For about a month I have been pondering a radical revision to the way I teach U.S. survey courses. After witnessing students becoming more interested in the subject matter as we move closer and closer to the present, I have been wondering about getting this material to them earlier. For awhile I thought about a substantial introductory teaser unit. Perhaps by showing a solid documentary (e.g. *The Weather Underground* or *Fog of War*) and working over material from the 1960s to the present, for a few weeks, I might get them sufficiently excited to understand the virtue of working from the distant past to recent times. But I’m not happy about the potential for an abrupt content change in moving from the 1990s to, say, the 1890s. This has led me to think about conducting an entire twentieth-century survey, next year, in reverse chronological order. Yes, I may teach a survey backwards.
There are two reasons for this. First, something internal and theoretical. I am intensely interested in the notion of an “archaeology of the present.” To me, this is real, relevant (I see you wincing), and a radical change from the way most history is taught. It’s fun to work from the news backwards.
My second reason for considering a reverse-chronological presentation is external. For students, meaning first-years and uninterested upperclass folks, I am convinced that the best way to show the ‘relevance’ (again, that dreaded word—for some) of history is to demonstrate that remnants of the past exist in everyday life. When I say everyday I mean materially and intellectually. I really do think that tracing ideas and topics backwards will give students a firm, personal, and empirical anchor for thinking about the past. I believe, or hope (depending on my mood), that this will excite those not previously enthused. Perhaps this is where I’m riding the line of gimmickry. My feeling is that this approach gives the students an anchor in things they know—never a bad idea when trying to stimulate skeptics. Anecdotally, I asked students in one of my upper-division courses for their reaction to this idea. Around 90 percent thought it could work, though one said she had a high school teacher who tried this and failed miserably.
Methodologically, I am aware of the pros (and here) and cons (and here). By following the links, particularly number two of my ‘pros’, you’ll see that what I am proposing is not new; the idea dates to around 1971, and probably earlier. As for the cons, of course I don’t believe I will get fired for this—or else I would not consider the change. Fears of traditionalists history professors and methodologically conservative skeptics also won’t dissuade me.
I understand, however, the fears of presentism. In the study by Misco and Paterson, titled ” An Old Fad of Great Promise: Reverse Chronology History Teaching in Social Studies Classes” (again, link #2 in the pros above), I think that some of their proposals border on the fallacy of presentism. You can’t simply study history in its full breadth and contextual uncertainty by working backwards from the interests of students. I think the draw in teaching history backwards is viewing causation as something of a mystery, as an inductive process, which linear (i.e. textbookish) presentations avoid—to their detriment.
If I don’t do this, it will be because I decide either (a) it won’t work or (b) I don’t have the time, this coming year, to institute the change with the necessary energy. I suspect (b) will rule my decision, but am curious to hear from others who have either done this or thought about it.
So here are my questions for USIH folks: How will this fail? What are the philosophical problems with teaching history inductively? What are the methodological issues? What am I downplaying or not considering? – TL