Release the hostages: Teaching and the problem of "coverage"

I can't tell you how many times I have walked down the hallway of the classroom building where I worked, glancing in door and after door to see professors talking at students in dim lecture halls, facts outlined in full sentences on PowerPoint slides. At such times I want to rappel down the center aisle of the classroom, SWAT style, to save the hostages. The problem in many case is not just that professors don't understand the cognitive style of PowerPoint, but that they feel there is "content" to be "covered," that a certain (and usually very large) number of facts and concepts must be introduced to students in the space afforded by the ten weeks of the academic quarter.

The Problem

In an essay published in 2006 about faculty fears, Linda Hodges nicely summarizes the quandary of coverage:

We fear losing content "coverage". This principle is usually cited first and foremost when faculty confront nontraditional pedagogical choices. The tyranny of content coverage is especially acute in certain disciplines that have a recognized body of information on which subsequent courses build, fro example, the sciences and engineering. Our illusion is that we tell students the information that we want them to know, students who are motivated will absorb it, and our obligation to the discipline has been met. Thus, the most readily recognized and accepted pedagogical choice is lecture. It's hard to argue with this premise head-on because most professors themselves learned very well by the lecture method, and it does have its place as one option in our set of pedagogical tools.

You know the story: Damned if you do, damned if you don't (cover Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, Antietam, Vicksburg, Appomattox, Chancellorsville, Bull Run (first and second), the Wilderness, the Monitor vs. Virginia, Petersburg, and Sherman's March; or the atmospheric gases, gravity, moons, orbit, diameter, inclination of axis, mass, and mean distance from the sun of every. damn. planet. in our solar system). Certainly as a student you have been in (and perhaps dropped out of--waves at my former astronomy prof) one of these courses. Unless your instructor is an amazing storyteller, sympathetic and charismatic, you're in for a real disappointment. History profs, I don't need to know who outflanked whom in the Wilderness, but I would like to hear why the battle matters enough for me to care whether or not Wal-Mart builds a store on the battlefield.

Marty Nemko provides an example of what limited content coverage might look like as he imagines "Utopia College":

We encourage instructors to avoid the tyranny of content. Professors at other colleges frequently require students to read 1,000 or more pages for a three-unit course. Too often students read just enough to be able to pass a test. Such reading is unlikely to result in enduring learning. In contrast, a Utopia course in literature, might, for example, only require students to read the 100 pages of Hamlet plus a few essays of analysis. A government course might only require students to read the U.S. Constitution and a few diverse articles of commentary. Class meetings and assignments explore that limited content in depth, so students come away with richer and more enduring learning than from the typical college course.

All right, I must admit I am guilty of complaining about students not reading enough. I've lost count of how many times I've told them that one semester I had to buy 33 books, plus read a few more novels I checked out from the library. (And walked uphill both ways in the snow with a chicken under each arm.) My point is usually: Don't be such whiners. But sometimes they have a point. Is the reading we're giving them the reading they really need to be doing? Hint: If it's about battlefield maneuvers, and it's not a military science class, it's probably not necessary. (I know, I know--I pick on the Civil War historians, but only because when I was, oh, 16 or 17 years old, I wanted to be one.)

The wise Historiann weighed in on the problem of coverage earlier this week with no less than a manifesto. An excerpt:

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.

She concludes: "If we’re all truly honest about this, we’d acknowledge 'coverage' is a fiction. It doesn’t exist, if it ever did."

Derek Cabrera explains the danger to K-12 students as well as college students:

The tyranny of content has devastating implications for pedagogy (the art and science of teaching). Whether you are a parent or a teacher or both, the tyranny of content leads to disempowerment. It makes the teacher fear leaving the boundaries of their personal knowledge or expertise for uncharted waters. It makes the teacher feel that they cannot teach about something they do not know. It makes the teacher feel the need to cut off student interests, dialogue or exploration as it nears the limits of the teacher’s knowledge.

Some Solutions

Lendol Calder's web site Uncoverage at the Journal of American History outlines the problem with coverage in history courses, what uncoverage looks like, and evidence for learning in this pedagogical paradigm. Check out also his article from the Journal, as it's very thought-provoking and clear about how history should be taught. An excerpt:

Historical thinking, like other forms of disciplinary thinking, begins with clear-eyed wonder before the world. But questioning is an extraordinarily difficult skill for most students, probably because for their whole lives teachers and textbooks have posed the questions for them ("Write an essay on the following question . . ."). Feeding students a steady diet of other people's questions is a sure-fire prescription for mental dyspepsia. So the first move students need to learn is that of asking good historical questions. To this end the first meeting in every unit is designed to intensify students' desire to inquire.

An article at the Encyclopedia of Informal Education recommends thinking about curriculum as process or praxis rather than product.

I have written here on BlogHer about how to circumvent the tyranny of content by thinking instead about learning objectives, and on my own blog about how science instructors are particularly complicit in perpetuating the myth of coverage.

Want to learn about some alternatives to lecturing? José Bowen provides some tips on how to use technology to provide content outside the classroom so that class time can be used instead for discussion and interaction.

Just a reminder: All the advice in this post applies to K-12 and homseschoolers as well as professors. To borrow a phrase from Crosby, Stills, and Nash: Teach your children well.

In my next post, I'll discuss the role centers of teaching and learning should play in goading, er, encouraging faculty to adopt sound pedagogical practices.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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