U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Off-Topic Methodology Bleg: Teaching History Backwards

For about a month I have been pondering a radical revision to the way I teach U.S. survey courses. After witnessing students becoming more interested in the subject matter as we move closer and closer to the present, I have been wondering about getting this material to them earlier. For awhile I thought about a substantial introductory teaser unit. Perhaps by showing a solid documentary (e.g. *The Weather Underground* or *Fog of War*) and working over material from the 1960s to the present, for a few weeks, I might get them sufficiently excited to understand the virtue of working from the distant past to recent times. But I’m not happy about the potential for an abrupt content change in moving from the 1990s to, say, the 1890s. This has led me to think about conducting an entire twentieth-century survey, next year, in reverse chronological order. Yes, I may teach a survey backwards.

There are two reasons for this. First, something internal and theoretical. I am intensely interested in the notion of an “archaeology of the present.” To me, this is real, relevant (I see you wincing), and a radical change from the way most history is taught. It’s fun to work from the news backwards.

My second reason for considering a reverse-chronological presentation is external. For students, meaning first-years and uninterested upperclass folks, I am convinced that the best way to show the ‘relevance’ (again, that dreaded word—for some) of history is to demonstrate that remnants of the past exist in everyday life. When I say everyday I mean materially and intellectually. I really do think that tracing ideas and topics backwards will give students a firm, personal, and empirical anchor for thinking about the past. I believe, or hope (depending on my mood), that this will excite those not previously enthused. Perhaps this is where I’m riding the line of gimmickry. My feeling is that this approach gives the students an anchor in things they know—never a bad idea when trying to stimulate skeptics. Anecdotally, I asked students in one of my upper-division courses for their reaction to this idea. Around 90 percent thought it could work, though one said she had a high school teacher who tried this and failed miserably.

Methodologically, I am aware of the pros (and here) and cons (and here). By following the links, particularly number two of my ‘pros’, you’ll see that what I am proposing is not new; the idea dates to around 1971, and probably earlier. As for the cons, of course I don’t believe I will get fired for this—or else I would not consider the change. Fears of traditionalists history professors and methodologically conservative skeptics also won’t dissuade me.

I understand, however, the fears of presentism. In the study by Misco and Paterson, titled ” An Old Fad of Great Promise: Reverse Chronology History Teaching in Social Studies Classes” (again, link #2 in the pros above), I think that some of their proposals border on the fallacy of presentism. You can’t simply study history in its full breadth and contextual uncertainty by working backwards from the interests of students. I think the draw in teaching history backwards is viewing causation as something of a mystery, as an inductive process, which linear (i.e. textbookish) presentations avoid—to their detriment.

If I don’t do this, it will be because I decide either (a) it won’t work or (b) I don’t have the time, this coming year, to institute the change with the necessary energy. I suspect (b) will rule my decision, but am curious to hear from others who have either done this or thought about it.

So here are my questions for USIH folks: How will this fail? What are the philosophical problems with teaching history inductively? What are the methodological issues? What am I downplaying or not considering? – TL

24 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Well, in metaphysical terms, all history is done backwards. That’s simply a product of the structure of the universe. All history is therefore retrospective. But the reverse chronology idea will probably run aground on presentism sooner rather than later. The whole present originated in the past, but which past? Not everything has the same origins. So working backwards quickly becomes an exercise in genealogy. And eventually, as you go in reverse (present x was created by past y, which was created by past z, which was created by past q) you wind up somewhere it is very hard to make a logical claim for having anything to do with present x. Every past is some other’s present, just as some present will be another’s past. Collingwood dismisses this biblical method (what begat what) in sharp terms, but I can’t recall exactly what he says, and I’m too lazy to look it up right now.

  2. Varad: I’ll try and find that in Collingwood. In the meantime, of course I would avoid the this-begat-that silliness. The point, in my mind, is not to find ‘a’ cause of an effect, but causeS of an effect or effects. To me, causation often is a constellation of events and threads coming together. The point of working in reverse, then, is to reveal the complexity of causation, not its simplicity. I see what you’re saying, however, about the reductionism of teaching in history backwards as simply reverse chronology. – TL

  3. Tim, I’ve been thinking about this, too, after someone suggested the Memento approach to teaching the survey. It’s so bold, though, that I’ve been hesitant to do it. I think it would require a degree of lecturing skill, and perhaps a depth of understanding of the narrative so that it can be iteratively begun in reverse order, that I’m not sure I possess.

  4. David: Can you refresh me on the “Memento approach”? It sounds familiar, but the particulars are not jumping to mind. Otherwise, I too fear that my rhetorical skills for this kind of presentation are inadequate. My sense, or my imagination, is that the discussion framework, of course, changes to asking questions like “How did we get here?”, “What inspired this?”, “Who influenced this?”, “Why did this come about in this fashion?” The answers would have be given in multiples. You’d still present topics in chronological chunks (decades or mini-ages). And you’d still discuss all the major events, people, and dates. For instance, in discussing the rise of the New Right in the 1970s, you’d look back to Goldwater, his coterie, the growth of the Sun belt, reactions to the counterculture and political activism of the Sixties. So, in a way this would replicate what we already in some instances (giving the background for a decade’s topic). – TL

  5. [What follows is a comment from my soon-to-be new Monmouth College colleague, Jeremy Pool, transferred from Facebook. – TL]

    I’d have three concerns.

