in my case at least) as my own grounding/coverage has gotten better and fuller, my scholarhsip has gotten more interesting. I teach 1000 years of British lit regularly in surveys–and of course, I pick and choose, since they can’t read it all in one semester. And I, like all the other medievalists, premodernists, etc, here, am always both amazed and dismayed at how periodization compresses the past. But the survey is supposed to be about the big picture–because the big picture is what gives the details signficance. Maybe I don’t know enough about the “uncoverage” model, but I am uncomfortable with saying “let’s focus on a bunch of details or themes in all our classes, since that’s what historians/literary scholars/humanists ‘really’ do in their professional lives–and we’ll just let the students see if they can integrate/synthesize some various details or themes into a big picture.”
In the interests of full disclosure, my last two books have attempted to re-draw the big picture of a genre (poetry in English) across a span of at least three or four centuries (or five or six, in one case), and I’m seriously thinking of tackling a 15-century project. These are projects that need “big picture thinking,” even as they build those pictures from details, and I guess I don’t see the danger in trying to teach a big picture to undergrads–even some very big pictures indeed. To (attempt to) redraw a big picture, though, I’ve needed to understand the “standard model” and that’s usually what I still teach to undergrads.
Unless maybe you all mean there is no “standard model” in history that can ground freshmen and sophomores?
Oh, this is a great topic! I’m teaching a course for majors this term that’s using the history of crime in modern England and the history of Renaissance Italy to explore issues in historical practice. Some students are up in arms that I’m not “teaching the subjects”. Excuse me? They do have a really cracking thematic survey text for the first and a “Major Problems” collection for the second. What we’re doing in class is trying to take an aspect of each chapter and break it down as practicing historians — not transmit some cozy little Whig narratives of historical triumphalism.
I expect I’ll see a few disgruntled students drop before the deadline and I know I’ll have a few more hang on, only to blast me in the evaluations. But I’m tenured and my colleagues are behind me in how I teach the course. It’s not supposed to be a whacking survey (I do my share of those in other classes), so I don’t feel obligated to answer that demand in this course. But when I teach my Ancient Near East survey or the first half of Western Civ, I field a new round of complaints about how it’s not fair to expect them to know things that we didn’t discuss in the classroom itself (like all those pesky other Old Kingdom rulers, say). *sigh*
But getting back to the concept of what constitutes coverage, what’s so sad and disquieting is that, for some people, anything that isn’t mainstream narrative is a betrayal of scholarly standards. In this worldview, if a new professor even open up the question of how these topics affected women, minorities and other “Others”, he or she is just upsetting students and some colleagues with their crazy and wrong-headed ideas about what is history!
I am serious in my belief that (in my case at least) as my own grounding/coverage has gotten better and fuller, my scholarhsip has gotten more interesting.
I’m sure it has–but we’re not talking about how to develop future historians in this thread. I’m asking–if not in so many words–“what is the best way to introduce students to history in their one required history course?” Given that our goals must needs be much more modest than yours as a scholar (or even the 18- or 20-year old you-in-training), is blitzing through 1,000 years with nothing more than a timeline and a textbook for a roadmap really an introduction to history? Wouldn’t college history courses be much more interesting, and invite real intellectual engagement by students and faculty alike, if we thought about what we are teaching, why we’re teaching it, and believe in the courses we teach? We take it for granted that we can do this in our upper-level courses and grad courses–why haven’t we reconsidered “the survey” in 60 years?
I suspect that you, as a literary scholar, are less offended by the notion of history as just facts, facts, facts–but that’s not what it is for most professional historians.
And, Janice: good luck. You’re doing the right thing, especially *because* few of your other colleagues are doing it the way you do. What’s wrong with everyone finding their own bliss, faculty and students alike?
You’re exactly right that it’s when students are told something other than the same old whig narrative that they accuse you of not providing “coverage.” It’s a political charge, not an intellectual one, 9 times out of 10.
Historiann: On my comment above, Deg’s “uncoverage” course, which he periodically discussed on the blog, covered American religious history pre-colonial to 9/11, so a good 700-800 years there, focused on religious history to be sure but still plenty to test one particular uncoverage approach to a very long period of time, and one way to “blow up the survey.” Thanks for the post and the discussion
Pingback: Coverage, Uncoverage, and the purpose of Graduate History Courses « Knitting Clio
History is a journey, not a destination; it’s a process, not a product …
Nice! How can coverage be part of the journey without determining every step? We need breadth and depth in ways that neither one excludes the other.
I’ve most struggled with coverage when teaching Native American Indian history at two universities, one private, one public. It is called Native American at one, and American Indian at the other. It is one of those courses that can be undone by the effort to cover everything–“500 years, 500 tribes,” I tell my students.
Having such a course among the student choices gives their total history curriculum broader coverage without necessarily “privileg[ing] traditional and rather exclusionary visions of history.” That’s for the history majors. But the principal rationale for the course, and the draw for most students, is that it meets a distribution requirement for diversity–distribution of science and math, humanities and communication is another sort of coverage, and one that may be the principle cause of continuing employment for many historians. Indeed, the vast majority of my students have not been history majors, and for many, American indigenous history has been their only college history course.
I offered for discussion a critique Jefferson’s “Indian Addresses,” and their effect upon Federal Indian policy only to learn that my students have minimal understanding of when Jefferson was President. Then, we moved into Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia and Jackson’s response made no sense to students that never learned the differences between Executive and Judicial authority in the American system of government.
