Looking Back on a Backward Survey

W. Caleb McDaniel

In the fall of 2012, I thought about trying something new with my U.S. history survey course, which covers the years between 1848 and the present. I decided to teach the course backwards—from the present to 1848.

I had been considering a backwards survey course for several years, especially after reading about similar courses by Annette Atkins and Kenneth W. Hermann. My primary reasons for interest were similar to those that these and other teachers of history have named: (1) when learning new material in any discipline, it usually helps to proceed from the most familiar content to the least familiar; (2) questions like “How did things get the way they are?” or “How far back do we have to go to find the roots of this problem?” are usually more interesting—and more recognizable as historical problems—than questions like “What happened next?”; (3) historians’ own questions often have their roots in reflections on the present or reflections on what came before a pivotal juncture, and starting a course in the same way “uncovers,” as Lendol Calder puts it, what working historians often do; and (4) beginning in the present helps students see the relevance of history today, prompting excitement about the study of the more distant past.

This last rationale was perhaps the most important. One of my primary goals in any history course is to convince students that history and historical thinking matter to their lives and in the world today. I knew that my colleagues and I believed history could help us think about the issues that dominate recent headlines: protests over the killings of young black men by police, school shootings, partisan wrangling over healthcare and government spending, same-sex marriage, and more. Could a “backwards” survey help students better understand how the past shapes the present?

I resolved to find out, although I didn’t want to abandon my other goals in an introductory survey course. Chief among these goals is to teach students how historians think, which means teaching them to avoid the perils of anachronism or Whiggish condescension towards the past. When planning my first “backwards” survey, I hoped that the unconventional format would also facilitate a focus on the process of historical thinking: asking questions, weighing evidence, and creating complex narratives about causation, change, and continuity. Could a “backwards” survey help me teach the complexity of historical thinking, while also helping students see the relevance of the past in the present?

I have now taught my survey “backwards” twice in slightly different forms, once in the spring of 2013 and once in the spring of 2015. Looking back on both courses, I believe the experiment worked, or at least worked well enough to warrant continued trials. By organizing my course in reverse chronological order, I hoped that students would be more engaged, although I also feared that they might be more confused. In most cases, the hope proved better founded than the fear. In an anonymous course evaluation I gave my students in the spring of 2015, three quarters of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the “backwards” structure increased interest, and when presented with a choice of four things they would change about the course, only one in five chose to go back to the usual chronological order. One student commented that the new structure “made studying history feel more relevant to my life now,” which was music to my ears.

These are unscientific measures, of course, but such feedback from students encouraged me. Yet for reasons I have explained more fully on my personal website, the first offering of the course was much less successful than the second, and the successes of the second offering had less to do with the “backwards” order than I would have predicted. Teaching both courses helped reveal that the goal I value most is to teach survey students how to think historically—that is, with attention to narrativity, evidence, and empathy. Reversing the chronological order of the content we covered turned out to work best when it served as a means to that end, rather than as an end in itself.

My first version of the backwards course was especially inspired by a first-week exercise that Annette Atkins used in her class. On day one, Atkins begins by asking students to “list 10 issues that most concern them” and then “read the last chapter of the textbook.” On the second day, Atkins works with students to create a collective list of “issues.” Over the next several meetings, the class begins to think about their “issues” in light of the last twenty years of American history, noticing relations between the two and developing questions about the historical context in which we live.

In 2013 I took that idea and ran with it—probably to a fault. On the first day of class, I asked students to make a list of “issues that concern them.” We then arranged the list so that the most-mentioned issues were at the top. Students next composed historical questions about those issues that would drive the direction of our course for the remainder of the semester. Each week I distributed a set of primary sources centered on a particular decade, and these decennial sources became progressively older as the semester progressed. Using those sources, as well as some journal-length articles by professional historians, students completed assignments that answered our previously generated questions and also produced new questions that we hoped next week’s sources could help us answer.

The problem, in retrospect, was that I had planned for the rest of the semester to evolve from the questions on our list of issues instead of from a schedule prepared by me in advance. I made the radical decision to put students in the driver’s seat. As I imagined it before the course began, I would be like the driving instructor sitting to the side—coaching students, putting on the brakes when necessary, occasionally taking the DeLorean’s wheel. But students would drive the course forward—or backward, in this case—by deciding which questions they wanted to pursue. I would be Doc Brown to their Marty McFly.

While this format had its successes, my primary goal—to teach students how to think historically—often got pushed off the agenda due to the rigorous keep-moving backwards routines I had devised. The format required that students would know, right off the bat, how to ask great historical questions even though I was not sufficiently prepared to teach them how to do that. I also learned that rearranging the chronological order of the survey would not, all by itself, increase student engagement or improve their historical thinking skills. The lesson: a survey that aims at coverage of events in reverse-chronological order will not look much different from a survey that aims at coverage in chronological order.

My second offering of the course did a better job foregrounding historical thinking and also moderated the “choose your own adventure” qualities of the first experiment. I decided to personally select the central topics of the course and organized the semester so that we returned to the present more frequently instead of getting progressively farther away. And I developed a clearer rubric for historical thinking that students could use to assess their own progress towards the primary course goals.

Judging from feedback from my students, this new design better married my goals of showing the relevance of the past to the present and teaching historical thinking. When asked the question, “What was the most important thing you have learned this semester?” students gave answers that were very close to my initial primary objectives. “The most important thing that I have learned is to understand the multiple causes that produce a historical event,” said one student, adding that “the ability to empathize with multiple perspectives is definitely the key to better understanding how things came to be.” Another explained why he or she had “much more of an appreciation for the work that historians do, and the usefulness of that work in the present.”

I still have much to learn, of course, about how to teach backwards more effectively. But looking back on what I’ve learned so far, I’m looking forward to trying again.


W. Caleb McDaniel is an associate professor of history at Rice University and the author of The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (2013), which won the Merle Curti prize from the Organization of American Historians. Portions of his essay were drawn from two longer essays  published on his website.