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Suzanne McCormack

Please Read

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Sep 20, 2017

Trying to break the ice on the first day of classes I ask enthusiastically, “Read any good books over the summer?” Silence. After some prodding they admit the truth: the majority of students in my introductory-level US history class did not read a single book during summer break. I’m not sure why but I initially found this revelation startling. Getting undergraduates to complete weekly reading during the semester is an often frustrating undertaking. Perhaps in my academic fantasy world those same students who ignore the assigned course readings are secretly pouring through tattered copies of Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby during their summer vacations. Who am I kidding? I would have been happy if they told me they had read comic books or Danielle Steele’s entire catalog during summer break.

 

Reading is one of those areas in which faculty are the worst possible judges of students’ habits. We chose to be teachers and researchers in part because we love to read. It’s difficult for us to imagine a life without books constantly stimulating new ideas. Many, if not most, of our students do not share that passion.

   

Researchers have long argued that reading for pleasure has a significant impact on school performance in grades K-12. (See, for example, “Independent Reading and School Achievement”) It stands to reason that the same theory would apply to college students. By the time students arrive at college, however, incentivizing reading is no longer a viable option. Instead we need the students to see for themselves how exercising their brains through reading can translate into academic success (ie, better grades). How, then, do we persuade them that so-called “pleasure” reading will help them be more successful in their college courses?

 

         Think of it this way, I suggested to my students: a friend tells you that although he is committed to playing for the college soccer team in the fall he has decided not to workout during the summer. Would you think this was a good idea? Would you expect him to have a successful soccer season? While some students laughed at my analogy, a few light bulbs turned on as well.

 

So how do we convince our college students that they need to prepare for success in the classroom by exercising their brains during summer break? While writing this blog I googled the phrase “preparing for college success.” Search results were overwhelmingly related to choosing rigorous high school courses and prepping for dorm life. US News & World Report’s “15 Good Things to Do the Summer Before College” tucked in “Improve Your Mind” at #5 (between “Get Some Furnishings” and “Brush Up on a Language”).

 

The answer to my question, I’ve concluded, is that I probably cannot do much of anything to get students to better prepare ahead of time for their four short months with me. It may be that all we can do as history faculty is challenge our students during the semester with assignments that sharpen their reading and critical thinking skills while encouraging them to leave our classrooms with an enhanced desire to explore on their own.

 

Have you had any success preparing students before they started a course with you? Summer reading? Summer research? Please share!

Recently while an audience member at a professional conference I found myself morphing into one of my students. I was supposed to be paying attention but in a moment of boredom or disinterest I had noticed a colleague on the other side of the auditorium with her phone on the desk in front of her. I couldn’t resist the urge to send her a text.

 

I’d like to say that I was ashamed to have resorted to the behavior of an indifferent student. More than that, however, I was struck by how easily distracted I am. Why couldn’t I pay attention when I knew the information being conveyed was important? Is there something in this experience that can inform my own teaching and help me prevent students from tuning me out in the same way I tuned out the conference speaker?

 

When I think about that presentation now I cannot recall any of the key components even though it was in my field and relevant to the work that I do as community college faculty. The sad truth is that the speaker did a poor job of communicating his message and my smart-phone was an easy distraction. The relevance for me as a history professor who often talks incessantly at the front of the classroom is profound: with every lecture I write or presentation I prepare, I need to continuously ask myself what do I want the students to know and, perhaps even more importantly, are my methods delivering that information to my audience?

 

As I’ve prepared for the start of the semester over the last few weeks I’ve come face to face with a reality: I need to do a better job conveying information to students in a way that is succinct, clear and meaningful. I’m not saying that my presentations need to be more flashy or incorporate more technology or “entertain” the students, but they could undoubtedly be better organized. I need to ensure that the students can see relevance in what I am lecturing about and how it connects to the larger themes of the course. Like most faculty, I imagine, I rarely evaluate my lectures and presentations immediately after they are delivered. I certainly notice bored and distracted students in the moment, but as I'm grumbling in the aftermath I seldom consider what I could be doing to better connect those students to the lecture itself.

