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Tuning  History: Redirecting History Surveys for General Education


Why Does This Class Matter Anyway? Tuning History in General Education Courses

Lauren Braun-Strumfels


     For most Americans, general education surveys may be the only point of contact with our discipline after high school. But what is the purpose of the introductory survey course in history? Among those who teach the subject, this apparently simple question does not have a straightforward or consistent answer. Is the goal of the survey to teach particular content that we believe every degree holder should possess? Or is it to impart the skills and habits of mind of historians? How do we reconcile the ready availability of information that characterizes the digital age with the value our profession places on sifting, discovering, analyzing, synthesizing, and constructing knowledge? How do we teach the skills of history at the introductory level? What should a student be able to do after taking History 101, especially if he or she never takes another history course again?

     Conjure up the first day of the semester in your mind. You are passing out your syllabus and offering a few opening remarks to a classroom full of new faces. Now fast-forward to midterm time, and you are handing back exams. You'd rather students focus on the comments you've written in the margins or the suggestions you offer the class, but much to your frustration the grade at the top of the page seems to be all anyone notices. Perhaps it's time to ask yourself, what are you communicating about the purpose of this course—in your course structure, assignments, communications, graded and ungraded activities, daily classroom routine and off-the-cuff comments? And how does your view of the value of practicing the discipline of history differ from what students expect the answer to be? How many of your learning objectives (for your course or for the department's introductory survey) use basic Bloom's taxonomy words like "identify"? How many objectives are difficult to measure, like understand or appreciate? What does this language say to students? Taking time to clarify what we tell students we care about is valuable not just for the experience in class but for the integrity of our discipline. What we emphasize in class and through our assignments impacts our teaching effectiveness and communicates what we conceive our discipline to be. Our survey courses tell tens of thousands of college students a year what is history, what they can and should take away from our discipline, and what really matters beyond the content of the course.

     The vast majority of students in U.S. colleges, community colleges, and universities come into contact with historians through the introductory course. Therefore the survey has the potential to influence how a broad audience of people view history and its applicability in their diverse lives. Because we are often a "service discipline," teaching hundreds if not thousands of students a year, most of whom will not major in our field, we should see the survey course as a key site for outreach—what Dan McInerney labels "advocacy." By articulating how the study of history teaches a person to think, analyze, and communicate in ways that differ from other humanities or social sciences, we can do something that few other disciplines do in their intro courses: invite students into our world, to practice alongside us and to engage in significant work early on in their college careers. Now, I do not advocate a single set of learning outcomes be adopted by every history program in the country—as the Tuning Project has shown, there is not nor should there be a "one-size-fits-all" approach to undergraduate history course design. (The History Discipline Core developed by the historians of the Tuning Project offers some ways to articulate what students should know and be able to do by the end of a course or degree program in history. It is available at However, we teachers of history should all consider the same set of core questions, using them to animate our exploration and identification of the essential elements of our classroom and program: what should students be able to do at the end of this history survey course, especially if this is the only course they will take?

     The three authors featured in this roundtable have suggested different ways we might expose the mechanics of history in regular class activities. We must actively combat what Sarah Shurts so eloquently terms the "immaculate conception" idea of history narrative—as if our interpretations of the past simply drop out of the sky as perfectly formed truths—that students often harbor and that we may be unconsciously reinforcing when we do not expose the mechanics of doing history and ask students to participate in that process even at the introductory level of the survey. We would do well to dislodge this belief that history is a set of static interpretations (or even worse, a compendium of facts) not just to produce better prepared history majors and college graduates, but also for the good of our democracy by creating a critically engaged citizenry.

