Author: Clay Ammentorp
Department of History
Editor-in-Chief: Alex Bower
February 20, 2023
Entering into my first ever stint as an instructor-of-record, I felt reasonably well-prepared to face the unique challenges of teaching History 40C: Modern American, Culture and Power as a five-week summer class. The DTEI sessions had given me a chance to build my syllabus months in advance and gather peer feedback. My oral exams taken a few months prior had included an entire reading list focused around historical pedagogy. Most importantly, I was intimately familiar with the History 40 series, having not only TA’d for multiple iterations of UC Irvine’s three U.S. History classes but having myself taken each of them as an undergrad.
Those experiences had given me insight into the content and structure of the class, yes, but the most crucial intelligence being in the 40 classes provided was insight into the students, themselves. The majority of those who enroll in the 40 Series at UCI are international students who are not history majors, as most domestic students admitted to UCI have already fulfilled this course’s requirements in high school. Almost all of the 40 Series students I have interacted with over the years are interested in history in a broad sense and are happy to learn, but relatively few arrive excited about 20th century U.S. history. Most have not taken another college history course, nor a U.S. history course at any level. I also knew from skimming the registrar for this particular class that most of the students were also seniors who had already retrieved their diplomas, having saved this final requirement for the very last moment of their four-year college journey.
Other professors of the 40 series that I have previously worked for and learned from – all excellent scholars and educators – had responded to some of the course’s challenges by emphasizing coverage. If students lack any familiarity with Abraham Lincoln or the New Deal or New Wave Feminism, then it seems like a reasonable next step would be to provide that information by filling out the class sessions with long, detailed lectures that serve to convey as much information as possible, so that they could be “caught up to speed” on what they “missed” in their high school education and come away with a whole new knowledge set about the United States’ history. In doing so, however, the 40 series can often take the form of the “sage on a stage,” subverting the efforts of the educators to center students by sacrificing time for the learners’ generative thinking at the altar of “making sure everything is covered.”
I have had reservations about coverage – in the 40 Series and in history courses, more broadly- for years before I encountered Lendol Calder’s concept of “uncoverage,” an approach that identifies the “signature pedagogy” of history not as a transmission of names and dates that can be swiftly Googled to answer trivia, but rather as training students in how to critically read and appraise texts within a historical context. Many educators, including my DTEI faculty mentor, Allison Perlman, have embraced this pedagogy for the many benefits it provides to all learners – especially those new to the field. Through my discussions with my DTEI peers and with Dr. Perlman, I aimed to implement the uncoverage model in a number of ways to ensure that my first-time history students would leave the class with, at minimum, an understanding of how history is practiced and of how to apply that practice in practical ways in their everyday lives. Some examples:
- The most important step for ensuring the “uncoverage” model would work had to come in the very first class. I wanted students’ metacognition, their understanding of their own thought process, to be clear regarding the object of the class before I talked about a single name or date. I opened the first class emphasizing that my goal in lectures, assignments, and final assessments was not that each student would have permanently memorized an assortment of facts about U.S. history, as many of them likely would not have reason or interest to draw from that repository of knowledge in the future. Rather, my hope was that they would be able to learn how to apply the practice of history, especially the critical reading of sources for authorship, audience, and significance, to their everyday lives. I emphasized that our analysis of primary sources could be translated into meaningful lessons about communicating in the workplace or attempting to understand and evaluate the content of our news and social media feeds.
- Despite being admittedly restricted to structuring the class around a lecture format, I made sure to design each lecture to provide moments for both a personal written reflection and a group assignment, tying them to attendance. I emphasized that I cared less about the students showing up to class than I did about them participating, and my grading policy for those assignments gauged engagement with the material over diction/syntax or the number of dates and proper nouns.
- Throughout the course and as part of their final assessment, I encouraged the students to deeply consider both change and continuity in the historical narratives of the 20th century United States and to think on how better understanding the events of the past could provide greater insights into understanding the world in which they lived. Beyond just wanting my class to pick up certain historical skills, I wanted the course to provide them with context that would help them to better understand the world they lived in and what opportunities they had to continue to make history of their own. When taught in this way, history has the chance to be truly empowering.
To close, I’d like to briefly reflect on my favorite class of the session, which was designed during a DTEI session several months before I taught it. Dropped right in the middle of the academic calendar, the lesson on the history of suburbanization dealt directly with my own area of research focus, and I could have easily chosen to fill the entire 80-minute period with anecdotes, court cases, technological innovations, prominent city planners, grassroots political movements, etc. However, while I did try to touch on most of these topics, I first opened the class by asking students to reflect on how the physical environment and (lack of) transit infrastructure in suburban Irvine shaped their day from the moment they woke up in the morning to when they arrived on campus.
After that writing warm-up, I then asked the students to share how this experience contrasted with other places they had once lived. What followed was an immensely productive conversation in which my class taught me about their lives – what was different about life in San Francisco, New York City, Tokyo, Beijing, and a host of other urban, suburban, and rural locales from around the world. By letting them lead instruction for 10-15 minutes and think about a topic that they were really experts in from a perspective they otherwise may have thought uninteresting or unimportant, I could observe a whole new set of synapses firing that I hadn’t observed in a prior class. They understood from those conversations why studying the history of how their environments are built is important for their own lives. With that “in,” even those students who normally struggled to connect to the material were fully engaged. It was one of the best classes I’ve ever been in, as a student or teacher.
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1994.
Becker, Carl. “Everyman His Own Historian.” The American Historical Review. Vol. 37, Issue 2. January 1932, p. 221-236.
Calder, Lendol. “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey.” Journal of American History, Vol. 92, No. 4. Oxford: Oxford University Press, March 2006, pp. 1358-1370.
Festle, Mary Jo. Transforming History: A Guide to Effective, Inclusive, and Evidence-Based Teaching. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020.
McGuire, Saundra Yancy. Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Stylus Publishing, 2015.
Williams, Yohuru. Teaching U.S. History Beyond the Textbook. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008.
Wineberg, Samuel S. Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.