Uncoverage as a model for doing history: a personal testimonial

One of the major debates in the teaching of history right now is whether you should cover or uncover history.

The first model, coverage, is likely the model you’ve experienced in your high school history classroom.  The teacher presents scads of information to you, chronologically or thematically ordered, and you read until your brain explodes, taking copious notes and memorizing lists, dates, names, all without much connection from one topic to the next.

Sometimes you luck out with a brilliant lecturer, but more often than not, this model ends up as boring and alienating.  It’s the reason people tell me they hate history.

When you uncover history, though, as proposed by Lendol Calder in “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey” you start with method–research approaches, question formation–and then you go and find the answers to your questions.  This model is beneficial for a number of major reasons.

First, when you formulate your own research questions, rather than learning history by rote, you start from an immediate place of empathy and interest.  It’s your question about a topic you want to know about.

Second, when you find the answers to your primary question, you’re going to need to couch them in historical context.  Which means that for every question you answer, there is a ripple effect, producing a web of information necessary in understanding what you find.  So you’re still learning about WWII, for example, but instead of memorizing a list of major battles, you asked a question about, say, life on the homefront, and discovered that it was vastly affected the battles you were suppose to learn in the first place.

Tricksy…and wonderful.

Now, I have yet to be in a classroom where this model has been perfectly executed.  It’s contentious, difficult, and requires a vast amount of freedom on the part of the professor and a vast amount of willingness on the part of the students.

But I did just experience it first hand this last week in the archive, and so I thought I would share the moment where I went, oh hey…this is how uncoverage is supposed to work.

Uncovering history in practice

My dissertation looks at how men were treated in one particular British hospital for the mentally ill–Holloway Sanatorium.  In particular, it looks at how the actions of patients, staff, invested government agencies, board members, etc. all contributed to the cultivation of what it looked like to be a mentally well man, or, in other words, what healthy masculinity looked like.  And I close out with reflections on how this picture of the perfect man affected the invention of diagnosis and treatment, as well as how it continues to affect gender in psychiatry today.

In order to talk about all these interconnecting pieces, then, I have to know a lot of the nuts and bolts of British history.  I have to know about parliamentary proceedings, contemporary medical practices, social trends both at home and in the Empire broadly, class structure, gendered expectations, and so on.

How do you learn about all this stuff?

Well, the going “wisdom” holds that you read about it, and then you take a series of massive exams proving that you understood what you read about.

In the moment, I guess I understood what I read, because I passed my exams.  But I can tell you that not four months afterward, I was  googling around trying to figure out–*again*–how the Poor Law worked.

Not only was I forgetting everything I had just “learned,” but I was also daunted by how much more I had to read before I could really understand the complexities of my dissertation.

I tracked down a copy of the 1890 Lunacy Law to the rare books room of the Library of Health and Sciences on my campus and said, ok, next Thursday, I’m going to go read this thing.

But I felt guilty, which is not conducive to further learning, and so Thursday came and went.

Like…a bunch of Thursdays.

(Compare this to the kid who stops turning in his homework after he bombs the Jacksonian America test.  Or the student who feels she can’t understand Reconstruction because the particulars on the Civil War were fuzzy, and she just stops raising her hand in class.)

I ended up over here in England none the wiser on the Lunacy Law and waist deep in a pile of ledgers for patient departure and arrival at the Sanatorium.  I felt refreshed by the pool of primary sources–one of the benefits of being a history nerd–and I started to take more of an interest in my work again.  I noticed that on the side of each chart was a section for notes, and I started seeing things like “on leave” and “found lunatic by inquisition” and “transferred from single care.”

I wrote down a bunch of terms and went up to my main archivist, all excited and full of inquiries, and asked him if he had time for a barrage of questions, showing him my list.  And he said, what you really need Archibald’s Lunacy.

I’m like, the hell is Archibald’s Lunacy?

He says, hold on, I’ll get it for you.  And he returns about ten minutes later with three enormous tomes.  Here’s Archibald he says, handing me the one covered in red canvas.  And when you’re done with that, you might like to look at Woodin, in green, and then Fry, in rust.  He cackles, and walks away.

Now, here is the moment.  Here is the difference between coverage and uncoverage.

When I was studying for exams, I had towers upon towers of books in my apartment.  I worked assiduously to break them down, but I had to force interest at many different points, and my sense of accomplishment, in the end, was artificial.  I was proud that I had survived, not that I had thrived.

When I had Archibald, Woodin, and Fry in my hands…I was thrilled.  Like, I literally started to breath high in my chest, my heart picking up speed.  (See above on history nerd.) I spent hours in the archive that day deviating from my precious primary sources and soaking up the historical context for my archival pieces.

I read the 1890 Lunacy Law.  I figured out the difference between institutions, workhouses, asylums, hospitals, private, and single care.  I learned about superannuation, writs of inquisition, the role of the Commissioners in Lunacy in the construction of buildings and grounds, and like a million other things.

In other words, I learned about all the things I thought I needed to cover before I went on my research trip.

Would it have saved me time if I had read this all before I left?


Because I can guarantee you, I wouldn’t have yet cared enough about it to remember it.  It would have gone in one eye and out the other in exhausted grad student style, and I would have felt even more guilty when I got to the archives and had to say…dammit, I know I saw this term in that thing I read a few months back, but I can’t remember it now…

Instead, I had to wait until I needed the terms, until I wanted the terms.  And suddenly I was on fire, hot on the trail of something that fascinated me, putting together my puzzle and watching the patients I’d read about come to life.

And that is uncoverage.

It’s caring about history.  It’s about having the courage to ask questions and dive into answers.  And it’s about you.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

4 thoughts on “Uncoverage as a model for doing history: a personal testimonial

  1. This is great! And I feel like the idea of having a specific problem you want to solve and then digging into your sources en route to solving it (rather than learning everything up front before you can work on the problem) is applicable to a wide range of subjects.

    Unrelated: “in one eye and out the other” is kind of a terrifying image if you think about it…

    • I think you’re right that this method is applicable to other subjects. In fact, I think other subjects have been using it for years, and history teachers are just now starting to catch on. Lecturing has been such a staple of the university system, and history has been such an in-between discipline (not exactly a social science, not exactly a humanities topic, and should we use theory yes/no) that many professors were never sure how to, or interested in innovating. Slowly starting to change…

  2. I also loved to see the light of understanding in a persons eye when I got through to them and they said WOW that makes since.

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