U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Survey Courses And U.S. Intellectual History: A Follow-Up

In December I solicited your advice here on incorporating U.S. intellectual history into U.S. survey courses. Right now I’m in the middle of my post-Reconstruction survey at Northeastern Illinois University. Things are going well. I have an excellent crop of capable students—perhaps the best I’ve ever had. And even though I’m an adjunct, the administrative support has been quite good. The History Department’s chair, Patrick Miller, has gone out of his way to make me feel comfortable.

But what of my plans for inspiring students, “subtly” or explicitly, to think about our subfield? Thus far those designs have, well, come to little. This does not mean, however, that the life of the mind in U.S. history has been ignored. As of today my only opportunities have been a lingering gaze at Progressive Era intellectuals (muckrakers, DuBois, Dewey, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and other experts), changes in education, and hints of larger cultural ideas. On the latter, it’s always been important to me to heavily emphasize the transition in values that took place in our gradual move from what Daniel Walker Howe [right] called American Victorianism to American Modernity.

It bugs me that there has not a comfortable way to insert William James into the discussion. This stems, I believe, from my textbook choice. My selection, Out of Many (Faragher et al, 5th ed), favors Dewey in its discussion of Pragmatism. And this focus works for the plethora of education majors in my class: its cultural literacy for them. But James gives one an opportunity to talk about Boston intellectuals and his famous, novel-writing brother.

But aside from this somewhat petty critique, the larger trouble with incorporating intellectual history arises from the impulse toward coverage. Darren Grem at the Religion in American History weblog reflected on this situation last fall. His solution was to experiment with a technique he wittily denoted as “uncoverage.” [Note: I’d forgotten that this idea wasn’t Grem’s. See comment #1 below.]

In Darren’s first post on the subject he called the drive toward coverage a “rookie mistake.” I respectfully disagree, as many colleges have a philosophy of coverage in surveys by which they expect you to abide. This philosophy was not forcefully impressed upon me at NEIU, but I recall a conversation about facts that needed to be passed along. We don’t have an exit exam, so the philosophy can’t be enforced. But I’m no fool: as a first-time instructor at this institution, I didn’t want to rock the boat. This is the plight of the adjunct.

In situations where coverage is not merely a first-year instructor’s mistake but an expectation—implied or otherwise, all efforts to more than nominally incorporate subfields are over before they’re started. This undermined my effort for the current term.

In sum, I think subtlety is the only way to incorporate U.S. intellectual history in my current course. Hopefully I’ll be able to post on this again in the future—when I’m in a situation that explicitly allows for bending a survey to my expertise. – TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. David,

    Thanks for the link. I’d visited Calder’s site before, and had clicked through many of the links, but had forgotten the main point. Sigh. Perhaps this is a hazard of surfing in the Internet age. Not that it would’ve helped in my current teaching situation.

    – Tim

  2. Note that I didn’t cast THE drive toward coverage/survey a “rookie mistake.” I merely cast MY drive toward coverage/survey a “rookie mistake.” In other words, the first time I taught survey classes my upper-level class, I didn’t know how to teach a survey effectively. Thus, I just crammed everything I could into the classes without doing what the best teachers of surveys do – giving well-paced lectures, relying on textbooks/sourcebooks to do some of the work for them and picking and choosing the themes that they want to cover in lecture. If done well, I think a survey course can be appropriate, particularly for lower level courses. Indeed, my own 101-equivalent survey course utilizes a “semi-coverage” model, depending heavily on lectures to relate the high-points of U.S. history while setting aside days for discussion and debate of A/V selections and primary/secondary sources.

    The point is not to choose coverage or uncoverage and divide departments into camps that promote one or the other. The point is for us to recognize which approach might work best when. As Calder puts it, whenever possible (given departmental demands) and practical (given our research schedules), we should develop “signature” approaches toward the classes we teach.

  3. Darren,

    Thanks for coming by. I apologize if I somehow characterized you unfairly. My reference to you was a plug, in a way, for your three posts.

    If I have any criticism, it’s aimed at the pressure to cover as pushed by some departments, whether implicitly or explicitly. And of course this doesn’t matter to the tenured; the stakes aren’t as high for them as for us adjuncts.

    I completely agree with your point about letting the book do some of the work for you. Otherwise, why have the book? Textbooks cost a lot of money.

    – TL

  4. No need to apologize. Just a friendly correction. I could have been clearer.

    I haven’t faced any direct pressure here, but that’s probably because the upper division classes are free range. I’m sure that if I tried to do an “uncoverage” design for the 101-style surveys, I’d get some wierd looks. Fortunately, I’m not as persuaded that the uncoverage model – as done by Calder – is as appropriate for the survey course. I think non-majors and non-specialists need a bit more context for understanding historical issues and figures, and lectures plus weekly discussions (when done well) serve that purpose well enough.

    By the way, wonderful blog y’all have here. I like sticking my head in from time to time and enjoy your posts.

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