Reinventing the Survey: Pedagogical Strategies for Engagement

Stuart D. Sears, February 2005

Teaching the survey presents an intriguing problem. It is, on the one hand, one of the easiest courses to teach. It is an overview of what is generally known about a people or civilization. On the other hand, despite its deceptively simple format, it can prove daunting. Synthesizing diverse facts, anecdotes and microstudies into a meaningful metanarrative can tax the imagination of the most experienced teacher.

Students are at the core of this challenge. If successful, the survey can fire their enthusiasm as they gain insight into historical identities and processes they never before imagined. Most students, however, enter the classroom with deep indifference. They are preoccupied with the technical or preprofessional specializations they believe will gain them employment after they graduate. If they do pay attention, they often react simple-mindedly to what they consider are misinterpretations of historical symbols and cultural heritage.

My experience in teaching history at the American University in Cairo (AUC) has raised my awareness of these challenges as well as strategies for overcoming them. Although located in the Middle East, AUC is similar to the multicultural, technology-oriented liberal arts colleges and universities in the United States today. Faculty at AUC may mainly teach surveys of Middle Eastern rather than American or European history but, like their colleagues in the states, face the paradox of arguing for history's relevance while mediating its potentially controversial implications.

Shortly after my arrival, the Middle Eastern history faculty at AUC undertook an effort to revitalize their survey course, which is a part of the university's core curriculum. They agreed on the need to teach general skills rather than historical detail suited for upper level classes. They differed, however, over the question of which textbooks, assignments, and formats would best achieve this goal. They exchanged suggestions, tried new teaching strategies, and reported their experiences in regular meetings over several years. In the end, they decided on a variety of curricular approaches. Each faculty member developed an approach uniquely suited to his or her background and aims. The multiplicity of approaches enriched the survey far more than any one standardized curriculum.

One teacher organized his survey backwards, that is, he began with the modern history of the Middle East and worked backwards to the early Islamic period. He divided the survey into discrete periods and moved from one to the next, backwards, through a series of carefully planned questions. For example, if European colonization provoked Arab nationalist movements in the 20th century, he asked, why did the occupation of the Ottoman Turks fail to produce the same response? This led naturally to a discussion of the social and political identities of Arabs and other peoples under the Ottomans from the 16th to 19th centuries. He repeated this line of questioning and discussion until he and his class reached the early Islamic period.

The reverse chronological approach engaged students by beginning with what was most familiar to them. It highlighted, in fact, the unique character of the modern world. When this approach delved into the more distant past, for example, it either contrasted this past with the present or more clearly identified its role in preparing the way for the modern world.

The reverse chronological approach required careful planning. The teacher had to select a textbook with suitable chronological divisions, usually chapters, which could be assigned in reverse order. Where readings or discussion referred to persons and events of a prior period he had to manage the discussion carefully so as not to lose its focus. He did so by asking students to write down and submit these names to him. He used them as points of departure in his lectures and discussions as the class moved into earlier historical periods. Questions about the origins of the Mamluks in a discussion about Muhammad 'Ali Pasha of the 19th century, for example, proved helpful in opening a lecture on Mamluk rule in Egypt and Syria in the 13th to early 16th centuries.

My own approach was to divide the survey into rough chronological and thematic units. Each addressed a topic of general interest through microstudies from usually proximate historical contexts. I began the semester, for example, with a unit entitled "Piety," in which students examined holy men and women in late antiquity and early Islam. Although one could expand this discussion into other periods, it bore particular relevance to the epoch of the 5th through 10th centuries when the expression of piety profoundly shaped both Christian and Muslim civilizations. A subsequent unit titled "Cross-Cultural Encounters" treated the Seljuq migrations, the Crusades, the Mongol conquests, and the importation and use of Turkish slaves (mamluks) during the 11th through 15th centuries. The mass movement of these varied ethnic groups into the Middle East similarly distinguished this period from all others.

An important aspect of this approach was its exclusive use of primary source readings in translation and short interpretive readings. My students read no textbooks. Without the cues of chronology or the authoritative narrative of a textbook, they had to think about rather than merely recite history. I presented a short lecture at the beginning of each unit and before each reading, introducing their basic historical context. Critical discussion of the readings filled the largest part of class time. In the unit on piety, students discussed a contemporary biography of Saint Daniel the Stylite, excerpts from Ibn Ishaq's biography of the prophet, and short accounts of the lives of early Muslim mystics.1

I sometimes recycled texts—that is, used the same text for more than one thematic discussion. This forced students to reread the texts for different kinds of information. At the end of the semester, for example, I assigned an out-of-class paper with a choice of questions. A question related to "Piety," however, might ask students to refer to Gesta Francorum, a text originally assigned for "Cross-Cultural Encounters."2 While they read it the first time to gather information about the Crusaders' views of Turks and Muslims students, the second time they probed it for insight into the Crusaders' piety as they prayed, fasted, and appealed to visions in preparation for battle.