Consequently, I end up spending half of my time teaching things that I remember learning in high school civics. Ten years ago I was teaching Native American history–an upper division course–as if it were a seminar, and we were focusing on Federal Indian policy, in part because that’s the glue that holds together so many disparate tribal histories, and I learned that more than half the class did not know that the House and the Senate together comprised Congress. One student admitted thinking they were three separate entities. I did a quick poll of my students. Only half of the class had a course in American government of some sort in high school. One of those that had was from Wales, where she majored in American studies. The horror, the horror.
Now I teach this course in five weeks to adult students. They know a little more about American government than the twenty-somethings. Some of them also have taught me things I didn’t know about Jefferson. But, 500 years and 500 tribes in ten four hour class sessions (three and half hours in class, plus breaks) leaves out more than it includes. Fortunately, there is one excellent text–Calloway’s First Peoples, third edition–that offers an abundance of primary documents that helps generate productive and focused class discussion. Then, to supplement the discussion, I have a sequence of terribly long PowerPoint lectures that intersperse timelines and great man and women cameos with other petite recits, such as my declaration that one of the most prolific weeds introduced through the Columbian Exchange was the peach.
In the end, we cover a lot through a form of historical hop-scotch that has time for some focus. I’d love to teach an entire course on Cherokee Removal or the Nez Perce War or the Paha Sapa, but I would have no students. They write the checks.
In case you are curious, there’s little or no documentary evidence in Leiden from which a history of cross-dressing fullers’ apprentices’ social mobility can be constructed, at least before 1630 (I haven’t read everything more recent). This means the field is open to be covered by those inclined to retrospective speculation about moods and sentiment, or to writing novels.
– Jeremy Bangs, Leiden
See, leave town for one day in the archives and you end up on the bottom of a 35-comment thread! I too, like Tom, thought there were some tacit synergies between the dynamics of this subject and those of the last great thread (only a day ago?) on historiography and pedagogy. But I can’t articulate them the way he did, so I’ll just leave it there.
In truth, precisely because there are so many different types and sizes of “surveys” within and between the disciplines, and because *early* Americanists by far get the longer “half” of our chronological stick, I switch back and forth between uncovering and covering within the framework of the same semester. I start on the Bering Land “Bridge,” thousands of years ago, and for more than just the rhetorical opener, then I march students east from Cuzco and Tenochtitlan through Pueblo Country to the Mississippi Mounds to poor the poor old backdoor East Coast, before we can turn around and head West. And only then, a week or so in, am I on the beginning of the standard-issue whiggish track. (We have fights all the time over why we have to call it “U.S. History to 1877” when there *was* no “U.S.” for the vast majority of the timeline, but it’s the educrats up in the State System who insist on this).
Anyway, during the subsequent three and a half standard issue centuries there are lots of places where I want to riff and subvert, and fewer but at least some other places where I’m glad to ride along with the more or less prefabricated story line. In the end, you’ve got to get to the end of the semester with your own brain alive and hopefully most of the class too. And I don’t think there’s any perfect analytical way out of or around the internal contradications of modern curricularism. I do agree with the sense of some commenters that there has to be some constructive gesture toward breadth and context, even in the face of the epistemological truth–and true it is– that there really *is* no such thing as “coverage.”
Pingback: And the envelopes, please… : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present
Coverage – I just don’t do it … can you avoid it? In those surveys I choose “representative” texts or issues in a conservative place, or interesting ones / ones on issues that keep coming up or have recently been in the news, in a more progressive place. Talk about five or six of those in depth and you do end up giving “coverage.”
Prof. Z.–I agree, that’s coverage enough. But, by focusing on 5-6 texts or authors in lit classes, I’m sure you’re still vulnerable to the political charge of not providing enough “coverage.”
Another “counterblast” at coverage:
Coverage vs. Discovery: Ten
• To cover or discover: that is the question.
• Coverage reflects knowledge and skills of
the teacher, while discovery represents
genuine learning by the student.
• Implicit in the coverage mindset is the
notion that knowledge is a “thing”—more
than that, a neat, tidy, clever thing with
no loose ends, mistakes, or mysteries in
it—that can be deposited in the minds of
students via lectures. Learning is reduced
to storing as much of the “thing” as
possible in short-term memory,
regurgitating relevant portions of it at
exam time, and then dumping it when no
• The discovery approach to learning, in
contrast, entails the idea that knowledge
acquisition is above all an ongoing
process with ever changing results, plenty
of uncertainties, and real staying power.
It happens in the brain of the learner,
which is stimulated to search, store, and
solve by challenging questions and
opportunities to explore these in depth.
Making mistakes and correcting them are
integral parts of the process.
• Coverage pretends to be comprehensive
and “finished.” In fact, it is always
arbitrary, selective, and incomplete—an
illusory goal and a misrepresentation of
genuine learning. Discovery is unique and
memorable—the grasping of a principle or
connection that can be used and reused
without being used up. It can’t be
scheduled, but it can be cultivated.
• The “need to cover” is the most common
excuse teachers give when they find
themselves speeding up the pace of
delivery well beyond the capacity of
students to keep up. Nothing illustrates
better than this the detachment of
coverage from learning.
• Discovery can’t be hurried. It is stimulated
by questions and curiosity. If bent on
“covering the material,” teachers will see
student questions as distractions,
impediments, or unwelcome detours
instead of what they really are—the best
opportunities for learning that any class
• Coverage saturates the classroom with
routine, regimentation, and predictable
tedium. Discovery is unpredictable and
varied, unsettling and potentially
• The motto of coverage—“what I cover,
they will learn”—mistakenly assigns
agency and responsibility for student
learning to the teacher, not the student.
• Let the student remind the teacher, “what
you want to cover, I want to uncover and
discover for myself!”
Douglas Deal, SUNY
open-source discourse: use as you wish