Published: June 4, 2021 By

Sometimes it is necessary to re-think the courses we teach in a fundamental way. By 2019, I had taught a survey course on British history before 1660 (HIST 1113) for a decade. Although I tweaked the course every time I taught it and received respectable feedback from FCQs, I was becoming increasingly convinced that it could benefit from more radical changes. In part, this feeling arose because I was unhappy with a new edition of the main textbook which I used for HIST 1113, which had become unbalanced in its coverage and was riddled with factual errors. I didn't want to have to teach against the textbook or require students to buy it. On a more positive note, my interest in re-thinking HIST 1113 was also piqued by the extended discussions which the faculty of the History Department had about refining its undergraduate pedagogy—the so-called History Teaching and Learning Project, which began in 2017-18. 

An Initial Experiment: When at first you don't succeed...

My first experiment in re-thinking HIST 1113 was directly inspired by the example of one of the visiting scholars who came to talk with History Department faculty as part of the History Teaching and Learning Project. In 2006, Prof. Lendol Calder of Augustana College (IL) published an influential article on re-conceptualizing a survey course of modern U.S. history using the idea of "uncoverage".[1] Calder's aim was to "uncover" distinctive features of the discipline of history in an introductory course by creating a series of modules on different historical topics, each of which repeated the same basic pattern: an initial class which explores a video ("visual inquiry"), followed by a class which focuses upon extracts from documents of the period in question (structured engagement with primary sources or "critical inquiry") and, finally, a class which turns to the two "untextbooks" used in the course and which explores the ways in which historians shape the past in their narratives (ultimately resulting in what he terms "moral inquiry"). 

I very much liked the double sense of "uncoverage" in this model. While the modular structure facilitated a break from the traditional chronological approach to "covering" historical events in a survey course, the repeated intellectual work in each module also encouraged students to "uncover" the constructed and contested nature of "history" itself (and how it differs from "the past"). However, I also recognized that using Calder's model for a survey course on British history before 1660 would not be straightforward. Unlike for modern U.S. history, video materials for my course are limited and are obviously not the product of the eras which they portray. Calder's focus on "untextbooks" which offer two distinct interpretations of U.S. history also could not easily be replicated for my course, which explores events across more than a thousand years.

Despite these concerns, I took advantage of teaching a small Honors section in Fall 2019 to dabble with a modularized version of HIST 1113 which drew heavily from Calder's "uncoverage" model. I addressed the videos issue by using a series of videos which progressively moved from straightforward documentaries to documentaries which included elements of historical re-enactment and even historical invention and, finally, to full feature films which were historical dramas. The aim was not only to offer a vivid introduction to each era which students would be studying, but also to encourage students to become more sophisticated consumers of the ways in which the modern world portrays history through audio-visual means. To this end, students were required to analyze each video according to a specific set of criteria, which I provided and modelled at the start of the course. By contrast, I never found an adequate solution to the problem of finding two "untextbooks" which would offer students contrasting—and debate-worthy—interpretations of British history before 1660. Candidate texts which I examined either did not cover enough of the period examined in the course, did not provide enough detail for a university level course or seemed unsatisfactory for other reasons. In the end, I found one book that fitted the mold, but I had to pair it with a textbook (i.e. not an "untextbook"!) that was really too bland to set up a genuinely creative tension between the two books.

The practical experience of teaching during the Fall 2020 semester soon revealed some other flaws in my experimental HIST 1113 course. The most fundamental problem was that, in order to engage productively with primary source extracts, students required more knowledge of the circumstances and culture which produced those extracts than the videos could give them. Although I introduced a whole series of tweaks during the course of the semester, this problem never truly went away. I am very grateful that the students in this class remained so willing to work with me in testing out these changes and in offering informal feedback on what seemed to work and what did not.