 

The challenge, of course, is how to accomplish this task. What can we as teachers do (short of quizzing and testing) to gauge our students’ understanding of what we are presenting? My experience as a delinquent conference attendee has led me to think more critically about my own presentation style and what I may be doing to foster lethargy and boredom among my audience. So what’s going on in your classroom? Are you using a classroom response system (“clicker”)? Are you showing short film clips or using music to invigorate your lectures? Have you developed some instrument of self-reflection or evaluation? What is working and not working with your lectures?   

Originally posted on August 17th, 2017 on Flipboard.com.

With the debate on how to approach Confederate history growing, W. Fitzhugh Brundage discusses what he believes to be the best course of action.

 

You might also like A Monumental Debate by Sue McCormack.

 

Suzanne McCormack

A Monumental Debate

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Aug 23, 2017

As much as I would like to think that my students are reading a reputable news source each day and paying attention to world events while on summer break, it is more realistic to assume that many have paid only cursory attention to the political comings and goings in Washington. I expect, nonetheless, that students will return to campus the first week of September with lots of questions about the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of August 12th. In addition to my usual pre-semester preparation this year, therefore, I’m giving a lot of thought to how I can help the students to contextualize the historical topics that have become the focus of public debate in recent weeks.

 

I teach at a community college in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union and home to zero monuments honoring the Confederacy. Travel about an hour northward, however, and find the sole Confederate monument in New England: erected in 1963 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy it memorializes thirteen Confederate soldiers who died as Union prisoners at Fort Warren, Georges Island, Massachusetts. Today the monument is boarded up as the state decides its fate. [See Why Boston has a Confederate Monument -- And Why You Can’t See it Right Now]

 

For the great majority of my students, then, the Confederate monument debate does not resonate the way it does for students who have lived their entire lives in communities where the men who fought to preserve slavery are memorialized. How then do I help my students understand the significance of the debate that is taking place across the United States?

   

There are a number of ways that we as historians and teachers can tackle this topic in class discussion. First, if students have not previously studied the Civil War, it makes sense to ensure that they know the basics: who were the Confederates? What were they fighting for? What were the consequences of their actions and ideology for the nation? A good source to share with students is History By Era on the web site of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Especially for students who will not be covering the Civil War within the content of their course, this site provides a starting point for understanding the politics of the war and includes a discussion of slavery and emancipation.

 

Second, suggest that students read up on the origins of the statues themselves. How Statues of Robert E. Lee and Other Confederates Got into the U.S. Capitol (Gillian Brockell, The Washington Post) and How the U.S. Got So Many Confederate Monuments (Becky Little, history.com) are brief and provide students context from which they may begin to ask further questions. Encourage students to find articles that advocate for the preservation of these monuments such as Why We Should Keep the Confederate Monuments Right Where they Are (John Daniel Davidson, thefederalist.com).

 

Finally, ask your college librarians to fuel the discussion with a topical exhibit. It’s likely that your college library has something in its collection that examines the history of monuments. Ask the library faculty to display what they have prominently to encourage students to (subconsciously?) make connections between what is being discussed on television news and the work of professional historians. Three sources to look for are: Monuments: America’s History in Art & Memory  (Judith Dupre; Random House), Memorial Mania (Erika Doss; University of Chicago Press), and Slavery & Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, editors; University of North Carolina Press).

 

An unlimited supply of discussion questions can emerge from the debate on Confederate monuments, no matter where your college sits geographically. Ask your students to consider who is memorialized in the community where they live and to reflect on what such memorials teach outsiders about the values that their community holds dear.

 

 

You might also like to read the original post by W. Fitzhugh Brundage on Flipboard.com.

