I’m working on my syllabi this week, and I have something to say. I hate “coverage,” that lowest and most common denominator of history education. Oh, how I hate “coverage.” Let me count the ways. (Don’t worry–there aren’t 95 theses here, only eight):
“Coverage” is the most unimaginative goal for a history course, from first-year survey courses to graduate seminars. I’m not saying that chronology and some broad content are unimportant–just that there are more efficient ways for students to learn it other than from a proffie flicking through PowerPoint slides or standing in front of a chalk board. (Isn’t that what survey texts and other handy reference books are for?) I’m also not suggesting that we offer only courses that are in-depth studies of (for example) the social mobility of seventeenth-century cross-dressing fullers’ apprentices in Leiden (although that topic would make a fine article, I’m sure.) I’m just asking what we are really achieving when we worry about “coverage” instead of ideas, recurring issues and themes, and above all, analysis?
“Coverage” encourages historians to live up to the cliche that we’re just a bunch of Mr. Gradgrinds–”what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts“–and that we’re mere antiquarians masquerading as intellectuals. “Coverage” is the historians’ albatross that allows literary scholars, philosophers, and anthropologists to imagine that they’re the only people in the liberal arts who offer ideas, and not just information.
“Coverage” is a crutch for novices–believe me, I did plenty of “coverage” when I was just starting my teaching career. I yearned for “coverage”–it gave me the illusion that I was in control. I thought that a stack of eight or ten pages of notes would get me through those interminable 75 minute class periods–so long as I was talking, I didn’t really care if anyone was listening or learning. (Well, I cared, but I cared more about my performance as a professor than anything my students might learn from these breathless recitations of lecture notes.)
I could almost live with “coverage” were it not for the regressive politics for which it serves as a beard. “Coverage” works to privilege traditional and rather exclusionary visions of history. Political history is always considered more important than social history, and since Native American, Latin@, African American, immigrant, queer, and women’s histories are rarely considered under the umbrella of political history (and why not?), they tend to get short shrift in favor of the privileged narrative of (white men’s) political history. In my very first semester in grad school, I enrolled in a “historiography of the Early U.S. Republic” seminar (not taught by my adviser.) The syllabus offered very traditional “coverage” of U.S. history from 1776 to 1876, with the exception of one week on the syllabus. The topic that week was (I kid you not), “Blacks, Women, and Indians.” This was eighteen years ago–but even so: the majority of class discussion that week was led by the graduate students who spoke mostly about how inappropriate it was to lump all non-white, non-male people together in an obviously token gesture of inclusion.
“Coverage” can be used as a weapon for bullying junior faculty who are judged not to be offering sufficient “coverage” of said traditional history in their courses. (For political history, substitute economic or intellectual history, as appropriate. Somehow, very few people ever bother junior colleagues about not teaching enough cultural history, history of slavery, women’s history, or queer history, for example.) I was chastised once by a department chair for only talking about “blacks, women, and Indians” in my U.S. history survey courses, and warned very darkly that “we’ve denied tenure to people who didn’t teach broadly enough.” Not enough “coverage,” you see. After that conversation, I reviewed my survey syllabus, and it turned out that a mere six of fourteen weeks of content were devoted predominantly to something other than white men’s history–but those six weeks weren’t “coverage,” somehow. “Coverage” therefore isn’t really coverage–it’s a code word for continuing to privilege the people whose experiences are already at the center of national historiographies. I should have remembered my Orwell: All Americans are equal, but some Americans are more equal than others.
“Coverage” in History departments doesn’t serve historians, history students, or the discipline. “Coverage” is a vaguely defined service we’re supposed to provide to Education, Journalism, and Political Science majors, and the like. These departments imagine that history is a little box of facts that we put on students’ desks, or a one-time inoculation that will serve them the rest of their lives in their chosen careers. It’s not our job to tell students that history is a methodology or system for learning about the world, or to teach them how to engage in the practice of history or bother them with the complexities of epistemology or interpretation. It’s too much to ask future educators or journalists to continue their own educations and to read books as necessary–we’re supposed to provide all of the “coverage” for them they’ll ever need.
“Coverage” is a great way for professional historians to work themselves out of their jobs. If “coverage” is all students really need, why not just give them a timeline, a textbook, and teach all history courses over the internet? If “coverage” is our goal, then an individual historian’s intellectual training and guidance is unimportant, and ze doesn’t need to spend all of that time keeping up the the historiography, writing lectures, and choosing illustrations and audio and video clips to emphasize any themes or ideas. Who cares what your particular take is on La Chanson de Roland, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, or the Panic of 1838? Spending any time to develop your ideas on these topics will just compete with “coverage.” We might as well hand university history courses over to interested buffs and the part-time athletic coaches.
If we’re all truly honest about this, we’d acknowledge “coverage” is a fiction. It doesn’t exist, if it ever did. Perhaps it’s an artifact from the days when history was easily broken down into three basic components: political, economic, and intellectual/religious history. It was probably a lot easier to achieve “coverage” when the only parts of the globe covered in most American history departments were parts of North America and Europe. How can an institution or a department that asks faculty to teach a course (as Baa Ram U. does) that “covers” (for example) “World History-Ancient to 1500″ ask them to worry about “coverage?” When teaching 8,500 years of history in one semester, the instructor must ask, “what do I include, and how can I organize it so it makes sense?” rather than “what must I leave out?” Even courses that don’t run from the building of the Great Wall of China to the fall of the Berlin Wall are probably best designed by asking, “what are the main themes or ideas I want to convey, based on my best judgment and trends in current historiography?” rather than “how can I do it all in fifteen weeks?”
Achieving “coverage” in history and thinking that’s all there is to it is the equivalent of memorizing the periodic table of the elements and believing that one has mastered chemistry. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, and is itself highly subjective if not entirely illusory. History is not, as Gradgrind would have it, merely “facts.” It’s a way of thinking about the world with its own set of rules, exceptions, and fascinating problems. History is a journey, not a destination; it’s a process, not a product, and whenever anyone–especially a fellow historian–invokes “coverage,” we should all be deeply suspicious. Verily, I say: no good will come of it.
After I had drafted this post, I saw that John Fea over at The Way of Improvement posted a link to “Uncoverage,” a new model of a twentieth-century U.S. History survey by Lendol Calder (apologies for missing his 2006 Journal of American History article on the subject, called “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey“). Calder has a lot of good ideas for using survey courses to introduce students to History as a method rather than a string of facts and dates, but I’m thinking that they’re too modest. I think we need to destroy the survey–or at the very least, offer lots of other, more focused and topical lower-division courses, in order to save the village do away with “coverage.”
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