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    I’ve only recently emerged from what felt like an avalanche of exams and essays. I dislike the frantic rush to finish the academic year: students are universally stressed about grades and at my community college many are trying to make critical decisions about transferring to four-year colleges.

 

The end, however, is a great time to reflect on what did and did not work during the semester. In my previous blog I offered some tips for conducting library research with first and second year undergraduates. This week I’d like to share a favorite research-based project that I assign to all students in introductory-level United States history classes. My next blog will explore the ways in which the reference librarians and I support the students in their research during library instruction.

 

The goals of my favorite assignment are two-fold.  First, I want students to conduct research using the library catalog, including books and databases of electronic resources. Having a general understanding of how these resources work will enable the students to successfully complete not only this assignment but also prepare them for research in other college-level courses.  Second, I use this project as a way to supplement the course with content that is not directly addressed in the course syllabus. Click here to read the assignment.

 

Now that you’ve read the assignment pause for a moment and imagine the most iconic photographs from the last one-hundred years of United States history.   

 

Perhaps Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” comes to mind or Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Times Square shot of a sailor kissing a woman in celebration of World War II’s end. Or maybe the haunting image of a naked Vietnamese child running from napalm captured by Nick Ut in 1972. Each of these images are so famous that they have become representative of the eras from which they originated. But what about the millions of photographs with which we are not familiar: native children dressed in the clothes of white men; a black man racing a bicycle; teenage girls standing outside a textile mill. What can these stories tell us about the history of the United States? And, how can these images provide a window through which we can help our students conduct library research in survey-level courses?

 

For this assignment I gather an assortment of images from the time period of the course; some are photographs, many are images of artwork. I print the images in black and white on standard paper. I provide students with a web address so that they can easily bring up the image on a screen. Illustrations of colonial America, political cartoons, and paintings by John Singleton Copley are among the images assigned to students in United States History I. For United States History II the images cover everything from post-Reconstruction race relations to the counterculture of the 1960s. The shared characteristic in each class is that the students are not allowed to choose their image. Usually I get to the classroom ahead of time to randomly place the images at workstations in the classroom.

 

I want the students to be challenged to learn about something new while engaging in hands-on research. “Migrant Mother,” therefore, is not a desirable image for this project because it is so recognizable as a depression-era image. I also want the students -- as much as possible -- to become excited about their topics. Admittedly, this goal is easier to achieve in US History II. In my experience a student who has not been particularly engaged in the course to this point in the semester will become notably more interested when assigned an image of an athlete or entertainer.

 

Can you think of topics that might excite your students to think about historical research in a new light? Play around on the internet now that the semester is over and there is time to reflect on what has and has not worked in the past.  Enter phrases such as “Native Americans and sports history” and “Black Panthers breakfast” into a search engine for images.  Then, try to imagine the sparks these images may ignite as students discover that each image truly has its own story to tell -- one that they had likely never considered before this moment in your class.  

If you are a budding history-enthusiast like myself, you may also find yourself asking questions while watching the evening news. Questions such as: "has this ever happened before?" or "is this setting a new precedent in U.S. history?"

 

Yesterday, the evening news of former FBI director, James Comey's abrupt dismissal from his post circulated. Pundits were interviewed-- all sharing a sense of befuddlement and confusion. Again, I asked, has this ever happened before? [As an aside, I will sheepishly admit that, as someone in my early thirties, I did not live through the Nixon presidency.] Quickly and eagerly, I started reading into the 'Saturday Night Massacre' and further parallels were drawn for me between Trump and Nixon.

 

For example, this Op-Ed piece in the L.A. Times and its political cartoon was particularly helpful to me:

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/la-ol-the-saturday-night-massacre-20170130-htmlstory.html

 

And so, it got me wondering:

What questions are your students asking about Comey's dismissal? How do you handle political discussions contextualized in historical events in your classroom? What assignments, readings, or research would you recommend to better understand presidential precedent -- or the departure from presidential precedent?

My students’ expressions were blank when I asked how the research projects were coming along. The class, an upper-level hybrid course, meets face to face only once a week. Our limited time together has led to my wanting each meeting to be chalk full of content to prepare students for the readings, films, and independent work that follows online. On this day, however, I prodded them with questions about an assignment they were working on independently: have you found adequate primary and secondary sources? Have you met with the reference librarian? Are you comfortable with the assigned method of citation? A painful silence met each of my queries.

 

    As an historian, I love research. I enjoy even the most general search of a library’s digital catalog -- all the better when I encounter an old-fashioned card catalog. Sometimes I will do a search “just to see” what the library has on a topic to satisfy my curiosity. My students, I’ve discovered, do not share my sense of excitement and wonder in the library. For a history professor this reluctance on the part of students to engage in research can be quite challenging.

