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Taking Cover: Explaining the Persistence of the Coverage Model in World History Surveys

Dave Eaton



     Coverage is a dirty word for history instructors. Referring to a teaching style that emphasizes memorizing content from a textbook and then regurgitating it on tests, it has become a target for pedagogical innovators. In a recent article on the American history survey course, Lendal Calder states that "the typical, coverage-oriented survey is a wrongheaded way to introduce students to the goodness and power of history…"1 Writing about the general-education world history survey, Steinhoff contends that the "aspiration to provide meaningful coverage of a basic set of facts yielded courses that present world history either as a rough and ready romp through hundreds, even thousands of years of history, or as a hodgepodge of unconnected information about various world cultures."2 As early as 1898, the American Historical Association (AHA) encouraged instructors to avoid focusing on memorization, perhaps the first of many attempts to supplant the coverage model in the history classroom.3

     These authors' frustration with the coverage model reflects the vast majority of pedagogical research, which demonstrates that instructors should adopt a skills-based approach that gets students "doing history" and introduces them to forms of disciplinary thinking.4 Even former AHA President Kenneth Pomeranz argues that history professors should focus on teaching skills in order to move "our pedagogy closer to what we often, all too revealingly, call 'our own work'."5 Despite these critiques, however, most university-level survey courses follow a "pedestrian, by-the-book approach" that involves covering the material contained in a textbook.6

     How can we explain the enduring appeal of the coverage model? In 2013 I led a teaching circle at my university (a master's large public institution in the Midwest) to try to find answers with regards to our general-education world history surveys. In most writing on the subject, some variant of what Calder calls "pedagogical inertia" is held responsible.7 And while I do not disagree that this plays a role, I discovered two other factors that I would argue are more significant. First is the lack of prestige associated with teaching a world history survey. This creates numerous structural impediments to adopting best-practices in the classroom. Second, instructors understand that coverage matters. While teaching directly from a textbook is hardly ideal, it does ensure relatively balanced content that is unlikely to omit major regions, events, or types of people.

Covering the Basics

     The world history survey occupies an odd place in the discipline. Since its creation in 2002, the AP World History course has experienced rapid growth. Over 260,000 students took the exam in 2015, demonstrating that across the U.S. there is a real thirst for knowledge of the global past. However, universities do not offer much to the numerous high-school students excited by the prospect of world history. There are very few professors with a specialization in world history, leaving global surveys to graduate students, Teaching Assistants, area studies scholars, and part-time faculty picking up courses to make ends meet. In some departments, being assigned a survey course is a form of punishment. Many senior historians have been critical of the world history survey – at the 2003 AHA Annual Meeting, scholars in favor of Western Civ argued that world history was both inappropriate and even impossible to teach.8 Within the discipline, the more chronologically and geographically bounded a course is, the better.

     These issues became apparent when I led my teaching circle. The aim was to provide instructors with an opportunity to reflect and share on their teaching experiences, particularly with regards to our world history surveys. HST 101 – Introduction to World Civilizations was the most daunting of these offerings. Covering the entirety of human history, this course fulfilled the "world perspectives" general education requirement and was one of the department's highest enrolled classes, but until 2014 it could not count towards the history major. This meant that virtually every student taking the course intended to specialize in something else. Almost 40% of our undergraduates were the first in their families to attend college, and 37% were classified as low-income. Many took a pragmatic approach to higher education, and sought a clear path from their degree to their career. As a result, my institution's pre-professional programs have rapidly expanded, while the number of history majors has undergone a slow but steady decline. Most of these students will only take one history course at the university-level, usually a 100-level survey. HST 101 is a very popular choice.

     The plan for the teaching circle was to try to encourage instructors to adopt pedagogies inspired by Lendal Calder's "uncoverage" model. He writes that survey instructors "should aim to uncover history" by revealing to students the forms of disciplinary thinking that produce the "facts" found in textbooks.9 I sought to do this by purchasing copies of Zevin and Gerwin's Teaching World History as Mystery for the attendees. It was recommended to me by a colleague who felt their irreverent approach might be ideally suited to this sort of discussion. I was impressed by Zevin and Gerwin's desire to present history "as it really is" rather than simply how it is portrayed in textbooks, and like their approach which involved presenting students with original documents and then assisting them with analysis. My hope was that by encouraging more survey instructors to adopt similar approaches, we might convince more students who took a general education survey to become history majors.

