Death to the Content Dump, part deux: More Survey-Course Thoughts

In part one of my survey-course manifesto, I argued that the way in which historians in higher education approach the survey course–as a content-driven venture–is inadequate for the goals which I think college-level History courses ought to embody. In a climate where students have ready access to more information than ever before, we need to abandon the older paradigm of Professor-as-Sole-Purveyor-of-Content. And in relinquishing that mindset, I believe we need to also strongly consider jettisoning the standard pedagogical operating procedure of the history professoriate: the lecture. 

I can hear the protests already (and when I’ve made this argument at my institution, I’ve heard them in more than just the figurative sense), so let me be clear on a couple of points. I’m not arguing that we abandon lecture entirely. I am arguing that we abandon lecture as our entire teaching repertoire. I also realize that done well–REALLY well–lecture can be an enormously effective and interesting method for transmitting knowledge and ideas. My favorite undergrad professors were lecturers, and they were outstanding at it. But…I was in the front row and already hopelessly in the bag for History. What about everyone behind me in those classes? Were they as enthralled as I was by the erudition, copious detail, and the sheer artistic nature of a well-crafted lecture? In all likelihood, they were not. And I think that’s the case for most students in History courses–constant lecture invites checking out, not buying in. And that’s if the lecture is done well. More often, it’s done poorly, and thus the most enduring archetype of the history teacher in popular culture is this guy*:




When I started teaching my own classes as a Ph.D. student, I modeled my approach on those undergrad professors whom I so admired. Mostly, this was from the demands of expediency:  I hadn’t had any  training in pedagogy, so I really didn’t know of any other options. And if I had to “cover” a daunting amount of material (Latin America since European contact in one semester? Why the hell not?!?), then certainly lecturing seemed like the most efficient way to “move through the material.” So I proceeded to inflict what, in retrospect, was nothing less than a mach-5 carpet-bombing of my poor, bewildered students. So many of them were writing notes so furiously that I was convinced they were learning EVERYTHING. ALL HAIL THE KING OF THE LATIN AMERICAN SURVEY COURSE.**

What I was really doing was committing educational malpractice. There is NO WAY those students retained more than a fraction of that course content, and what any of them managed to remember may or may not have been significant. And I was so busy racing to the next topic that we didn’t do anything in terms of source analysis, discussion, debate–hell, we didn’t do anything active at all. (If you had me for HIST 109 at South Carolina in the summer of 1999, I sincerely apologize for the damage. I meant well, I really did.) But, hey–we “covered the content,” so there’s that.

So how did I get from there to here–from embracing lecture to arguing for its abandonment? Largely through personal experiences, experimentation, and education. There’s a whole raft of scholarship of teaching and learning out there, and it is nothing short of a crime that we don’t meaningfully engage with it in our disciplines. I had a great graduate education, but it would have been even better if I’d read any Sam Wineburg, for example. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that frustration probably played the largest role in my evolution as a teacher. Why weren’t my students doing better work? How could I get better discussions started in class? How could they seem to know so much about the content, but write essays that were superficial descriptions largely devoid of analysis? What was going on? It took me years to realize the degree to which I needed to do a better job creating the spaces in which my students could take ownership of their learning in ways which were tangible and meaningful to them. And that’s where I decided that about 90-95% of my lecturing had to go–because I was taking up all the space.

Simpy put: I know this stuff already. My students know that I know this stuff already. Why did I feel the need to further demonstrate my knowledge, when I could instead allow them to start constructing their own?

Now, my maximum lecture time is less than 15% of my class’s total meeting time (6-7 minutes for a 50-minute period), and lecture is selectively deployed for context, to answer specific student questions over the reading, or for a point that our other material hasn’t explored enough. The rest of class is for the good stuff-active learning and student-generated knowledge. I only get three hours a week with them; I want that time to count.

So what am I doing now to promote this “active learning?” How am I making sure that students are prepared and still actually learning history, if I’m not delivering the content to them in lectures? The short answer: technology, “flipping” a large portion of my class, and re-thinking what it means to “deliver content.”  I have more to say about all of those in future posts, but I’ll end here with this observation: the scariest thing about giving up my lectures was the fear that my students wouldn’t learn the course material–that there would be no content knowledge with which to do any of those neat “active learning” things I wanted to try. But I was wrong. I learned that if I I provided a clear framework for students to absorb content out of class–and a compelling rationale for that framework–that I could trust most of my students to do the necessary work I needed to reshape my class time. And trusting my students to be adults, to take ownership of their learning, has given them a goal to reach and the structure with which to do so over the course of our semester.

That, right there, is just as–or more–important than knowing when Bacon’s Rebellion occurred.***


*You could make the case that Mr. Hand, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, fits the bill, but I think Mr. Hand’s passion and love for his material–sadly not shared by his students–is kind of sweet, in a sad sort of way. Plus, Ben Stein’s character has rendered his students somnolent and drooling. You don’t see that in Mr. Hand’s class, because Mr. Hand is really a badass. But I digress.

** It also might have been due to the fact that I put insanely detailed outlines and lists of ID terms on the overhead. I mean INSANE. I blush to think about them now; they must have scared the bejeezus out of those undergrads.

*** 1676, if you really need to know.

Image credit: NBC []