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At the midpoint of February, “Black History Month,” it makes sense to consider how we as history professors can ensure that black history is a central component of American history and not a subject relegated to the year’s shortest month. Here are some of the things that I have done to incorporate black history into my United States history survey courses year round:

 

Explore black history textbooks: Compare the table of contents from a black history textbook to that of the general US history textbook you currently use. Look for topics that could broaden content and enliven discussion. While students are often familiar with World War II-era images of “Rosie the Riveter,” for example, they know very little about the “Double V” campaign of the same period. Incorporating such a topic into a US survey’s coverage of World War II creates space for students to examine gender and race comparatively. When students begin to consider the experiences of African-American “Rosies” the conversation broadens to explore the economic challenges faced by women of color.

 

Research and share: One of the many fabulous things about “Black History Month” (and “Women’s History Month,” etc) is that we are introduced to unfamiliar stories that forge pathways to larger discussion. Consider having students research a topic of interest and then share it (briefly) at the beginning or end of each class meeting. This task can be assigned for any topic in any course. If your class is studying the Great Depression, for example, ask students to Google-search what happened on a given date in the 1930s related to race or gender or the economy. A low-stakes assignment like this one can be graded pass/fail and included in a student’s class participation grade. It’s a great way to get the students talking at the beginning of a class meeting while broadening the content of the course.

 

Ask students to reflect: The right assignment can act as a conduit for students to recognize and accept black history (or women’s history or LGBTQ history, etc) as American history. An interesting way to do this is to ask them to develop a museum exhibit: Imagine you are curating a three-room exhibit on 19th-century life. Identify three topics that, together, best illustrate a collective view of American society/ politics/economics. I’ve used this prompt in various forms many times as a mid-semester exam question. I give the students the question ahead of time and allow them to group-brainstorm possible topics. Generally students do an excellent job of incorporating race (and gender) into their fictional museums.

 

In 2018 it is a rare college campus that does not celebrate Black History Month. We as history professors can widen the reach and increase the value of such programming by incorporating black history seamlessly into our US history survey courses every month.

 

 

 

   

Engaging students in meaningful participation during the first class meetings can be very challenging. At this early stage in the semester as I’m trying to remember students’ names, I am simultaneously working to convince a roomful of strangers to raise their hands and be active members of an academic community. These goals do not always act in sync. This week I will share an assignment that has worked well with my students early on in the semester. What I will describe in this week’s blog is an assignment that I use in a Black History class but which could be adapted for use in virtually any history classroom.

 

Week one of my Black History course focuses on the Atlantic slave trade, including a brief study of slavery in western African nations and an in depth look at the Middle Passage. At this point in the semester students are becoming familiar with the textbook, Freedom on My Mind,  and our course learning management system. During this week they are assigned the first two chapters of reading in the textbook. Having been introduced to the Atlantic slave trade in their readings, students are instructed to visit the resourceful website slaveryimages.org developed by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia. The students are then assigned the following tasks:

 

  1. Open the link for “Explore the Collection”
  2. Select one of the following categories:
    1. “Capture of Slaves & Coffles in Africa”
    2. “European Forts & Trading Posts in Africa”
    3. “Slave Ships & the Atlantic Crossing (the Middle Passage)”
    4. “Slave Sales & Auctions: African Coast & the Americas”
  3. Find one image that you would like to share with the class. The image should speak to some aspect of the slave trade that you found particularly interesting or insightful.
  4. Copy and paste the image to our course Discussion Board. Your thread should be your first name and last initial. Your chosen image must be posted before our next class meeting.
  5. Come to class prepared to explain the image and what specifically about it spoke to you as significant.
  6. Here’s the catch: NO REPEATS. Look carefully at images your classmates have posted and do not post any duplicates.

 

Prior to the class meeting I keep a running list of the images that students are posting. Since they cannot post a repeat image many students complete the assignment well in advance of the class meeting, which allows me to make notes about whose images will be discussed at which point in the lecture. I am not always able to get through every posted image, but I do get through enough that we are able to have a variety of visual interpretations to discuss. Often times students will offer additional comments when they see an image they had wanted to post but could not because a classmate already had. These are often the most lively parts of the discussion.