     At the first meeting it became apparent that there were numerous obstacles that limited the prospects of an "uncoverage" approach. The backgrounds of the attendees were suggestive of these challenges. One had formal training in world history – he had taught at the high school and university level, and co-written an article on the challenges of integrating world history into the curriculum. The other six professors teaching HST 101 had very different training – four Americanists with research focused on the 19th or 20th centuries, a classicist studying Ancient Greek military history, and a Latin Americanist who had been hired one year earlier. The Latin Americanist and I were the only tenure-track faculty present. As we discussed Zevin and Gerwin's lesson plans, several visitors and adjuncts mentioned that they had been assigned to teach HST 101 only a month before the course began.10 Needless to say, this made preparing complex lesson plans difficult. They also pointed out that during the semester they were active on the job market, and that peer-reviewed writing was much more important to their future career prospects than delving into world history pedagogy. Narrow time constraints aggravated an already challenging situation. Although first-time instructors wanted to teach HST 101 well, they did not have time to master the macro-themes of world history. Instead, they skimmed textbooks and cannibalized them for lecture material. This was usually supplemented with a primary source reader which was used for document analysis and brief discussions. While unquestionably the most efficient way to develop a world history course, the instructors could offer little more than the textbook provided. This created a dangerous confluence of overworked faculty and students taking the course solely to meet a general education requirement. The result is what I think can be described as an implicit social contract – the students are willing to accept stolid lectures and generic assignments so long as the instructor reciprocates by marking in a forgiving fashion. Lacking over-arching themes or open-ended exercises, HST 101 devolved into the dreaded "one damned thing after another" of interest to neither students nor instructors. Bain and Harris noted that college level world history offerings lagged behind the growth of the field at the high school level.11 Based on this teaching circle, I think that is entirely accurate.

     The most intriguing comment I took from this teaching circle was how difficult it was to prepare enough content to fill the lecture periods. Although all agreed that the mass of information on world history was overwhelming, several instructors mentioned that they learned the key events of world history as they designed the course, and often felt out of their depth when dealing with regions or time periods beyond their area of expertise. In 1977, William McNeill wrote that the "central failing of our profession" was our retreat into ever narrower research specialties.12 The problems with specialization are most evident when one is thrown into a world history survey with little time for preparation. Lacking any specific training on much of the global past, instructors use coverage not only to teach their students but also to learn the basics themselves. After all, how can one create a representative course on world history without some basic knowledge of its key themes or events? And where is this knowledge going to come from if the instructor has never received formal training in the subject? I would argue that part of the reason the coverage model endures is because most instructors use their first iteration of the course to provide themselves (rather than their students) with a basic overview of "the facts."

     I do not doubt that the vast majority of instructors would eventually step beyond the "coverage" approach after they have mastered the core content of a world history survey. But very few tenure-track professors remain world history instructors. Instead, as they gain seniority they "graduate" to more specialized seminars that focus on specific regions or themes. Visitors and adjuncts often get jobs at other institutions and, particularly for those who study American history, are unlikely to ever teach world history again. To the best of my knowledge, only two of those who attended the teaching circle still teach world history surveys. The constant turnover that plagues survey course instruction is an important reason why the coverage model won't go away.

Uncovering Challenges

     However, the rationale for the coverage model goes beyond helping instructors make sense of an unwieldy subject. We are also sensitive to criticism, and this is particularly true on certain hot topics. At the teaching circle, one instructor mentioned being uneasy teaching Islam without having any background in the subject. This person's specific fear was that passionate students might ask questions that they could not answer. In this hypothetical situation the instructor was grateful to have an authoritative textbook to which students could be referred. A carefully vetted source on world history is a necessity for many early-career instructors, and there is a real temptation to rely on a content-based approach to avoid accusations of bias.