 

    In general, my students are very uncomfortable in the library. When I taught at a residential four-year college I could safely assume that the students had been through a library introduction as part of freshman orientation. At a community college, however, the students’ level of preparedness is dramatically uneven. As a result I have incorporated library instruction into every one of my survey-level courses. The knowledgeable reference librarians work with me to plan the class time. I share with them the goals of the assignment and together we brainstorm the kinds of questions and challenges the students might face as they begin their work.

 

Critical to this class time in the library is my participation alongside the students. As they follow along with the librarian, I do as well. The benefit of my participation is that students see that I value what is being taught to them. If I leave them with the librarian and hang out in my office during their instruction then I lose the opportunity to share the experience and, more importantly, to watch them squirm in their library-induced discomfort; both are critical to my understanding of who they are as students.

 

The students in this particular course should have had sufficient academic training to conduct the research projects on their own. Their silent response to my questions, however, told me otherwise. With only a couple weeks left in the semester I had to take a drastic step: for the following week’s meeting we would abandon content and conduct research in the library together.

 

In future blogs for Macmillan Community I will offer suggestions as to what has worked and not worked as short research projects with my students. For now, however, I’ll end with this friendly reminder: research, like everything else we do, takes practice. I have come to accept that I cannot expect students in their early years of college to successfully (and comfortably) conduct research without a lot practice. To even the brightest first or second-year college student, a research project that comprises a large percentage of the final course grade can be incredibly overwhelming. With manageable assignments, patient instruction, and guidance, however, all students can learn to successfully navigate library research without fear.

According to Yale Daily News, History is back on top of the Majors list starting with the class of 2019!

http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2017/04/06/history-returns-to-the-top-major-for-class-of-2019/ 

 

As I visit various history departments across the country, I often see elaborate displays on the department walls showing famous figures that students may be surprised to learn majored in History (Conan O'Brien, Steve Carrell anybody?) However, we can all learn from one another on how to convey these applications to our students.

 

How are you and your department showing students the relevance of majoring in History?

   Asking students in a survey course to break into discussion groups will generally elicit negative responses ranging from audible groans and snickering to eye rolling. “Come on,” I plead, “It’s going to be FUN!” My enthusiasm for what is to come during discussion of that day’s historical topic is rarely contagious in these opening moments.

 

   I teach at a two-year college comprised entirely of commuter students. In terms of age and life-experience, my students are diverse: some are “traditional” college age (18-22) but more are men and women in their twenties, thirties, forties and beyond -- single-parents, veterans, husbands, wives, caregivers, service providers and retail associates, police and firemen. Most days when I enter the classroom I am conscious of the fact that nearly every student is sitting in silence staring at his/her smartphone, intentionally disconnected.

 

   Maybe “fun” is a subjective term. Nonetheless, here are a couple of the simple methods I have employed to enhance the class discussion experience for my students in an effort to move them beyond isolation and into group-based learning, which in turn has dramatically improved the quality of our time together in the classroom.   

 

   First, introductions are mandatory. Students introduce themselves to each other and are instructed to be prepared for me to quiz any member of the group on his/her members’ names. When the class is back together after group work I follow through: random students are asked to introduce their groupmates. Often after some giggling and awkwardness, students will help each get through the names.  They smile and laugh, and I enjoy the camaraderie they’ve established in a very short period of time.

 

   Second, whiteboards (or chalkboards!) add to the energy of the room while aiding in the process of students sharing what they have discussed. One of my favorite practices is to give all of the groups the same four questions to brainstorm for 10-15 minutes. On the whiteboard I designate a space for each question to be answered by each group. We are ready to discuss and share as a class only when every group has added their answers to the board with one catch: no repetitive answers.  It’s amazing how quickly the students can get to work brainstorming when they fear another group “stealing” their answer before they can write it on the board!

 

   Although they would never admit it publicly, my students are noticeably energized when I pass out the whiteboard markers! Often the students will snap a photo of the board notes before they leave the room because the no-repeat rule leads to very thorough brainstorming. It never fails that in classes where I utilize regular (every other week) group discussions the students are more engaged with each other inside and outside our classroom.  Seeing students from my classes studying together in the campus common areas in the days following group work confirms my belief that they are craving the connections forged when I ignore their eye-rolling and assign low-stakes group work.   

