Energizing the History Survey

Historians in the News
tags: education, AHA2017



Students and professors tend to loathe survey-style history courses for the same reasons: they’re often large and impersonal, cover long periods of time in little detail, and amount to a slew of dates, events and names over something more meaningful. Yet (or perhaps as a result) survey courses are, for many undergraduates, the only history courses they’ll ever take.

Can the history survey be invigorated? A series of sessions offered over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association seemed to ask and answer that question, in the affirmative.

“A lot professors don’t want to teach a survey class, but I take the opposite view,” said Kyle Longley, the Snell Family Dean’s Distinguished Professor of History at Arizona State University. “It’s an opportunity to recruit majors.” Longley spoke during a session on teaching the U.S. history survey in a global context; he and other panelists said the approach has become increasingly popular during the last two decades and promotes making connections and other aspects of historical thinking. It doesn’t mean abandoning U.S. history, but rather situating key events, ideas and figures within a more international context. So parallels may be drawn between the Jim Crow U.S. South and South Africa under apartheid, for example.

Laura A. Belmonte, chair of history at the University of Oklahoma and co-author of a new textbook, Global Americans, said the global dimension also helps students re-examine aspects of U.S. history with which they’re already familiar. “It’s a different spin,” she said. “They have to fundamentally rethink things.”

Charles Cavaliere, executive editor at Oxford University Press, said he wondered whether survey courses should even be called survey courses anymore. “Turning the course into an introduction to the history discipline or the professions might be a better idea, and taking a global approach is a powerful way to do that.” 

Longley said the more global take on U.S. history is here to stay, but questions going forward include “How much farther do we go, how much father can we go, and still write a very good narrative? … What’s the resistance on the other end?” ...





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