 

There are many, many websites with fabulous visual images that can be incorporated into a similar type of class participation activity. Here are a few of the other sites that I have used with my students: for United States History I try The Met Museum’s Art and Identity in the British North American Colonies, 1700–1776.  For United States History II visit the Brandeis University collection World War I and II Propaganda Posters. Finally, almost any US history discussion can be enhanced by the images available at the Library of Congress site, including photographs from the Civil War and wide-ranging collections that include historic buildings, baseball cards, cartoons, and Depression era photos from the WPA and FSA.  

 

All things considered, the stakes are low with this assignment. Students receive points for completing the assignment and those points go towards participation, which in my class is only ten-percent of their final grade.  They receive full credit as long as they complete the assignment. From my perspective, however, equally important to the students completion of the assignment is the effort I make to help them feel as comfortable as possible when they are called upon to speak. It is my hope that this assignment will help foster an environment in which students are willing to be active participants in our classroom community for the remainder of the semester.

            As Winter Break draws to a close I find myself revisiting the theme about which I wrote my very first blog for Macmillan Community: how to address a divisive political issue within the context of the undergraduate history classroom. Recently the national debate about immigration was accelerated by controversial comments attributed to the President. I’m anticipating that my students will raise questions about the history of immigration when we resume classes next week so I’d like to share several web-based resources that faculty might use in class or offer to students as a way to talk politics with historical context.

 

These three websites offer sources for both primary and secondary examination of immigration to the United States. The Population Reference Bureau, in particular, is a fabulous resource for statistical information about the waves of immigration that have occurred over the past two-hundred years.

 

Library of Congress Immigration: Challenges for New Americans

 

Harvard University Library Open Collections Program: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930  

 

Population Reference Bureau “Trends in Migration to the United States”

 

Once students have a better sense of how important immigration has been to our nation’s history and development, it is critical for them to understand that current attitudes towards immigration are not historically unique. Comparing political cartoons from past eras to what students may find in contemporary news sources is one interesting way to place the debate in context. These two websites share visual examples and resources:

 

Historical Society of Pennsylvania Anti-Immigration Attitudes

 

“Analyzing Anti-Immigrant Attitudes in Political Cartoons”  

 

There has been no shortage of opinion or “perspective” pieces on the topic published in the last several months including Hidetaka Hirota in the Washington Post (January 16, 2018) and Kevin D. Williamson in the National Review (August 6, 2017). I recommend that faculty seek out a variety of perspectives and then allow students to use their developing skills as historians to discuss and analyze.

 

Time permitting, it is also worthwhile for students examine the homelands of people who came to this country in earlier waves of immigration to compare social, economic and political conditions. Ask students to research conditions in Ireland, Italy, Germany or other nations from which large numbers of men and women entered the United States in the nineteenth century and then compare those conditions to the modern-day regions from which immigrants seek to enter the United States. Then, provide students with resources that consider the impact of immigrants on the communities they join. Historians Marilynn Johnson and Deborah Levenson at Boston College have created Global Boston, a website that offers insight into the history of immigrants in Boston, for example, and shares concrete examples of neighborhoods that have been dramatically influenced by the large immigrant population. Finally, Reimagining Migration contains web-based sources to help educators work with students who have their own migration stories to share.

 

           Remember, above all, that while immigration is an important historical topic, it is one that may be deeply personal to students. In a typical classroom at my community college, for example, I have a diverse mix of first and second generation Americans seated side-by-side with American-born students whose beliefs about the need for immigration reform have been influenced by their families’ economic insecurities. As humanities faculty we are uniquely positioned to help students on both sides of the debate to see the importance of their shared humanity and their connection to both the past and the future.

The fall semester ended in a flurry of research projects and final exams. Now that the new year has begun I’m reevaluating my fall courses and contemplating changes for the upcoming semester. My teaching load is 5-5 with three course preparations each semester. The only constant in my schedule is that each semester I teach one section of Black History. I reevaluate this course every August and January to assess what did/did not work in the previous semester. For this first blog of the New Year I thought I would share some of my thought process with the Macmillan Community. As always, suggestions welcome!