 

My motto for class discussion this semester is “proceed with caution.”  In this era of  intensely polarized viewpoints it sometimes feels as though conversations about anything more controversial than the weather are wrought with raw emotions, often anger and frustration.  No matter how much we may try to disengage from the political disagreements that have become commonplace, we are faced with a seemingly endless onslaught of “breaking news.”  As a result I’ve tried with my students to limit our discussion of current events to focus on those topics about which students may see direct parallels to our course.  Many times this semester current political discourse has provided opportunities for history students to consider what we have learned in class in relation to debate among elected officials in Washington.

Take, for example, the March 3rd speech by Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson in which he described African slaves as “immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships….” (Boston Globe, 6 March 2017) Rather than focusing on the outrage that many students felt towards Carson’s comments, our discussion centered around the historical facts we have learned about the Atlantic slave trade that directly contradict Carson’s argument. In particular, students focused on the sad reality that slave men and women were not free to make choices about their lives in the way that immigrants from Ireland during the Great Famine did, for example. 

I was reminded as I listened to my students’ perspectives on the Carson speech that we as historians are uniquely positioned to elevate our students’ critical thinking skills simply by asking them to pay attention to current events and digest some of what they’ve read and heard in the opening minutes of each class meeting. Rather than criticizing modern-day politicians in our history classrooms, we can -- quite productively -- ask students to compare what they have heard on the news with what we have learned in class.

We know as historians that connections between the past and present are endless: Can we help our students find connections between immigration policies in the 1920s and the modern-day calls for a travel ban? Could anti-Japanese sentiments in the 1940s provide context for contemporary discussions of discrimination based on race or ethnicity?  Were arguments made for/against repeal of Obamacare similar to arguments we read about New Deal legislation?  

These classroom conversations -- however brief and informal -- will (hopefully) help my students to cut through the murkiness of media coverage and talking-heads, to draw fact-based connections between the past and the present. As a teacher and historian watching this process unfold in the classroom has been immensely satisfying.  How about you? What’s going on in your classrooms?  

Originally posted on November 18, 2015 on Smithsonian.com

 

Possible assignment challenge: ask students to examine the similarities of fear of refugees from World War II compared to refugees of the present day after reading this article.

In politically-charged and tenuous times, it seems America craves comic relief via Facebook memes.

 

A decade ago, it didn’t look like Barack Obama and Joseph Biden had all that much in common. Two men from different generations. One a longtime Washington hand; the other a relatively new arrival to politics. Then in 2007, they became actual rivals during a rough Democratic Presidential primary. But fast forward to the end of the Obama presidency and they’ve developed a strong partnership. And that, as Vice President Biden might say, is a big deal. The duo has shared milestones both big and small, from winning two presidential elections to sharing a pair of matching friendship bracelets that nearly broke the Internet. Whether they’re talking shop in the Oval Office or golfing together on the White House lawn, Obama and Biden share a heartwarming rapport. So as Obama helps Biden prepare to celebrate his birthday on Nov. 20, TIME looks back at some of the pair’s most magical moments together. —Cady Lang

 

Originally posted on TIME

Originally posted on November 8, 2016 on TIME.

 

The political divisions throughout the U.S. haven’t always been so black and white (or red and blue). TIME’s electoral history maps dating back to 1824 shows how some elections ended in a landslide, while others were surprisingly close.

Originally posted on September 30, 2011 on Here and Now.

 

Associate professor of history at Washington State University Matthew Sutton debates a New York Times opinion piece depicting Christian apocalypticism as a driving factor in shaping conservative political thinking.

Originally posted on November 10, 2016 on TIME.


Since it’s inception, the electoral college was designed to balance the interests between highly populated and less populated states—but the biggest political issues exist between the north and south, as well as coastal and middle states. Controversy surrounding the reasons why the electoral college exists isn’t anything new—since its founding era, the electoral college has been stirring up political elections.

Originally posted on October 3, 2016 on WCVB.

 

Kenneth Greenberg discusses Nat Turner’s controversial place in history.

 

 

Originally posted on October 9, 2016 on The Boston Globe.

 

With a 40 year career in academia focusing on the slavery era and the rebellion of Nat Turner, it’s safe to say professor and historian Kenneth Greenberg is an expert. The renowned academic discusses the debated new film “The Birth of a Nation” and his thoughts on Turner’s revolutionary acts.

Originally posted on September 17, 2012 on WNYC.com.

 

Brown University historian Robert O. Self explores how the concepts of nuclear families and “family value” ideals have changed over time, through presidencies, and throughout various social movements.

 

Originally posted in May 2005 on History Matters.

 

Exploring American Histories co-author Nancy Hewitt shares what sparked her passion for teaching history, her goals, what she hopes students take away from their courses, and more.