With three assessable exercises for each weekly module, my syllabus also required a lot of grading. This was just about manageable for a small section of 18 students, but it would obviously be unsustainable for a larger class. I also had mixed feelings about a two-part exercise in which students were required to search for, identify and analyze a scholarly article which they would subsequently use in their final paper.[2] This assignment was intended to encourage students to explore the vast number of publications accessible via JSTOR and to plan ahead for their term paper. This mostly worked quite well, but it also meant that I had to read 18 different articles in a compressed timeframe to be able to grade the first part of this assignment.

Many years ago, a colleague of mine at another university told me that, the first time we teach a new course, we usually learn how not to teach it. It is usually the second time around when we actually learn how to teach the course. I think my first attempt to re-think my teaching of HIST 1113 in Fall 2020 would bear out the wisdom of this observation. I learned a lot from my experiments in Fall 2020 and I certainly did not want to give up and return to my previous way of teaching the course. However, I clearly needed to go back to the proverbial drawing board before I taught HIST 1113 again in Spring 2021....

Re-thinking the British History Survey Course, Take Two: What am I really trying to achieve?

My first decision in re-thinking my approach to teaching HIST 1113 for 2021 was to flip the order of the second and third classes in each module. Instead of using visual and critical inquiry classes to build towards the "moral inquiry" class, as Calder did in his course, I decided that each module should move from the video-focused class to a class discussing excerpts from a textbook and then culminate with a class which explores primary source extracts. While this change was initially prompted by a desire to provide students with greater contextual knowledge in order to understand primary source extracts better, I soon recognized it had much bigger implications. Crucially, it forced me to address a fundamental question for any teacher: what I am really trying to achieve in this course?

While the revised course is still designed to "uncover" distinctive aspects of "history", I realized that I wanted to do something very different in my course on British history than Calder did in his U.S. history survey course. By concluding each module with a class which engaged with extracts or images which were created within the period being studied, I was signaling that I believe this particular intellectual work is especially important to me. Although there are all kinds of benefits that students can derive from developing their critical analytical skills through the close reading and contextualization of primary source materials, I recognized that my primary motivation for re-designing the course in this way was actually more expansive. In fact, I belatedly realized that my revised design for HIST 1113 was aligning the course with some of the goals which I try to pursue in my upper-division courses, which are structured around intensive engagement with primary source documents and images. These shared larger goals are spelled out most explicitly in the syllabus for my upper-division course on Tudor England (HIST 4133):

the careful reading and contextualization of primary source documents offers important insights into the assumptions and language of the age. To put it crudely, they offer little glimpses into the ways of thinking of men and women in Tudor England.

This obviously helps us better understand the period. It also offers us a broader frame of reference and cultural context for understanding the literature, art and music from the period... However, the close reading of primary source documents also has broader benefits. It helps to counter the abstract notion of the past as a place inhabited by "historical" people and instead encourages empathy towards fellow human beings whose lives were simultaneously similar to our own and yet also very different...

By emulating this emphasis on primary source materials for HIST 1113 (albeit in a less intensive way), my new version of the course shared a similar goal of cultivating a degree of empathy among students by encouraging them to recognize the human impulses and exigencies which those materials reveal about the past, and how those impulses and exigencies might be similar or different from our own modern world. At the same time, many of the specific primary source materials which I selected for study in HIST 1113 themselves constitute various forms of "history" (e.g. medieval chronicles), so a recurrent theme of working with these materials is the creation and use (and, arguably, sometimes the abuse) of "history" in Britain before 1660. This combination of larger purposes in the course also worked beautifully with the book which I chose to retain as the course's single textbook: Robert Tombs, The English and their history (Vintage, 2016 edition).[3]