I recently brought home Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal from my public library (click here for a New York Times’ review). The book, written by two Boston Globe reporters, examines a period that intersects closely with my time on earth so far. I grew up south of Boston, Massachusetts, so James “Whitey” Bulger’s criminal history has been a local news topic for all of my adult life. Whitey, for those not familiar with the story, spent nearly two decades as (simultaneously) a criminal and FBI informant, and then many years on the run before being tried and convicted in 2013. Reading the book made me realize how little I actually know about Boston in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

When my students ask why my sections of the second half of the United States survey end in the early 1970s instead of going to “the present,” I respond with a smile: “If I lived it, it’s not history!” As I think more about this question, however, I am forced to face reality: I am uncomfortable teaching about events that I can remember. This is particularly true when it comes to political events in the 1980s because I can vividly recall watching the evening news with my parents. When I read about events from this era it’s always with a faint recognition of what I had seen or heard as a teen.

 

            With each passing year in the classroom, however, will come the inevitable need to expand time frame of the US survey for the sake of my students, many of whom were not yet born when I graduated from college. They don’t remember the politically-charged Olympic Games of the Cold War era, Bill Clinton’s denials of infidelity, or even September 11th. So how do we as historians decide what is “history” -- i.e., included in the survey and other courses -- and what is current events? Does my “If I lived it ....” litmus test have any credibility?

 

Probably not. And yet I remain perplexed by the enormity of what stays and what goes content-wise if I teach beyond the year of my birth. In an earlier blog I admitted that I’m already overwhelmed by my perceived need to cover a ton of content in US I (see TMI: Overloading the US Survey). I’ve resolved this academic year to revise my US II syllabus and bring my students to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. Now what? What stays and what goes?

 

Or, what if I let the students determine the content of our last two weeks of the semester? What if I tweak my syllabus to the point that I reach my usually stopping point (the war in Vietnam) with time to spare, which I would then dedicate to specific topics about which the students are curious?

 

Have you or one of your colleagues in another field tried this approach? I would love to hear from anyone who has experimented with course content in this way. In particular, how did you determine the topics to be covered? How did students respond to the experience? And would you do it again?

Email was barely a thing when I was an undergraduate. If I had a question or concern about class I had to wait my turn outside of the professor’s office. I remember many times sitting on the floor in a hallway chatting with other students in the same predicament: we needed a signature for registration, help preparing for an exam, or had questions about an upcoming or recently graded assignment. Sometimes those conversations on the hallway floor answered my questions and I did not bother to wait to see the professor. It was not until I was a graduate student that email became an acceptable form of communication. Living forty minutes from campus during graduate school meant that email for me was a time saver.    

 

              Fast forward twenty or so years and today’s college students are nearly post-email. Although my college instructs students upon registration to regularly check their school email account, this direction often falls on deaf ears. During the last academic year, for example, I actually had a handful of students claim to have no knowledge of their college email account whatsoever. “Can’t you just text me?” one student asked.

 

             I think a lot about students’ emails because I receive so many. For both my online and on-campus students, email is the preferred method of communication. While over a week’s time during the semester I may answer ten to twenty emails from students, in that same period I will see maybe two students in-person during my six office hours. Don’t get me wrong: I think email is fabulous, especially at a college like mine that is 100% commuter. What I dislike about email, however, is the barrier it creates between student and teacher at times when face-to-face communication could be meaningful.

 

Many of my students are first-generation college students. For some English is a challenge. Others have encountered roadblocks in previous educational experiences that have kept them from approaching their professors. For these students the one-on-one meeting can be an instrument for removing any sense of intimidation students may feel around faculty. Early in my career a young man from western Africa came to my office to ask a question about the textbook. He paused when his eyes landed on the black pen on my desk. “My father used those same pens when he was a teacher in my country,” he said. “Here he is a cook in a cafeteria.” What followed was a conversation about his life in the United States and how dramatically his parents’ employment opportunities had changed when they emigrated. This brief exchange at the start of the semester opened the door to more discussions in the months that followed. I listened as his English improved, learned about his experiences as an immigrant, and had lots of great details to include in the letter of recommendation I eventually wrote for his transfer applications. I cannot help but think that much of this understanding would have been missed had he simply emailed me his question about the textbook.