     We are all products of the institutional culture of our discipline, and at times this can lead to significant "blind spots" in our historical knowledge. I am an Africanist, and as a group we are very sensitive to these issues. In the 1950s Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, casually dismissed Africa's pre-colonial past as "the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe."13 Lacking collections of written documents, most Africans outside Egypt became "people without history."14 And while it is now accepted that Africa has a vibrant past that predates colonization, many historians remain unfamiliar with the archaeological, linguistic, and even genetic evidence used to piece together this picture.15 How can they use the "uncoverage" model if they have never been trained in any of these methodologies? How much easier is it to focus primarily on societies which are literate and have left an array of documents suitable for primary source analysis? Fortunately, the vast majority of historians now recognize that even if they do not know much about pre-colonial Africa, it is important to include it in a world history survey. Unfortunately, if one does not have a background in archaeology, linguistics, or genetics, the most efficient starting point for constructing a class on the subject remains the textbook.

     There are real dangers in going beyond the textbook and creating more specialized lesson plans. In early iterations of my world history survey I was quite proud of my geographical balance. Every region of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, received sustained attention in the classroom. However, I inadvertently made some serious errors as I tried to move beyond "coverage." The most glaring was with regards to gender. I generally agree that it is "one of the fundamental organizing principles of human societies," and as such needs to be incorporated in a "planned, purposeful" way into world history surveys.16 I had included a number of exercises that dealt with this critical issue; a look at the Venus figurines from 25,000 years ago, a reading on the martyrdom of Perpetua during the Roman Empire, and a discussion of Ban Zhao's views on women and education during the Han Dynasty. But as I moved closer to the present, women dropped out of the picture as I focused more on political leaders and scientists, virtually all of whom were male. When I examined the "key terms" that students were required to learn, there were only six women as opposed to forty men. It was a humbling experience. I was inadvertently sending a clear but unintended message through my course – that women were not an important part of world history.17

     A content-based approach might have helped me avoid this mistake. Since the 1970s, "texts began to give more space to groups that had been marginalized throughout history."18 For all their faults, textbook publishers are extremely conscious of the content they include and have made real efforts to present a more inclusive view of the past. Of course, an "uncoverage" version of the survey course should be subjected to similar scrutiny, and I feel my own version of HST 101 now comes close to being both engaging and representative. But it took me seven years of constant revisions to get to this point, time the vast majority of world history instructors will never have. For those who only expect to teach surveys for a short amount of time, textbooks offer the important benefit of being vetted in advance to ensure relatively even coverage of world regions and themes.


     In 1998, the then-President of the AHA Peter Stearns wrote that "any subject of study needs justification."19 To me, career-oriented general education students are a crucial audience – how do we convince these students that history is relevant to their lives? If we wish to stem the declining numbers of history majors, we need to make a compelling case in introductory level survey courses. Sadly, many of these memorization-based classes simply confirm the worst fears of undergraduate students who complete their general education requirement with a sense of relief and never take a history course again.

     If coverage is such a problem, however, why has it endured? I would argue this is because it is a necessary first step for any instructor seeking to teach a world history survey. While some may claim that our students do not need to know the basic facts before plunging into historical thinking, it is harder to argue this is also true for professors. Like it or not, teaching effectively requires knowledge of "the facts," not just mastery of historical skills. In the context of world history, this is particularly important during our first experiences with a survey course, when we will inevitably know little about the times and places we are teaching. The coverage model is an effective entry point to improving our survey courses. As an instructor, it provides a basic understanding of the place of certain events in the larger scheme of things, an awareness which can be translated into a more sophisticated approach along the lines of "uncoverage" in later years. But so long as world history surveys remain a low priority for departments and are taught by a rotating cast of non-specialists, the coverage model will remain an important form of instruction.