    The first one would be intelligibility. I find students can handle a discontinuous narrative just fine, but if they have to reorder it themselves in order to think about it as a greater whole, rather than a series of episodes, they might well fall short. Some sort of bookending with metanarrative might be enough to compensate for this.

    The second would be teleogy. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Massie’s high-minded talk of “the pleasure of understanding … another time for its own sake,” but I think that they’re right that the backwards approach does have a real “condescion of posterity” danger. You can talk about complex rather than simple causation, but you’re still protraying the past as the producer of the present, rather than as an always (structured) conjunctural process.

    My third concern is pedagogical. By selecting a set of causes or possible causes to examine, you’re effectively giving students an answer or a range of possible answers. Of course there’s no way to get around this entirely; it’s baked into the narrative. In the normal time’s arrow, however, students have to do the work of connection themselves, and can even pull up elements that we would normally think of as unrelated.

    I agree that archaeologies/genealogies of the present can be interesting and engaging, but worry, with Varad, that this make the past increasingly unimportant, or only of importance to itself, the further back one goes. I like the comparative approach or, to get highfalutin, the use of the past to create meaningful categories of inquiry.

  6. As a student, I would have hated/would hate doing history backwards. I am with the King of Hearts on this one: “Begin at the beginning, and go on til you come to the end: then stop.” (Technically speaking, this is the logic of narrative, of course, but it’s a great quote and I try to use it whenever I can.)

    Seriously, though, it is hard enough to learn to think historically, to move away from causality to contingency, to set aside teleology and the triumph of progress (or, if you prefer, the narrative of declension).

    I think that working backwards from the present would vastly complicate that epistemic transformation.

  7. @Jeremy: Thanks for the comment. On concern #1, the book-ending would be necessary. The instructor has to help students frame the period under consideration (which most Americanists probably do already). On concern #2, I think the instructor could (again) take care of that. It’s the same problem (post hoc ergo propter hoc) with the present teaching (chronologically forward) approach). But again, avoiding presentism is always and already a problem. On concern #3, the problem inherent here is a cause-and-effect approach to history—an approach I don’t really use (or at least it’s a language framework I avoid). As you noted, I prefer to let my students make connections. One could do this in a reverse-chronological setting as well. The largest question of all is this: Can change over time in history be discussed in a sensible way if we turn over our standard view of time moving forward? Currently, as we all know, historians go back in time only to move time forward.

    @LD: I think my last comments to Jeremy get at the points you raised. I will challenge you on this: thinking historically is more about thinking contextually (i.e. horizontally) in an era (or year, or in terms of events people) than it is about thinking vertically (or in linear fashion). In other words, historians make their money when they help students contextualize; they are already decent at thinking about linear cause and effect. Most “historical thinking” (in the spirit of Wineburg, as I understand it) is about treating the complexity of the past on its own horizontal/contextual terms. -TL

  8. Today at The Historical Society weblog, Randall Stephens reflected on “The Perspective History Gives Us.” Here are some passages from his post (some of which are quotes and ideas from others) that relate to this discussion—which, at its root, is an attempt to view the past in relation to the present:

    1. “One thing that good history—the non-infected kind—can do is provide deep insight or perspective on the present. Someone who is informed by history can engagingly read current events, discern the issues that animate contemporary political battles, and see things more clearly through the eyes of history.”

    2. “Kenneth Stamp wrote that: ‘With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.’ ”

    3. “William Faulkner’s character Gavin Stevens: ‘The past is never dead; it’s not even past’ (Requiem for a Nun, 1951)”,

    and last but not least, a quote that will make Paul Murphy proud,

    4. “Robert Penn Warren, who remarked with sternness: ‘The past is always a rebuke to the present.’ ” – TL

  9. @Tim,

    I agree that context is horizontal. But thinking historically also means setting aside, as best we can, all the sedimentary layers that got stacked onto that horizon in subsequent years/periods/eras.

    A crackerjack historian might be able to finesse this perspectival challenge with ease, and you are probably a crackerjack historian. But most undergraduates taking the U.S. Survey course are probably not. And I can testify from my own experience that many of us graduate students aren’t either. I’m working on it, but I won’t be trying to do history backwards any time soon. I have enough trouble doing it forwards.

  10. LD: Please don’t mistake me—I don’t think I’m crackerjack enough to pull this off. But if nobody is, then that means this is just a different approach, something learned—and not necessarily radical (though I privilege the discussion as about a radical change in the post). This post is a kind of methodological thought experiment; it’s me wondering out loud if it can be done. And others have done it, so it’s possible in some way. The “some way” is the kicker—done poorly, well, or just in a mediocre fashion? There’s no reason to make this kind of change unless the payoff is there, meaning raising student excitement. But again, I don’t think I’m a master teacher. No way. – TL

  11. TL: Well, I’m more of a Goober than a Crackerjack. (I always hate to open a box of Crackerjacks and find out that half of it is peanuts. Rip off!)