     One ongoing dynamic that often besets the survey instructor is the seeming conflict between coverage versus depth in this fast-moving course. I do not think there is a single historian teaching Gen Ed today who has not felt at some point conflict between coverage and depth in the survey. Recently, this journal featured a forum that asked how a radical reconsideration of the contours, in particular the chronology, of the "standard" survey course could benefit students. Heather Streets-Salter wrote, "we might want to think of the required World History course not as a vessel into which we pour everything students need to know about the global past, but as a positive starting point in a relationship that has the potential to grow and expand."1 As suggested by Sarah Shurts in her article in this forum, teaching general education courses asks us to consider a fundamental question about the use of history to our society, and in the mindset and skillset of a learned person. If a student expects to focus on content in the introductory Gen Ed, and many do, that leaves little room to apply their learning later on—except at trivia night. Let's be honest: does exhorting students to care about a particular period or place in history really spark a deep connection? Likely not. But I have seen in my own survey classroom that when I use content to open up into the practice of the skills of historical analysis and argument—and when I emphasize these competencies as the takeaway from the course—I see students engage more deeply, more personally, and more excitedly in the class. Consider in your classroom: in what ways is "coverage" significant, and in what ways is it holding you back? If coverage is an essential aspect of an introduction to the study of history that can help build cultural literacy, especially among our country's under-resourced students, we would do well to frame the content we emphasize to students (and, in turn, critically examine how we ask students to demonstrate their mastery of this content)—with long-term, competency-based learning objectives.

     Thankfully, the conflict between teaching skills or emphasizing content is a false dichotomy; even teaching skills through content means you have to focus on one particular period, issue, or source to allow for practice and evaluation of skills. Shurts, in this issue, raises a thought-provoking point: "Perhaps there is value in a breadth of knowledge for introductory students too. If we want students to learn the concepts like change over time and continuity, or multiple causation and multiple consequence, they need some sense of the breadth of history to see these concepts in action." She argues: "Here coverage has value for its ability to illustrate the higher level historical thinking skills we want to prioritize." Or, do we get so bogged down in covering material deemed important that we neglect our larger role as advocates for our discipline, who must frame what history is and what historians do to a disengaged or even skeptical audience? (And if you think I'm talking about the average survey student, think about our state legislators or private donors who determine where the money goes!)

     Consider what those outside the university think we do. Historians need to do a better job of advocating for the value of our field because saying history is important no longer suffices in our brave new world of austerity in higher education and skepticism of the humanities. We are all in some way part of the army defending the value of history in the face of increasing skepticism about the "traditional" liberal arts. For some of us, the comfortable position that Kutztown's history department occupied for many decades, as described in the Forum article by Andrew Arnold, Louis Rodriquez, and Laura Scappaticci, with highly enrolled surveys and no apparent need to recruit or explain the value of the discipline, feels familiar. For others—including my own department—we've already begun to see enrollments decline; all of us have read or heard politicians, parents, and other formerly peripheral stakeholders decry the value of our field for students' "employment prospects" or as a reason to slash the budgets of higher ed. On top of that, as the demographic wave of the millennial generation recedes, all fields and sectors of higher ed are competing for fewer students for the near future. We believe that the study of history can contribute powerfully to deep learning and personal and civic engagement. So what problems or barriers do we confront in teaching how to think like a historian? How can we best model and teach our disciplinary values to a broad audience? Since General Education history courses may be the only point of contact with our discipline, our focused attention on the strategies of teaching history—what we ask students to do, not just what we say (or what I call the show don't tell approach)—can reinvigorate our discipline at this crucial stage in a student's personal and intellectual development. What are the most valuable things introductory history courses can teach students that will deepen their overall college education and experience and connect them with the purpose of college, (which we all understand from a historically informed perspective, of course!), that may even contribute to a reshaping of the meaning of college in this age when the very model seems to be up for debate, its fundamentals subject to reinterpretation? I'm not going to tell you how your course matters; rather, I'm asking you to think and debate these questions with your colleagues, with your students, and with yourself as a practicing historian. We as college teachers of history together face many of the same challenges, and have the potential through this hard work to make significant positive change on our campuses and in the education of our nation's students.

Lauren Braun-Strumfels is Assistant Professor of History at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey. She is currently working on a book about the role Italian diplomats played in shaping the lives of its migrants after they left, in the age of mass European migration to the U.S. She can be reached at


1 Heather Streets-Salter, "Forum on Teaching The World Since 1945: An Alternative to the Standard World History Survey?," World History Connected June 2014 <> (17 February 2016)

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