An Inquiry Approach to Teaching U.S. History
By John McClymer, Assumption College

This essay, which is adapted from a paper presented at last year's OAH meeting, explores the lack of "fit" between what we know about learning and how we teach. It seeks to explain why our teaching takes so little advantage of what we know about how students learn, and sketches out some suggestions for improving the situation.

Scarcity is the ruling assumption of our teaching. Consider textbooks. U.S. survey texts share the following characteristics:

  • They are thirty-one chapters long.
  • Each chapter runs approximately thirty pages.
  • Market considerations determine the number of illustrations, maps, graphics - all of which are limited.
  • Revisions involve zero-sum tradeoffs.

Is there a great mystery about why textbooks are so similar despite the best efforts of both publishers and authors to produce a "different" product? There is room for, let us say, one image from the Hudson River School of painting and two paragraphs on the Dakota Sioux Uprising of 1863. One text might omit the Hudson River School altogether and instead use a Hiram Powers sculpture. Another might leave out the 1863 conflict to allot more space to the battle of the Little Big Horn. Some texts give more emphasis to politics, some to social developments, but all must treat a standard list of events and of important historical actors. As a result, the texts are different but in superficial ways. None treat any topic in depth.

Consider syllabi. They are equally characterized by pedagogies of scarcity and of zero-sum tradeoffs. We get out the academic calendar and count up the number of classes. Then we start cramming in as much material as we dare. We must make space for quizzes and short-answer exams. This, since we are operating in a zero-sum environment, means less time to "cover" material. Courses are what students do in them. The more time they spend learning pieces of information, the more that becomes the course.

If our courses and textbooks are about scarcity, the web is about abundance. This is true in terms of:

  • Materials - a few years ago only professional researchers had access, and then only at some cost and effort, to archival holdings now available to everyone. My colleague Lucia Knoles and I co-direct one of these on American History and Culture during three crucial decades, the 1770s, the 1850s, and the 1920s It builds upon an earlier NEH-funded project I directed, the Women's History Workshop, cited by the NEH's Edsitement program
  • Bibliographic and other finding aids - one can now search tens of thousands of libraries with a few clicks.
  • Multi-media - one can locate cartoons about James Buchanan and other political figures of the antebellum era, listen to recordings of popular songs of the 1920s, browse Godey's Ladies Book, and manipulate a map showing electoral college and popular votes

The availability of these materials online is more than a convenience. It potentially changes the ways students can use these sources. Looking at the cartoons, for example, need not be a one-time experience in class. Because the student can access them at any time, they can become part of assignments and student-designed projects.

The web cannot make the semester any longer. In every other way it eliminates the regime of scarcity. Abundance is a strange new world. Here are some of its characteristics:

  • It affords multiple points of entry to topics so that students can try on different approaches.
  • It encourages flexibility in learning by providing diverse sources and by modelling diverse techniques .
  • It encourages links - a student writing about the Portland Riot of 1855 against Neil Dow and the Maine Law notes: "This takes us back to the issues of Irish immigration and nativism."

What might a course using a pedagogy of abundance look like in practice? During the fall 2002 semester I will offer the second iteration of His 260: 19th Century U.S. Students learn from the syllabus that:

"The course will function as a workshop. Students will investigate key events and developments and will make regular reports in writing and orally. The professor will provide background information, guides to sources, suggestions, and critiques. Students will choose which sources and aspects of key topics they wish to explore.

" . . . We will start with a current argument among historians: Was there a slave conspiracy in the summer of 1820 in Charleston, S.C.? Most historians, like most white Charlestonians of the day, agree that there was. Its putative leader, Denmark Vesey, is the subject of several recent, admiring biographies. But an essay in The William and Mary Quarterly calls the reality of the conspiracy into question. We will look at this controversy both as a way of exploring how historians try to reconstruct the past and as a way of beginning our semester-long investigation of the meaning of race and slavery in the American experience.

"We will next turn to excerpts from slave narratives and a brief essay on plantation slavery by historian Charles Joyner. Then we will look at a succession of dramatic events, starting with the removal of the Cherokee from northern Georgia to the so-called Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma.. In looking for ways of thinking about these questions and themes we will turn to Alexis de Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America

".. We will turn then to an examination of the emergence of the abolition movement in the context of an increasing white northern dislike of slavery and a deep prejudice against African Americans. Students will form teams to examine diverse source materials and dimensions of the movement.

