Saving the Survey Course through Teacher-to-Teacher Education

Higher education instructors tasked with teaching the ubiquitous “survey course” are often in a tough spot—faced with hundreds of students, minimal resources for curriculum development, and no travel funds. As MIT professor of architectural history and theory Mark M. Jarzombek ’85 points out, “We expect global history to be taught by the people least prepared to do it. That’s an academic crisis.”

Jarzombek encountered the problem within his own field after co-authoring A Global History of Architecture with the University of Washington’s Vikram Prakash in 2006. Teachers reported that they didn’t know how use the book. “The problem was not the students—they look forward to and even now expect a global perspective,” says Jarzombek. “The sticking point was the teaching environment. So we tried to figure out how to address it.”

Their solution is the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative (GAHTC), an online trove of lectures and practical teaching materials, accessible for free by any confirmed teacher at a university or college. The Mellon Foundation put up an initial $1 million in 2013 and another $1.5 million in November 2016 to fund it.

GAHTC’s resources are created by teachers for teachers. “One way we could have done it would have been to get all the scholars who work on Southeast Asia together, for example, and have them help us understand how to teach Southeast Asia,” says Jarzombek. “But we realized that wasn’t what we wanted to do.” Instead, teachers themselves are given grants of $20,000 to research and develop lectures, which are peer reviewed, classroom tested, and posted for other teachers, who are then free to create their own variations.

“This teacher-to-teacher environment has never really existed before in architecture,” purports Jarzombek. “Having pre-tested, quality teaching material can remove some of the built-in hesitancy and anxiety that teachers face.” GAHTC also offers onsite coaching for those who may need help integrating the resources with their own pedagogy.

About 200 lectures now reside in the GAHTC collection, with an additional 300–400 expected by the project’s completion. The first round was an open call, and results skewed toward modernism; the next round will be targeted toward subjects where there are currently gaps, such as the pre-Columbian Americas and ancient Japan.

“We’re saying the teacher is significant in the classroom,” Jarzombek says. “We value the lecture. That’s a dying art these days—and that’s what we’re aiming to maintain.”

This story was originally published in April 2017.

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