Coverage or Uncoverage: Lessons Learned while Teaching History

"Korean Puppet Show," from Album of 100 genre scenes (British Library; late 19th century)
“Korean Puppet Show,” from Album of 100 genre scenes (British Library; late 19th century)

By Patrick Jackson (Philosophy, Religious Studies, and History, Allegheny College)


Some years ago, before I finished my PhD and came to teach at Allegheny, I was a lecturer in the history department at the flagship campus of a large, public, research university. I was in charge of the “second half” of the World History survey, a wild romp through everything that humanity has been up to since the Ottomans took over (and, famously – why not? – renamed) Constantinople. Twice a week, I stood before my 150 students (give or take, depending on what the football team was up to) and delivered a 45­minute lecture that I had gone to great lengths to make witty, intelligently argued, and elegantly composed. I learned a great deal; my students, on the other hand, learned nothing.

Or at least that’s how it seemed the next semester, when several of the best of them signed up to take a seminar on the Scopes Trial with me. One of my favorite lectures in the World History course had been on the intellectual and spiritual mayhem precipitated by Darwin’s theory of evolution and Friedrich Nietzsche’s joltingly clear and surprisingly prescient vision of how we might all wind up dealing with the fallout. This particular presentation was – if you’ll indulge me in a moment of brazen self­regard – sublime. You’d never have known it, though, for all that the students remembered about what I’d said.

I must have kvetched about this experience around the department more than I remember, because soon thereafter a wise senior colleague put Lendol Calder’s 2006 Journal of American History article, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” into my young, inexperienced, and idealistic hands. Calder wonders if historians might develop a “signature pedagogy” for introductory classes that, rather than having us rush through the material in an effort to deliver the necessary content (thereby “covering” everything), we spend our time walking students through the processes by which the arguments we think of as “history” get made and thereby “uncover” what it is that historians actually do. In this way, we invite students to think about and begin to develop the skills and habits of mind that makes studying history both interesting and useful. (See Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, Temple University Press, 2001), for more on this.

I was intrigued. Around about the same time, I started hearing about the “flipped” classroom, a pedagogy which puts content delivery outside of class and discussion at the heart of teaching, and came to the conclusion that some important pedagogical tides seemed to be turning. I vowed never to lecture ever again.

When it works, doing “uncoverage” in a “flipped” classroom is a marvel. I’ve been most successful at implementing it in latter­day versions of that Scopes Trial seminar, which I’ve taught a half­dozen times now. At Allegheny, I teach it under the guise of a class called “Myth and Reality in the American Past.” This format has helped me quite a bit, particularly because it forces us to deal with some of the fundamentals right up front. I set aside the first week or two for students to explore the difference(s) between myths, fables, tall­tales, history, and the like. If things go according to plan, they eventually get seriously frustrated by the unavoidable conclusion that both myths and history are constructed narratives. I relieve this initial irritation by trying to get them to see that there’s an important difference between what, in the end, myth­makers and historians pay fealty to. At their best, historians owe their ultimate allegiance to evidence, to “the facts.” Myth­makers and fable­spinners, on the other hand, tend to worship at some other altar. This is a valuable lesson that I try to make full use of as the semester goes on; it somehow helps a lot to have felt that sense of hopelessness when we get around to discussing sources and how to vet them.

After the philosophical drama of the first two or three weeks, it’s time to begin positioning the class to understand what was at stake in the Scopes Trial. The temptation to go for coverage is high. Most students come into the class not really knowing much about the trial. (Some of them have never even heard of it.) Since the trial is one of those unusual historical moments during which we see almost every major intellectual, social, economic, political, and religious trend of the era playing some identifiable role, the urge to lecture – to point all of this out and to explain how elegant it is – is powerful. I have to exert real self­control in order to overcome it. Instead, week by week, I offer the class primary and secondary readings that, if we can get the interpretation right and keep everything in sight all at once, have the potential to offer an astoundingly comprehensive view of the 50 years leading up to the trial. The students almost never see that this is eventually going to happen and they spend a lot of time in the first half of the semester teasing me about the fact that by the mid­term we still haven’t arrived at the trial. As far as they can tell, the semester’s half over and we haven’t even begun to talk about the actual subject of the class; from my perspective, of course, it’s the thing we’ve been talking about all along.

I also find it difficult to measure exactly how much the class has learned. At the end of each semester, I’m often not entirely convinced that the students would perform at the level one would expect – given how long we’ve been talking about this one historical event – on a traditional, get­the­facts­in­order exam on the Scopes Trial. The cast of characters is complex, and they don’t always get the names right, even on the final exam (which consists of one simple question: Who won the Scopes Trial?) Nearly all of them, however, report a positive change in their relationship with history, which they uniformly suggest ­ even when they don’t use these words ­ has become far more dynamic and sophisticated. On course evaluations, their satisfaction is higher than on just about any other class I’ve ever taught.

Sometimes my fervor for progressive pedagogy leads to a dramatic flame­out, though, and it’s worth thinking hard about what goes wrong. Two particular classes come to mind.

Once, I tried to flip a class outside my area of expertise that I was teaching for the first time – the third part of a three­part survey of the history of Christianity. My biggest mistake, I think, was that I failed to follow Calder’s advice to dial back the narrative. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1100­page Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years was relatively new and I’d been wanting to read it, so I just assigned it to the class. I supplemented this behemoth with various primary documents ­ Luther’s 95 Theses, Candide (which the students didn’t realize was funny until we read it together out loud), transcripts from the Trial of Anne Hutchinson, and some others, but there just wasn’t enough room for the students to engage. They were – how to put this? – completely overwhelmed. Few of them had taken the first two parts of the survey, so they had no idea what the backstory was; many of them hadn’t been raised in religious families, so things I’d assumed they’d have some personal experience with were completely foreign; and MacCulloch’s narrative was too tight and far too complex for them to take on in any meaningful way. I spent the entire semester re­teaching them the things they were meant to have learned from the reading. I felt both ashamed and ridiculous to have set them up to fail so spectacularly.

Another class in which I’ve seen mixed results when deploying the “flipped/uncoverage” model is an American religious history survey that I’ve now taught four times. Here, I’m not the amateur that I was in the survey of all of Christianity, so my own ignorance isn’t the problem. I also think I’ve done a decent job of identifying points of conflict that will allow the students to make judgements about the past, which almost always engages them. We talk about the trial of Anne Hutchinson, about George Whitefield and his critics, about James Madison and Patrick Henry’s argument over public funding for religious schools, about religious justification for and against slavery, about the Scopes Trial, about the Civil Rights Movement, and about the Rise of the Religious Right as a reaction to the Sixties. I use a beginner­friendly textbook and the PBS God in America series to deliver narrative, both of which are very good – smart, accessible, and well­paced. But the students still aren’t able to deploy evidence in the way I want them to often enough. The biggest problem is that they almost never reach for historical material when they present arguments for or against whatever side they find themselves on when we have a debate. Instead they reach for modern examples, lay philosophy, and, well, moral platitudes. I expect this is because I haven’t done as good a job developing a technique to teach Calder’s six “cognitive habits” ­ questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, and recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge – as I might do. When I prepare to teach this class again, next spring, I plan to pay particular attention to how I might help students begin to master these important historians’ moves.