     The coverage model also minimizes some of the risks of a skills-based approach. Those following a coverage-based approach will likely rely heavily on textbooks, and while they are not perfect, textbooks have been sensitive to critiques about the marginalization of women and minorities from their pages. Choosing to rely on "uncoverage" leaves the instructor without this safety net, and instructors may unconsciously follow paths of least resistance while choosing where, when, and what to study. This can be extremely problematic, especially when it comes to challenging subjects like pre-colonial African history. Urging instructors to "stop worrying about coverage," as Zevin and Gerwin do, seems disingenuous to those whose research focuses on people or places typically left out of larger historical narratives.20

     I am not defending the coverage model. As I have stated on several occasions,21 I believe a survey designed to explore forms of historical thinking and "unwrap" the textbook is superior to a content-based approach. However, coverage has not endured the entirety of the 20th and 21st centuries simply because of inertia. There are real issues that need to be addressed across the entire discipline to improve the quality of survey instruction along the lines proposed by so many pedagogical scholars. As the number of history majors continue to decline, these problems become more and more urgent.

Dave Eaton teaches African and world history at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. He has published several articles and book chapters on cattle raiding in East Africa, but after participating in the AP read at Salt Lake City began to study world history in greater depth. This article is based on a presentation given at the WHA Annual Meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica in 2014.He can be reached at


1 Lendal Calder, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," Journal of American History, Vol. 92, no. 4 (2006), 1359.

2 Anthony J. Steinhoff, "Taking the Next Step: World History and General Education on the American Campus," World History Connected Vol 3. No. 3 (2006), available at

3 Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voekler, "The End of the History Survey Course: The Rise and Fall of the Coverage Model," Journal of American History, Vol. 97 (2011), 1051.

4 Stephan Levesque, Thinking Historically, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).

5 Kenneth Pomeranz, "Histories for a Less National Age," American Historical Review, Vol. 119, no. 1 (2014), 21.

6 Daniel J. Cohen, "By the Book: Assessing the Place of Textbooks in U.S. Survey Courses," Journal of American History 91:4 (2005), 1405.

7 Calder, "Uncoverage," 1359.

8 Ane Lintvedt, "Teaching the World History Survey Course in the 21st Century," presented at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, January 2004, Washington DC. For further details on this argument, see Jacob Neusner, "It Is Time To Stop Apologizing for Western Civilization and to Start Analyzing Why It Defines World Culture," from Ross E. Dunn, The New World History: A Teacher's Companion, (New York: Bedford St. Martin's, 2000), 75.

9 Calder, "Uncoverage," 1363.

10 This was due to strict policies requiring a class to have 15 students in order to proceed. Upper-level classes that are close to reaching this level may not be canceled until the last minute. When that happens the tenure-track professor is bumped to a 200-level survey course (unlike the 100-level surveys these courses must be taken by history majors), and the adjuncts or visitors are bumped from that to a 100-level survey.

11 Robert Bain and Lauren MacArthur Harris, "A Most Pressing Challenge: Preparing Teachers for World History," Perspectives on History October 2009.

12 William H. McNeill, "The Changing Shape of World History," from Dunn, The New World History, 83–84.

13 This was originally part of a lecture series on "The Rise of Christian Europe" televised by the BBC. It was reprinted in the magazine The Listener as part of their November 28, 1964 issue.

14 Joseph C. Miller, "History and Africa/Africa and History," American Historical Review 104:1 (1999), 2.

15 For a summary of how these forms of evidence are being used to reconstruct the history of the Swahili coast, see Jeffrey Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, "Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices," African Archaeological Review 29 (2012), 171–207.

16 Antoinette Burton, A Primer for Teaching World History, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 40–41.

17 This problem has been noted by many scholars with regards to textbooks as well. For example, see Linda Jones Black, "Textbooks, Gender, and History," World History Connected 3:2 (2006), available at

18 Gilda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past, Placing Women in History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 79. Cited in Black, "Textbooks, Gender, and History.'

19 Peter N. Stearns, "Why Study History?" available at

20 Jack Zevin and David Gerwin, Teaching World History as Mystery, (New York: Routledge, 2010), 18.

21 On the podcast "On Top of the World," episode 3 involves a debate between myself and Matt Drwenski over the merits of content vs skills in world history instruction. It is available at

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