The more fluid organization of this approach engaged students by addressing topics broadly relevant to their lives today but not necessarily modern. The focus of discussion remained thematic rather than rigidly chronological. Units sometimes spanned quite long periods of time or overlapped chronologically. Students examined a variety of paradigms, compared them critically, and, with this comparative perspective, developed new ways of conceiving the world, past and present.

However, the thematic survey presented many new challenges. The selection of appropriate texts was often quite difficult since relatively few primary sources for Middle Eastern history have been translated into English. When available, the texts often did not document the desired topic for a particular period or proved too short (or too long) to make suitable reading assignments.
The stories and arguments in these readings were often too difficult for students to grasp easily. The stories did not always follow a clear narrative structure. Arguments were often obscured by detail. To overcome these difficulties, I passed out study questions for each text that guided students through its main points.

The readings also confronted students with a dizzying number of names of people and places. To avoid confusion, I passed out a sheet listing important names (along with their identifications) for each unit. As I explained to the students, they were responsible for these and only these names. All others did not need to be committed to memory.

Other faculty members proved just as innovative, even though they organized their surveys in a more traditional chronological fashion. One teacher assigned historical fiction in addition to a textbook. In discussing the late medieval period, he had his class read Amin Maalouf's Leo the African, which deftly unifies the fragmented social and political terrain of the Mamluk and Ottoman world into a fascinating narrative about a Mediterranean traveler who is entirely plausible if not real. 3

This approach brought life to the sometimes dry presentation of the textbook while encouraging students to imagine their own historical narratives. In one exercise, students critiqued in a paper what they thought most and least plausible about Maalouf's story on the basis of what they knew from their textbook. Alternatively, students were encouraged to write their own "fictional" accounts about other historical periods. As they realized Maalouf relied on his imagination to weave historical facts into a convincing narrative, students became much more willing and, indeed, eager to formulate their own interpretations about what was "real" and what was not.

Another faculty member made use of Cairo's many museums and historical monuments for a special out-of-class assignment. She divided her class into small work groups of three or four students, and assigned each a "primary source" to visit and interpret. These consisted of diverse sites such as the tomb of the great medieval jurist al-Shafi'i, the wooden panels of a Fatimid palace in the Museum of Islamic Art, and the stamp exhibits in the Postal Museum. The members of each group discussed among themselves what these "sources" told them about the period and place they were from. They then wrote a short paper on their findings. The students relied on their own abilities to explain the form, images, and inscriptions they found in the context of what they had read in class about that particular period.

The use of site visits engaged students by connecting them to history's physical remains. The artifacts and monuments impressed them with the "realness" of the people and events they were studying. Middle Eastern history was not just words in a book. The assignment gave these students some understanding of how historians approached their craft. They interpreted evidence that had not previously been interpreted for them: for example, they inferred the social rank of a deceased person from an inscription at his tomb; or they speculated on the purpose of a door or the building to which it once belonged by examining its design and decoration. Libraries provided little help. The objects students were asked to examine tended to be described only generally or not at all in most reference materials. Where they ferreted out information from more obscure scholarship, students benefited from the experience of library research. Students enjoyed as well the assignment's collaborative aspects. Working in small groups encouraged the exchange of ideas between students about history outside the classroom.

The unusual nature of the assignment, nevertheless, posed a practical challenge. It was difficult to grade fairly. The abilities of students varied within and between groups. Not all students, moreover, contributed equally in their effort. This teacher ameliorated the difficulties by making the assignment worth only a small portion of the final grade. She reminded students, however, that the assignment would enhance skills important for all other work in the class.

The varied approaches outlined here engaged both faculty and students and, with this engagement, created a more lively learning environment. The curricular meetings that oversaw this experimentation imbued the faculty with the spirit of shared enterprise, though each developed his or her own approach. Faculty specializing in different time periods and thematic focuses came together to debate basic epistemological and pedagogical issues. Adjunct faculty had the opportunity to meet their counterparts and participate as full members of the department.

Students chose their sections each semester knowing in advance the varied approaches of the faculty teaching them. Their evaluations of their teachers generally became more positive. Core Curriculum questionnaires found the Middle East history survey among its most popular courses, though it never escaped the stigma of being "required." For some, history became fun. A History Club was briefly established.

Given the multicultural backgrounds and varying expectations of students in the United States today, the approach to the survey adopted at AUC may serve as a model for teaching surveys of American, European, and other histories at other universities. It fulfills the basic goals of general education while appealing to the creativity and imagination of teachers and students. It also eliminates the need for a standard textbook or list of books. As history departments grapple with the problems of engaging indifferent students and parrying the pressures of controversy and conflict inside and outside of the classroom, the best strategy may be the most obvious, an engaging survey.

—Stuart D. Sears, who received his PhD from the University of Chicago, taught Islamic history at the American University in Cairo from 1997 to 2003 and served as head of the university's history unit from 1998 to 2002. He is currently teaching history at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island.


1. Trans. A. Guillaume, The Life of the Prophet (New York: Oxford University Press, [1955] 2001).

2. In E. Dawes and N. H. Baynes, Three Byzantine Saints: Contemporary Biographies (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, [1977] 1996).

3. Amin Maalouf, Leo the African (London: Quartet, 1988).