    It’s an intriguing idea, and anything that makes students more interested is probably worth a try. I doubt they would be more confused about history than they were when they started — maybe just differently confused?

    Confusion can be fruitful. This is what I’m telling myself as I look at my paper in progress, though at this point it looks more like a paper in declension. :/

  12. The first semester I TAed, they sort of did this (it was team taught). Except what really just happened was that there were 4 units and instead of progressing 1-4, they did 4, 1-3. It totally confused the students, but anymore than they are usually confused? I don’t know. It was my first semester TAing, I was really excited by the concept, and disappointed to find that there was no extra work to make the flow make sense to students.

    This has nothing to do with your idea, Tim. Just what I thought of as I read.

  13. Lauren: Actually, this is totally relevant. One of my thoughts has been to open with a long section on the 1970s to the present, then go further back. – TL

  14. The profs I taught for did nothing to their content to account for the new order. So it was exactly as if they had just chunked a section from one part of the year to another. It sounds like you’ll be doing a much better job of tying the threads together.

  15. Tim–Thanks for floating this idea. I’ve occasionally contemplated this approach in teaching a “Plato to Nato” version of Western Civilization. Chronologically, I have to start with the hardest material, covering figures and events that most students have never heard of. By the last 2 weeks of classes when we get to 20th Century topics, students feel a little bit more assured. Why not break them in easily with material that they have some sense of and then move to the harder topics?

    On the theoretical level, I think the concept of an “archaeology of knowledge” does support this approach. We begin to know things about the present and then ask how they came about. Find the solutions, then dig further back to the next topic.

    I’ve gotten so frustrated with the survey approach, I’m open to giving this a try!

    I’ll look forward to following your progress (backwards).

  16. I think it is a terrific idea.

    I am constantly surprised by how bored people profess to be by history in general, as if they haven’t noticed its application to their lives. I think that chronology is probably another ‘lens’ through which to examine our past – reversing it would be evocative, but not impossible.
    The reversal would inspire students to ask different questions, too – having studied the aftermath of a given circumstance, it could a very valuable exercise to examine its inception. It puts students in a more critical position.

  17. Repost from FB

    I was subbing today for a history class and had the chance to begin the teacher 9/11 lesson and it made me think about our discussion earlier about teaching history in reverse. I think an excellent way to introduce the study of American history would be through the study of the events of September 11th and its aftermath.

    You can study the subject from many angels. There is already so many pre-conceived ideas it is an excellent example to study bias from the same event. In addition, there are so many primary and secondary sources related to the topic that are available online (and not just tucked away in some dust book on a shelf or rarely used microfiche). You can have the class disprove conspiracy theories as a methodological activity. It is also a good topic to conduct an oral history project on. (The class of high school sophomores I taught were in the first grade on 9/11).

    Historiography is very easily introduced and whatever textbook you choose can be challenge. I have always wanted to have my student analyze a chapter on WMD from 48 Liberal Lies About American History. I would have students look up most of Schweikart’s sources and decide their validity (while the book was published in 2008 most of his sources are online news stories from 2001,2, and 3). This would give the students an excellent chance to become “critical consumers of information”

    It may be too difficult in the short term to develop an entire reverse curriculum, but maybe September 11th would provide a good starting point. It would be a hook and prepare the student for the methodology of a historian for early events.

  18. Rhett,

    Finals administration and grading prevented a quicker, timelier comment, but here goes anyway.

    Sept. 11 does indeed seem like a nice history-in-revers starting point. One could cover changes in foreign-policy policy (from presumptive intervention to containment), religious bigotry (compare Muslims to early reactions to Catholic-Irish, or Italian, foreign hordes), domestic security (Homeland security to Red Scares), resistance and dissent (from Patriot Act to Alien and Sedition Acts). And my list doesn’t cover military history, “waving the bloody shirt,” etc. A rich “starting point” indeed!

    I also like your Schweikart suggestion.

    I’m still not sure where I stand on this whole project. I may need to wait until tenure (?) to risk it, or risk it in a full reverse-history vision.

    – TL

  19. I have been teaching U.S. History in reverse chronology for over a decade in both high school and at the community college level. I have students fill out an anonymous evaluation at the end of the course and consistently there is in excess of 95% of students who prefer this pedagogical approach. There is limited research on this issue but student response is enough for me to continue.

  20. The study you refer to earlier (Misco and Patterson)was a rip off of what I introduced them to. I was told by my school district to stop teaching in reverse. Patterson and Misco heard about this from a friend of mine and not only interviewed me but let me do a workshop at Bowling Green State University. Not once in the article they wrote did they even mention my name. My approach starts from the present (A) then goes back about 10-15 years (B) and move forward to the present. Then move back about 20years or so (C) and move forward to B. Continue this until you reach the end of the time periods you are studying. As I mentioned in my earlier post, students like it and I have the documents to verify it.

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