 

All students, regardless of socioeconomic or academic background, can benefit from the conversations that can take place during office hours. For the first-generation college student, the under-prepared and the academically intimidated, on-one conversations with professors are particularly critical. The challenge, however, is how do we faculty get these students to our offices? Short of a mandatory meeting with each student, have you been successful at convincing students to come visit rather than send emails? If so, how? As each of us prepares our syllabi for a new semester’s start, how might we position information about office hours amidst all the other important course information so that students see meeting with us in person as valuable?

   

 

   

            Every summer around this time I revise my syllabus for US History I: 1600-1877. I teach three sections of the course during the fall semester and it is, hands down, the syllabus I wrestle with most. I blame the struggle on the fact that two of my least favorite historical topics to teach are at the core of the course content: the American Revolution and the Civil War. Truth is, when it comes to these two monumental events in our national history I’m overwhelmed by what content should stay and what should go in a survey course.

 

             The struggle has not always been so real. The first teaching position I had as I finished graduate school was at a small liberal arts college where the survey was not offered. Instead the history curriculum was a series of courses each covering a few decades. A course on the United States during the era of the Revolution, for example, began in the 1760s and ended around 1800. I had the entire semester to cover approximately forty years. We read memoirs, considered numerous primary sources, watched films, and, of course, studied the historical narrative. When the semester ended I felt confident that our examination of the period was thorough.

 

   Teaching the US survey for me now-a-days is a mad dash from one era to the next to the next to the next. Those historians who teach the world or western civilization survey have an even greater challenge. For a modern Americanist like myself, never is the internal pressure so great to get as much content as possible across to students as when I am teaching the American Revolution (the Civil War is a close second so I’ll save that for a future blog). In a perfectly-scheduled semester (read as: no snow days) I allot three class meetings (75 minutes each) to the Revolution. Students are assigned a textbook chapter for an overview of the key topics along with a multiple-choice, open-book quiz on the reading. But then what? What stays in and what gets left out?

 

There is certainly no shortage of print publications on the Revolutionary War era. Museums, libraries, and historical organizations provide so many awesome resources via the web that is difficult for me, as someone who did not specialize in this era, to choose a focus. I want to use/try everything I find, which only compounds my existing problem of too much content to cover in a short period of time.

 

In recent semesters my favorite digital resource to incorporate has been the Massachusetts Historical Society’s The Coming of the American Revolution, which includes sources on nonimportation and nonconsumption, among other topics, that have worked well as discussion prompts. Teaching in New England, however, it is easy to develop tunnel vision and focus too much on events that happened in Boston.

 

So this week I turn to you, my fellow historians, with this question: if you teach survey courses, how do you make decisions about what content stays and what goes? Specifically to those who teach the first half of the United States survey: what aspects of this era of history can I absolutely not leave out? And, finally, what fabulous resources exist via the web to help a New Englander broaden her approach to Revolutionary War-era history?

We’ve all had the experience of catching an audible fragment of something that a colleague is teaching and being momentarily distracted. In many cases whatever is going on next door is miles away from the content I’m covering in my history class. Nonetheless, the experience of that unintended interruption often leads me to wonder what would happen if we combined classes. For just seventy-five minutes, what if we put all of our students into one room and looked for connections between what our two classes are studying? What new ideas and perspectives could we offer our students? What might they see in our different disciplines that we had not previously considered?

 

          At my college History is situated in the Department of Social Sciences. I’m fortunate, as a result, to be surrounded by economists, political scientists and sociologists at department meetings. My office space is tucked in between Human Services and Biology. And yet, in spite of all of these academic fields literally surrounding me day in and day out, I rarely think about any discipline but my own.

 

Only twice in the past ten years have I shared my classroom with a colleague: a sociologist who was teaching Criminology at the same time that my Black History class met. Once we decided on a shared topic (prosecutions of murder and the post-World War II civil rights movement) it took less than an hour for my colleague and I to come up with a plan for how our students could be brought together for a class meeting. The most difficult part of these cross-discipline sessions was figuring out when they could be scheduled. Had I been more organized I would have planned the meetings into the syllabus before the semester started. That being said, the meetings themselves were nothing short of awesome.

