When Is It Time to Stop Teaching Something?

Jonathan Rees

Those of us who teach the second half of the American survey course face a problem that only recent historians ever seem to face: our period keeps expanding.  Until there’s some kind of mass meeting where all we historians decide to move the dividing line in a two-course US survey sequence from 1865 or 1877 to 1900 or something, what counts as 1877 to the Present will only get larger.  This poses some problems for those of us who’d like to keep our courses current.

When I started teaching during the late-1990s, 1989 (with the fall of the Berlin Wall and all that) was a natural time to stop.  A few years ago, I rearranged my entire survey course in order to make it up to September 11, 2001, without actually covering it as everyone I was teaching still remembered it perfectly.  Well, those days have changed.  Listening to my students talk, I realized it was time to recall the events of that day and at least a few of the ones following it because they were barely cognizant of what was happening at that time yet have been living in its shadow ever since.

Besides needing to make room for the near present, I’ve been trying to update some of my other lectures from further back in light of recent scholarship.  When I first started talking about the 1970s, it was all Watergate all the time.  After all, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened was the first book on that decade to come out after it ended.  Jefferson Cowie has absolutely torpedoed that stereotype forever.  I’ve also tried to include some of the absolutely amazing material that’s been written about the rise of conservatism in recent years by people like Kim Phillips-Fein and Bethany Moreton.

My problem, therefore, has not been what to include in the new lectures I’ve been writing.  My problem has been what to cut out.  Cover new ground in any depth and something has to go.  Since I’ve also tried to redesign my course to include less lecturing, some of these cuts have been quite painful.

For example, I used to work for Stanley Kutler.  If you know Stan, you know that he was the first academic historian to write a book about Watergate.  When you get Stan to talk about Nixon, he won’t stop.  Therefore, I picked up an enormous amount of information about Watergate almost by osmosis.  I’ve cut my Watergate coverage down from a lecture all its own to about ten minutes.  It just doesn’t seem as important as it once did, anyway. 

Another subject from the survey class I used to cover in much greater detail is the New Deal.  That was two lectures:  First New Deal in the first one, Second New Deal in the second.  The Depression got a lecture all its own.  It still does, but I’ve got the New Deal down to one lecture by simply admitting to myself that the long string of Alphabet Soup programs that history teachers have been teaching since about the time that Roosevelt died is actually rather boring.  I now cover the programs that I think were crucial (NIRA, Social Security, NLRA, and a couple of others) and let my students read about most of the rest.

Similarly, I used to have one lecture for the Populists and another lecture for the Progressives.  Maybe that’s because I was taught by so many political historians as an undergraduate and graduate student, but I’d rather be talking about scholarship that dates from after I was born, thank you very much.  If I enjoy it, I think they’ll enjoy it more.  Just because you learned it is no reason that you have to cover the exact same material that your professors did. 

Ultimately, I think the question of coverage is the key here.  As Lendol Calder has been saying for years, our survey courses do not have to turn us all into walking encyclopedias.  (In fact, if we do our jobs right many of your students will come back for more in upper-level courses.)  Since covering everything will get even harder as time marches on, perhaps its best to change your approach before defeat becomes inevitable.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo.  He blogs mostly about technological and academic labor matters at More or Less Bunk, but still writes about history there every once in a while.