Once I understood the larger objective of my revised version of HIST 1113 and how this dovetailed with the "uncovering" of "history", the end-product of student work in the course became obvious. Instead of compelling students to take the usual final examination, for which they would hastily prepare and equally quickly forget most of what they had crammed, I decided to specify a term paper. Because the course terminates at 1660, when the English monarchy was restored after 11 years of republicanism, I asked students to write a paper which would draw upon the English history they had studied over the course of the semester to offer specific advice to Charles II as he returned to England after a decade of foreign exile and began his reign over Britain's three kingdoms. This paper neatly combined the course's emphasis on developing historical empathy in students with the historical reality that English political and practical advice in the 16th and 17th centuries was very frequently based upon lessons derived from "history". As one source from the 1590s puts it: "there is no learning so proper for the direction of the life of man as History".[4]

Using a basic backwards-design approach, I sought to prepare students for the final paper by adding a short preparatory assignment in which they would explain how they planned to approach the final paper and what materials they would use in it. This would allow me to provide early feedback on the way each student planned to write their term paper and also gauge the need for extra readings before the final paper was submitted. I also required each student to meet with me via Zoom to prepare for both of these assignments. These meetings were intended to make sure that students fully understood the assignment and were preparing for the term paper well ahead of the final deadline. In place of weekly barrage of short exercises which had characterized the Fall 2019 version of HIST 1113, I pared back the other assignments in the Spring 2021 version to three analyses of video documentaries (with the lowest of the three scores being discounted) and two analyses of specified primary source extracts. Both sets of analysis exercises were accompanied by specific requirements, modelling and one or more example answers.

Ultimately, I think the design of this course was much more cohesive than in previous iterations in the past. There was also an explicit overarching logic to the components of the course. The video documentaries and chapters from the textbook each reflected different kinds of modern "histories" about the past, while the primary source extracts represent little fragments surviving from the past. The course's final paper, building upon all the previous work of the semester, also ultimately required students to project themselves into the past.

Well, how well did the course work?

I need to preface my comments here by noting that the course was taught remotely only (via Zoom) because of the continuing complications of the COVID-19 pandemic. This broader context probably explains the most frustrating aspect of the course. Around Week 12 of the semester, a general sense of exhaustion began to set in and many of the students seemed to run out of steam. In all fairness, I felt exhausted as well. I think this pervasive loss of energy was probably the result of having no spring break, which turned the final weeks of the semester into a real slog. 

Because I have changed my teaching of HIST 1113 quite dramatically in the past few times I have taught the course, the early feedback from FCQ surveys is not very helpful in gauging the impact of my changes for Spring 2021 (and, of course, the FCQs themselves have also changed over the last few years, further complicating comparisons). However, I received very positive informal feedback about the course from some students at the end of the semester. My own feelings about the new version of HIST 1113 are also decidedly positive.

By and large, I think the term paper assignment turned out to be a success. Although some papers were a little thin in terms of their actual historical content, the enthusiasm with which most students sought to replicate the language and political commonplaces of literate English writers in 1660 was genuinely encouraging. My sense was that most of the class seemed to enjoy writing a non-typical history paper in place of a traditional final exam. Some of the students certainly told me this. In my view, this part of the experiment worked well enough to be worth repeating in the future.

One element of the assessment which was less successful was the portion of the grade reserved for course participation. Although teaching the course via Zoom removed the problems of erratic student attendance and occasional technical glitches which I experienced in teaching other classes according the "hybrid" teaching mode of 2020-21, Zoom introduced its own challenges in terms of assessing student participation in class discussion.

How can I tweak the course to make it better in the future?

While classes will hopefully return to their normal format in the future, it seems clear that the participation component of the final grade can do more work within the course as a whole. Many of my colleagues use clickers very successfully in teaching survey courses. I now wonder if this might also be a useful way for me to encourage students to participate more consistently in class and further improve class discussion in HIST 1113. From what I have heard and seen from my colleagues, clickers certainly seem to warrant serious investigation and could very well be the major change which I will test out in the next iteration of the course.