"Next we will turn to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin .. Students will choose aspects of nineteenth-century American culture the novel exemplifies, examine some of the resources at the Uncle Tom's Cabin project at the University of Virginia, and report on the ways in which one can use the novel to understand American culture and knowledge of the culture to understand the novel."

All of the resources are available online. We begin with an early popular account of the Vesey Conspiracy as an introduction to several very challenging articles in the WMQ, look at slave narratives, another scholarly essay, then an online history of the Cherokee, a map, court documents, Congressional debates, military orders, and a memoir. This is just the first three weeks.

For each class students have to submit via e-mail notes addressing very specific questions. The notes provide an occasion for talking about the historian's craft and for understanding how historians use primary sources. For one class students will be asked to read Charles Joyner's essay and choose three documents from the Slave Narratives site which clarify, deepen, or complicate Joyner's description. For each document the students must provide a one-paragraph rationale for why they think it valuable as an historical source.

A second function the notes serve is to enable me to organize class sessions. The Rev. Lyman Beecher used to say of revival preaching that he would never risk going into a community "cold." We, in contrast, routinely walk into class "cold" and seek to promote a discussion. I am a follower of Beecher. I never risk a "cold" class. I read the notes, cut and paste them on to a webpage linked to the class schedule, and use them to direct class discussions. I know, as I go into class, which parts of the assigned readings gave students the most trouble. I know what they have a reasonably good grasp of.

I have attended more workshops than I care to recall which offered various techniques for starting and/or encouraging class discussions. Some of these work better than others. But the point is not to have a discussion. Nor is it to get everyone to participate. The point is to explore course materials. Any genuine exploration requires give-and-take, hence discussions. Since, over the course of several weeks, I make sure that all students will have some of their notes posted, everyone participates. But they participate when they have something to say.

Another function these e-mailed notes serve is to show students, day-in and day-out, what good notes look like. In this course, students see good notes and hear good questions every class. I am invariably impressed by the level of effort some students put into their notes. I can scan the emails I receive, highlight the passages that are most impressive, and paste them on to a page in an authoring program in a matter of twenty minutes.

In His 260, inquiry leads to exposition. Under the regime of scarcity, exposition typically replaces inquiry. It has pride of place in the textbook, in the lectures, and in the short answer and essay questions on the exams. Students do not do what practicing historians do, inquire into how change happens. They do not even read much real history. There is not enough time and there is too much to cover.

What does it mean to make inquiry our central task? It involves asking questions (for example, who is entitled to the rights of an American
citizen?) and then looking at available pieces of evidence. As I explain to students in the syllabus:

"We will . . . ignore conventional practice. I will choose broad themes and topics. More accurately, there is a standard set of topics and themes that American historians largely agree anyone working in this time period needs to know about. Students will then plunge in, choose aspects of these themes and topics, look at sets of relevant materials, and share their findings. This means that with a few exceptions we will not all be reading the same materials. It means that we will be responsible for letting others know what we have found. It means the instructor will do much less talking in class and far more coaching of individual students and groups of students. It means that one of his chief functions will be asking students to compare and contrast their findings."

Instead of feeling "stuck" with a project, students develop a sense of proprietorship. They talk with and listen to each other. Their findings overlap in unexpected ways. They come to different understandings of common topics based upon the different sources they used. Their instructions read:

"In general, reports should take the form of "show and tell," i.e., students - working in teams - should choose specific segments of documents, specific images, songs, and other materials. They should show these in class and provide a brief but detailed explanation - in the form of notes which the instructor will post to the course website at least one hour before class - of what they found interesting, odd, thought-provoking, enlightening, and/or mystifying about each."

Again, I have students submit notes which I edit and post on a class website. This way I know how a given report is likely to turn out before class. I have, in very rare cases, rescheduled a report because the notes suggested it would be weak. More commonly, I spend a few minutes before class making suggestions. Students, in other words, get to do something we routinely do ourselves before giving a presentation - ask somebody knowledgeable to make suggestions.

Many of the reports in other courses where I have used this format turn out to be far more sophisticated than the "show and tell" instructions prescribe. I use that language because I want to emphasize that these are learning exercises, not tests. I want students to see themselves as apprentice historians. I expect them to be baffled by much of what they encounter. Learning begins in wonder. Seeking prematurely to demonstrate mastery, something we routinely ask of students every time we give a mid-term examination, is a sure way to cut off learning.