Teach Backwards

30 Jul 2006

In a witty and thoughtful American Historical Association Perspectives essay entitled Historians Change at a Slower Pace than History, Professor Glen Jeansonne of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee noted the time-lag problem of university history courses, a problem that might summed up this way: Time moves on, but history professors don’t. The American history professor who, in 1975, worked his way up to 1945 is still only working his way up to 1945, in spite of the fact that we’re now thirty years gone from 1975.

As Professor Jeansonne points out, there are problems with this trend. First and foremost, our students are getting an incomplete understanding of the history they’re studying. Besides this, the time-gap between when our courses’ content ends and when our students’ lives began means a growing disconnect between our passion and their interests. We know what they’re thinking: Why should I care about “deep” history? What’s the relevance to my world today, to my life?

What to do? Let me make three observations, and then propose a solution.

First, this: Professor Jeansonne considered the idea of adding extra courses to make up for “new” time. On the surface this sounds good. Heck, what discipline wouldn’t like to add extra courses every time their field or research topic expanded? But given the realities of universities, it’s just plain impractical. There isn’t enough time, enough money, enough faculty (i.e., enough money) to add more to undergraduate curricula.

Second, you’re never going to be able to teach students everything you wish they knew. Even if you had the time to do this—which you don’t—they don’t have the capacity to absorb in a couple of semesters work it took you, a dedicated historian, years to absorb. I would add here we should all get rid of the phrase I covered it. “Covering it”—which generally means either assigning it in the reading or professing about it in lecture—is simply not the same as teaching it. Teaching it means the students are actually being given a good and supportive shot at learning it, and assigning hundreds of pages and hours of passive lecture is not a good shot for the average student. (By the way, I’m not suggesting we have to pander to every student. I want to throw chalky erasers at the willful sleepers as much as the next educator. Instead I’m suggesting we should care about the learning of the majority of students.)

Third, students’ desire for their classes to be relevant to their lives isn’t new. In fact, it’s downright historical. When I was a graduate student at Indiana University looking through copies of the IU student paper from the 1930s for a project on the first IU cyclotron, I came across this precise lament from students. They, too, wanted their classes to matter more to their lives. (Interestingly, there were also a lot of student complaints about inadequate parking on campus, and a lot of faculty annoyance about students’ use of the library for socializing. Plus ca change…) We shouldn’t blame students for their desire for relevance; in fact, we should probably see it as one of the laws of nature.

So what to do? How to cover a greater sampling of the years past, how to get students to understand the importance of thinking historically?

Teach backwards.

Start with the present. So, for example, if you’re teaching a course on American history, start with noting what’s going on around your students’ lives right now. Consider the heated debate about the electoral college system, the battle over same-sex marriage, the war in Iraq. Lay out the basics of those ongoing events—or better yet, ask the students to research the news and lay out the basics. And then start going backwards to help students understand where this all came from. And don’t just hop backwards two hundred years and start coming forwards. Actually try going backwards. See how z came from y, then how y came from x, and so on.

Let me use the example of the same-sex marriage debate, since I teach the history of sexuality. To get students to understand the Federal Marriage Amendment, I would take them backwards into the history of romantic partnerships, the history of the medical and social treatment of homosexuality, the history of the state’s involvement in sex and marriage, the history of civil rights. Given the religious tenor of much of the public discussions going on, I would also make sure they understood some about the history of debates over the separation of church and state.

Teaching backwards isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In fact, many historians naturally think backwards when doing research. They have to—otherwise they’d never be able to figure out where in time to start researching and telling their stories. It’s only when historians hit their classrooms that they become overly bound to the ever-forward-marching nature of time. (Well, except insofar as they forget the need to keep moving through that syllabus at the pace they originally said they would.)

There are tremendous benefits to teaching backwards beyond immediately hooking students on the relevance candy. Teaching backwards also helps students see how historians think—that we think of things in terms of time and space, and not ahistorically or aculturally like some other disciplines. And if you teach backwards, you’ll find your students learning how to ask historical questions, and learning how hard it is to answer “why?” compared to “who, what, when, where, and how?”

Practically speaking you can manage this if you get off the idea that everything in your course has to be presented precisely chronologically, forwards or backwards. If you teach backwards, in fact you’ll find yourself jumping around quite a bit as you try to fill in the picture. That’s OK. Getting students to develop timelines will help them keep track of the events you’re teaching, and also help them understand how and why change happens over time.

To manage teaching backwards, you also have to get over the idea that you’re going to have a strict set of names, dates, and events that you will “cover.” It also means you may have to sometimes be prepared to move outside your area of expertise to answer the questions raised. This can be painful—you may feel you’ve betrayed your mentors and even your field and gone astray—but a salve comes from watching your students feel suddenly engaged in a way they haven’t been before. And you get to learn new things, and keep your research muscles toned, too.

The more power you can give your students in terms of the questions asked and the answers obtained, the more unpredictable, productive, and thrilling your course will become. Let them debate the questions and the answers; they will suddenly be talking about the big issues of history:

* What counts as a legitimate historical question?

* How does any one question necessarily limit the possible answers?

* How do you tell whether a source is reliable?

* How do you figure out whether something that appears causal really was?

* How do you know when you’re done—when you have a good enough answer historically?

Imagine how interesting grading final exams could be if you asked your students to take a current problem and, for the exam, list for you the questions they would ask to begin to understand the problem historically. So what if they don’t remember the precise date of some particular event you’ve taught? Thinking historically is a skill they can take with them for the rest of their lives, when they become engaged citizens, voters, parents, business persons, whatever.

A colleague once asked me, if you teach backwards, might students discover that doing history turns out to be a lot more complicated—and sometimes even seemingly capricious—than the standard March of History course implies? Yes! And that’s great. When we can let our students see behind the big green curtain, we lose a little of our Wizard of Oz professorial mystique, but we also excite them about the inner—workings of the production of history. It’s really worth it.

I encourage you to try it. After all, you can always go back.

[Note: For some more practical tips on teaching backwards, see Professor Annette Atkins’ essay, A Teaching Strategy: Teaching U.S. History Backwards. I’m grateful to Pillarisetti Sudhir for pointing me to Professor Atkins’ excellent essay after I shared with him this blog.]