 

We prepared by assigning both classes a common reading. Once we fit everyone into the slightly larger of our two classrooms we broke the students into groups. In this case we were able to do groups of 4-6 students (2-3 from each class). We asked the students to introduce themselves and then showed them a short (15-20 minute) segment of a film that focused on one of the historic criminal cases about which they had read.

 

My colleague and I created discussion questions ahead of the meeting, which we distributed to the students. We made sure that at least one of the questions required the Criminology students to share something they had previously learned with the Black History students, and vice versa. After allowing the students time to work through the questions with their group, we led the larger discussion and helped contextualize the reading and film with content from our respective disciplines.

   

My take-away from co-teaching was twofold: not only did my students benefit intellectually from the introduction of Criminology into Black History class, but there was a measurable increase in the level of energy during class discussion. There were new voices heard and fresh ideas shared. The experience was like a shot of caffeine to both classes as they were introduced to disciplines with which they were generally unfamiliar. For my colleague and I there was the added benefit of exposing new students to our fields of study. The next semester we were excited to see members of each other’s classes enrolled as students in our courses. One such student told me that after our joint-venture in Black History and Criminology the idea of taking a semester-long history class did not seem “so boring.” Not the best compliment but I’ll take what I can get!

 

          So, if the experience was overwhelmingly positive, you might ask the obvious: why haven’t I repeated it every semester since? The answer is simple: when I write the syllabus before the semester starts I do not consciously carve out space for cross-discipline adventures and that is entirely my fault.

 

Summer Break is the perfect time to remedy this error for the new academic year. I’m looking through my syllabi now for content that might be more effectively taught with a colleague. Historians and other readers: I’d love to hear your experiences with team-teaching. What disciplines and subjects have worked well together? What do you wish you had done different? What were the outcomes of the experience for faculty and students?  

While my official title is Associate Professor, from September thru early May I see myself as simply “teacher.” As full-time faculty at a community college I teach five sections each semester, which puts me in contact with upwards of 250 students every academic year. My teaching load is 80% survey courses aimed at first and second-year college students. It’s rare that I have an opportunity to think about research -- that element of our work that often differentiates the so-called professor from the teacher-- until this time of year, the summer months, when I’m simultaneously rethinking the previous year and planning for the one to come.

 

    This summer I’m giving more thought than usual to research. I’m in the very early stages of a somewhat directionless project. Since the semester ended in May I have read a half-dozen narratives from the field and spent countless hours scrolling digital finding aids to determine which archival materials are where. I’m up for a sabbatical in the very near future so the planning needs to start now. My solo efforts this summer have made me nostalgic for “Dissertation Seminar” many years ago. Looking back on that weekly two-hour meeting with fellow graduate students I realize how valuable it was to have the steady guidance of my late dissertation advisor, Dr. Carol Petillo (Boston College), who would assign weekly tasks and deadlines designed to move us forward in our research.

 

I vividly recall as a graduate student assuming that my career would look much like those of my professors who published regularly and taught a 2-2 course load. The road I’ve traveled as faculty at a community college, however, could not have been more different from that of my graduate mentors.

 

And so it is that I begin each academic year with a plan: on a given morning/afternoon/evening of every week I will commit myself entirely to my research. I make a silent pledge that I will not grade, or prep, or respond to school-related emails during that time. I’m faithful to my pledge through about the second week of school when queries from students, colleagues, and administrators begin to fill my inbox and I decide, reluctantly, that everything else is more pressing than my research. Before I know it, my pledge has fallen completely by the wayside and I’m again daydreaming about summer break when I will resume my research.

 

My question to the wider Macmillan Community this week is how do I break this cycle? How can I make this next academic year one in which I’m successful in the classroom and productively following through on research goals?

 

Is the solution really as simple as better managing my time? Many faculty have discussed strategies for dealing with the time crunch, offering countless suggestions that I would no doubt would benefit from adopting (see, for example, these articles published at California State University’s Community Commons and Inside Higher Ed ).

