Death to the Content Dump: A Survey-Course Manifesto

Lately, in preparation for my upcoming gig as Director of my university’s Center for Teaching & Learning, I’ve been immersed in the scholarly literature on teaching and learning. More than anything else, this immersion has affirmed my sense that in my native disciplinary land of History, we need to reassess (or–gasp!–ditch) the survey course. Now, this may seem counter-intuitive. The Id of my profession is yelling: isn’t this course where we serve our institutions’ core curricula? Isn’t it through the survey courses that we reach the most students? If we modify or scrap the survey, won’t college students become even more historically illiterate and thus bring about the collapse of all that is good and holy in western civilization? DOGS AND CATS LIVING TOGETHER! ANARCHY OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS!

But in reality, though these courses reach a majority of our institutions’ students, is that necessarily a good thing when we consider how they’re usually taught? If a course deadens the mind, shouldn’t we try and contain its outbreak? Think about the model for that venerable course–the Western Civ. survey. Two semesters to go from, as one of my grad school buddies joked, “Plato to NATO.” To come even close to being comprehensive in covering that material is asking our students to undertake the intellectual equivalent of drinking from a firehose. That’s not so much a survey as it is a death march. In the US survey, the period is shorter, but the detail level is ratcheted up to the point where content comes at students as fast and furious as it does in the Western and World surveys.

Why do historians do this?

Ask us about what we want students to get from a History course, and almost all of us will answer with some variation on the theme of “thinking like a historian.” We want our students to critically engage texts, arguments, ideas, and each other. We want them to become active and discerning consumers, rather than passive recipients, of information. We want them to understand and appreciate the diversity inherent in the human experience. And all of these are laudable–I would argue essential–goals. I would also argue that History is eminently qualified to help students achieve those outcomes–and I’d be far from alone in making that case.

But then we (speaking for the field in general) teach our survey courses in a way that not only doesn’t advance those goals, it undertakes a full-sprint retreat from them. How can students do all these higher-order, metacognitive tasks? DOCUMENT ANALYSIS? WE’VE ONLY GOT ONE DAY TO COVER WORLD WAR II, FOR CRISSAKES!

I would submit that our survey model is broken. And I know that I’m not the only, or even near the first, to make the case. There are a lot of innovative teacher-scholars out there who’ve reached similar conclusions and recast their survey courses in a more interesting and effective way.* But these exceptions only highlight the rule, which remains nearly ironclad in its insistence upon a content-driven, lecture-delivered model.  There are a few reasons for this, I think: most of us never received any pedagogical training in grad school, so we default to lecturing in the name of efficiency. There are certain areas we all love (for me, the abolitionists), and want to get just right for our students. We had to absorb vast amounts of literature and content in our training, so maybe we carry that approach into our teaching. But foremost, I believe, is the discipline’s adherence to a content-literacy model for the course: students must master the historical content of the period covered by the survey to have “learned history.” If they cannot understand and remember key facts, people, concepts, and events, then how can we say they “learned” anything?

This model came of age in a time where the professor was the exclusive provider of this specialized form of knowledge. Sure, you had a textbook to help narrate things, but it was the lecture where THE CONTENT was delivered. To “learn history,” you had to “absorb” that content. Thus, history=content mastery. QED.

But we professors are no longer the exclusive purveyors of historical knowledge.

Content is overrated. Google has content.

What do professors have?

When I teach the survey, am I just a more verbose, less-efficient content delivery system? Or am I offering students something they need, but can’t get on their own? It had damn well better be the latter. Sean McCusker, in a recent blog post in a series called “Learning in the New Economy of Information” at Mind/Shift, makes this point powerfully and effectively:

Historically, the role of teacher has always been that of gatekeeper and distributor of the course canon. Information was dispensed. Students were encouraged to arrive at their own conclusions and interpret information, but they were limited by the fact that they were operating in a scarce economy of information (teacher, textbook and a limited number of outside sources). For the most part, the teacher was the sole provider of content, and though many teachers worked to provide quality materials and move away from a lecture-based curriculum, even these provided resources were no less teacher directed.


Today, there’s almost an over-abundance of information…In an economy of such abundant information, the teacher who still insists upon distributing information via lecture is competing with primary sources and documents that would allow students to actively participate in ways far deeper than simply listening. If a student can download a PowerPoint, or take pictures of notes on the board, is it the most efficient use of class time to have them copy content line by line? The speed with which information can be accessed and shared seems to invalidate the pace of the everyday lecture.

In a similar vein, Maryellen Weimer has argued that to “promote learning” (as opposed to merely rote content mastery), “Teachers no longer function as exclusive content expert or authoritarian classroom managers…They will lecture less and be much more around the classroom than in front of it.”**

So what do we do? It starts with abandoning the content-coverage imperative. Then–and ONLY then–can I allow the survey course to move in a direction that encourages higher-order thinking, metacognition, and actively-engaged student learning. Does that mean I abandon content? No. But am I going to sweat it if students don’t get the AHA-mandated minimum requirement of Bacon’s Rebellion?

Not if they’re gaining the information literacy skills and ability to think like a historian from my class to find out about it for themselves.

When learning dictates content, rather than the reverse, the survey course can achieve what I want it to.

I’ve got much more on my mind about this subject, but I’ll end this incarnation of the manifesto for now. I welcome your thoughts.


*A great example is Lendol Calder’s method, outlined in his “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History 92:4 (2006), 1358-1370. It’s tremendous. You should read it.

** Maryellen Weimer, Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 14.

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