I think a few small tweaks could also help future students to write better final papers for HIST 1113. One very simple change would be to begin reminding students about the nature of the term paper earlier in the semester. Hopefully, this would also encourage students to start thinking earlier about ideas for the advice they will offer to Charles II. Another possible change would be to eliminate the module on post-Roman Britain and the "Dark Ages" near the start of the course. This would permit the addition of a new module on Richard III and Henry VII and might potentially provide additional material which would have more obvious relevance to the final paper. Finally, I can change some of the primary source extracts selected for discussion in class to place slightly more emphasis upon the ways in which "history" was used to offer political advice and justify policy choices in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Final (for now) thoughts?

I began seriously thinking about teaching HIST 1113 in a very different way back in 2019. My first experiment in trying to teach a new version of the course, which reflected some of the ideas which I absorbed from the History Department's multi-year History Teaching and Learning Project in Fall 2019, was not entirely successful. In all honesty, this iteration of HIST 1113 was too strongly influenced by the example of the modern U.S. history expounded in Lendol Calder's 2006 article. (By the way, that is really a tribute to Calder's excellent article, not a criticism!) However, that partial failure was an essential stepping-stone to thinking again about what I really wanted to achieve in teaching HIST 1113.

I believe the version of HIST 1113 which I taught in Spring 2021 is much more coherent and intellectually focused then previous iterations of the course. The new design also reflects much better my broader aims for the course: to "uncover" key aspects of "history" with students and to encourage students to develop a degree of empathy for the men and women who lived in Britain before 1660. As noted above, I will continue to tweak the course in the future to make it better, especially in light of additional student feedback. This is something that teacher should do every time they prepare to teach a course again. However, I feel pretty confident that my new version of HIST 1113 is a better course than in the past and is now on a very positive path for the future.

Finally, while all the mistakes and missteps I made in the process of overhauling HIST 1113 were my own, I must state that much of the inspiration and encouragement I received in re-thinking this course came from colleagues in the History Department and from my fellow participants in the Making Teaching and Learning Visible (MTLV) program. I am very grateful for their support and suggestions in making my course better and more thoroughly thought-through. I learned a lot in the process and I would strongly encourage other faculty who feel some dissatisfaction with one of their own courses to apply to the MTLV program and begin their own journey of discovery.


References and Resources:

[1] L. Calder, 'Uncoverage: toward a signature pedagogy for the History survey', Journal of American History 92, no. 4 (March 2006), 1358-70. For the influence of Calder's article, see, for example, Mark R. Cheathem, "The Uncoverage Approach to the U.S. Survey Course" (April 2012), Jacksonian America: Society, Personality and Politics: A historian's view of the Early American Republic: https://jacksonianamerica.com/2012/04/30/the-uncoverage-approach-to-the-... [accessed 3 Sept. 2020]; Kyle Jantzen, "Building a Better History Course... Part Two: Some Research" (16 Nov. 2012): https://kyletjantzen.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/building-a-better-history-... [accessed 13 Sept. 2020]; "Why Uncover History?", UncoveringHistory.Org: Making Historical Thinking Visible: https://uncoveringhistory.org/ [accessed 13 Sept. 2020]. For more general comment on the widespread desire to overhaul history surveys courses, see Steven Mintz, "Reimagining the History Survey Course", Perspectives on History (April 2018): https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-... [accessed 13 Sept. 2020]

[2] Although I tweaked things to fit my own needs, my basic inspiration here was Brent J. Ruswick, "Teaching Historical Skills through JSTOR: An Online Research Project for Survey courses", The History Teacher 44, no. 2 (Feb. 2011), 285-296.

[3] This book is more than 1000 pages and spans English history from the Anglo-Saxon era to the 2014. Students in HIST 1113 are only required to read the chapters relevant to the course, ending at p. 273. Anything beyond that is optional reading!

[4] Henry Savile, The ende of Nero and beginning of Galba. Fower bookes of the Histories of Cornelius Tacitus. The life of Agricola.(London, 1591), sig. ¶3r: "A. B. to the Reader".


Paul Hammer is a professor of history at CU Boulder.