 

Or am I just being too hard on myself? Is it unrealistic to think that I can teach a 5-5 course load and complete substantial research at the same time? Perhaps it is simply time, after ten years of failed silent pledges, for me to accept that for faculty like myself, whose primary assignment is teaching, the only truly productive space for research is summer break.

 

Maybe it’s time to embrace that reality and view it as a positive: to see the summer months as a much-needed break from the classroom and an opportunity to transport the teacher in me back to the research and study that molded the student in me into the historian.

 

Maybe.

 

 

 

   

 

   

            In previous blogs (May 3rd and May 18th) I shared my thoughts about conducting research with first and second-year students in history classes. This week I’d like to offer suggestions as to what students need to gain from library instruction and what faculty can do to be part of this learning process.

 

          Let’s be honest: the average first or second-year undergraduate is not generally excited about doing research in a library even when I tell them we are taking a "field trip." Most, in fact, believe that research can be conducted just as effectively through a Google search. Helping our students to learn the value of evaluating academic sources versus web “hits” is critical. Here are some steps faculty can follow, in partnership with your college’s library professionals, to make class time in the library both efficient and productive.  

 

Step One: start with a discussion of what makes a source appropriate for a college-level history paper. While there are countless resources available to students via web searches  students do not always effectively discern the good versus the bad source. Thankfully, there are many publications available on the web for faculty to share with students as they learn to evaluate sources. Your college librarians may have already created such a document but if not, check out these resources from the University of California Berkeley and the University Libraries at Virginia Tech. Bottom line: I tell my students that we would not be spending our limited time in the library if the best sources for their work were just a Google-search away. Library instruction is the perfect time to provide students with concrete examples of the countless academic resources not readily available on the web.

 

Step Two: address the basics first. Do not assume that the students know how to conduct even the most basic search. With the help of a knowledgeable librarian the basics can be covered quickly, enabling students to move on to the tougher questions such as what steps to take if the book is not available on campus or what to do if he/she has never borrowed a book from any library. Every time I go to the college library with a class a student comes to me with the latter quandary. The first few times I brought a class to the library for research I (wrongly) assumed that everyone had patronized their public library from their earliest days of schooling as I did. In my experience many students arrive at college having never located a book on library shelf. College students are not alone in this behavior and while there are many reasons (see, for example, this article in The Atlantic) whatever the cause we as faculty must remedy the situation early on in college students’ academic careers if they are to successfully complete their degrees.

 

Step Three: be part of the process, literally. I am fortunate that my college has a classroom designated for library instruction. Before the semester starts I reserve the room and schedule instruction time with a library professional. I make it clear to the students that the time spent in library instruction is class time: attendance will be taken, assignments will be explained and started there and then, and students will be responsible for the materials covered. As part of this planning I discuss with our librarian how much time the students will need to conduct their research and I make sure that we allot time for them to get to work independently and ask questions. Some of the most meaningful minutes I spend with students during the semester takes place in these library meetings. Often it is the first time that I am able to speak one-on-one with individual students. I ask them to show me what they have uncovered so far with their research and what kinds of challenges they are facing in the early stages. Facial expressions and body language often reveal to me who in the room has never conducted research before this class meeting. I also encourage students to help each other. Without fail there are members of every class who have had some library instruction in the past. Encouraging students to speak to their neighbors helps to break down the feelings of isolation and intimidation present as students begin their projects.

 

          Final Step: keep a sense of humor. Watching undergraduates struggle through the early phases of library research can be frustrating. I always hope that my assignment will make perfect sense to the students but sometimes, try as I might, my vision falls short. Being flexible with the realization that something I intended for them to do might not work as planned is critical to the process.

 

So, after all of this thinking and planning, do my students think that research is “fun”? Probably not. They do, however, share with me throughout the semester their gratitude for the time we spent in the library because they recognize that in their history class they have learned valuable skills that will translate into future academic success no matter what subjects they choose to study. And at the end of the day, this gratitude is enough for me.

    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.