Thoughts from the American Historical Association: Transforming the U.S. Survey

The AHA Teaching Division sponsored a session on rethinking the U.S. survey in colleges. Chairing the panel was Shannon Bontrager, from Georgia Highlands College; on the panel were Sara Haviland (St. Francis College), Kimberly D. Hill (University of Texas at Dallas), Nancy Quam-Wickham (California State University, Long Beach), and Joy Schulz (Metropolitan Community College). Each of the panelists had been part of programs to re-think the teaching strategies in their college classrooms.

Here are a few of the ideas that came out of the session:

  • Haviland was part of a collaborative program in three institutions to utilize local archives and introduce the skills of history in a survey level class. The main project in her class (which was capped at 15 students) was to utilize a specific collection at the archives, learn how to use these primary sources, build an analytical question around them, and eventually write a paper on the analytical question. She had her students work in groups at the folder level, with the first visit introducing them to how to work in the archives and read their documents. On the second visit student read the other groups’ documents and on the third visit they reread their original documents and figured out where they fit in the larger story of the collection. A project like this one allowed the students to connect with local history, learn the skills of a historian, and work with primary sources to gain a first-hand experience of history.
  • Hill discussed her involvement in the Bridging Cultures Program which led to her website “Voices of Labor in the Atlantic World” which uses maps, primary sources, and digital tools to connect students with history. She explained that her student population was very diverse with many non-traditional students, and she wanted to find a way to make her survey connect with them. By using primary sources and maps in a digital format where students can choose what they read, Hill encouraged her class to make emotional connections to the material and understand the human experience of history. She also suggested a thematic structure to the course to allow for the introduction of historical skills.
  • Quam-Wickham approached changing the survey from the perspective of the Common-Core education that is shaping the students we will soon see in college classrooms. Common Core creates active learners in K-12 classrooms; how will these students then react to the lecture structure common in colleges?  She created team research papers centering on key terms in which students have to include a historical event, create an analytical question, survey secondary and primary sources, observe change over time, and produce something to be read outside of the class (many groups created websites). Students also wrote a reflective essay at the end of the semester on the project.
  • Schultz suggested presenting classes from a new perspective—for example the idea of eastward expansion from Hawaii, instead of the usual westward expansion—in order to engage new materials and give new perspective to students.

Other thoughts presented in the panel:

  •  Quam-Wickham noted that history enrollments are declining and many students in U.S. survey classes are non-majors. By creating an active learning environment that got students excited about history and allowed them to connect to historical ideas, she noted that the survey classes became an opportunity to recruit new majors.
  • The U.S. Survey functions not only as a general education requirement for many institutions, it also provides opportunities for civil engagement, educating the next generation of citizens.
  • Suggestion to shift class time away from lecturing content contained in the terxtbooks; instead test student on the content they can read on their own and use classtime for projects and learning historical skills. This makes the textbook not a wasted purchase and opens time for additional exploration and new types of learning.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.