 

   During the summer of 2017 there was a marked increase in national debate on the future of Confederate monuments (see my blog from Summer 2017 A Monumental Debate). For fall semester, therefore, I decided to incorporate weekly discussions of articles from the collection Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (edited by James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton) with the idea that students would have the opportunity to talk about the current debate over Confederate monuments while also considering how the institution of slavery has been memorialized in the United States. I was able to locate several short videos from local television news coverage to provide students with examples of how communities around the country were grappling with the issue. Students were very open to discussing the topic of memorials as both a current event and an important component of understanding how Americans reflect upon our national history.  

 

    Also on the list of “positives” or “keeps” for this past semester was our class discussion of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. We used this novel as the focal point of a series of discussions that began with the ideologies and activism of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ida B. Wells and transitioned into a brief study of the Harlem Renaissance. Students were fascinated by Johnson’s fictionalization of a man “passing,” but also shared personal experiences and observations about whether this concept still holds weight in the twenty-first century.

 

    On the last day of classes I asked the students for feedback to help me plan for the spring semester. Without hesitation students told me that they wished we had more time in class to focus on the civil rights movement of the post-World War II era. My semester-long plan for the fall had centered around an independent study on a twentieth-century civil rights topic of their choice, which culminated in a final research project. Although the students seemed genuinely excited to focus on a topic of personal interest related to civil rights, the specific requirements of the assignment kept us from the kind of detailed discussion of the 1950s and 1960s that I usually undertake with the students in class. In other words, my assignment required a lot of outside reading that took away from the time they had to focus on meeting-specific content.

 

    For the spring semester, therefore, I’m scaling back the independent research project and adding to our syllabus Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s A Brief History with Documents edited by David Howard-Pitney. I chose this text in large part because 3 of 15 students in the class chose to study Malcolm X for their independent projects, and 2 chose King. As much as I want to engage students in a greater understanding of the lesser-known men and women who built the civil rights movement, they remain fascinated by these two enormous figures. I welcome the opportunity to use Howard-Pitney’s work to ground their interest in primary sources.

 

    As I plan for the end of January I would love to hear from other faculty about the kinds of reflection they undertake when a semester ends. Are you making incremental changes or tossing out the syllabus to start fresh? Please share. Happy New Year!

 

 

 

   

The web provides History instructors and students with a wealth of engaging virtual tours and online exhibits.  I integrate them into my American History and World History survey courses online.  Students generally like the web-based explorations. 

 

Students typically complete a virtual tour about their selected topic and then apply their new knowledge in a creative fashion such as writing a diary entry from the perspective of a person who lived through that event.

 

Students flourish with these assignments for several reasons.  Students have fun with the tours, especially when they can make choices about what happens to them next (like with the Salem Witch Trial tour).  Students spend time reading about aspects of a topic they find interesting and yet they can gloss over topics they find less intriguing.  When creating their written assignments, students identify with the personal perspective of the person they opted to be in that historical moment.  They also appreciate the opportunity to apply some creativity to a subject (History) they all-too-often think is just about memorizing boring dates and facts. Virtual tours offer an opportunity to help shed that misconception and make history interesting for the students. 

 

Here are some of my favorite virtual tours and web exhibits:

 

American History
Salem Witch Trials: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/features/97/salem/

Lewis and Clark: http://www.lewisandclarkexhibit.org/index_flash.html

Oregon Trail: http://www.oregontrailcenter.org/HistoricalTrails/TheTrekWest.htm

 

World History

Ancient Egypt (The British Museum): http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/menu.html

A Pictorial Tour of Persepolis: http://www.artarena.force9.co.uk/persepolis.htm

The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame: http://mesoballgame.org/ballgame/main.php

 

How do you use virtual tours and web exhibits?  What are your favorite web exhibit resources?  What are your students’ favorite resources?

Recently I attended a conference session where a moderator asked audience members to share suggestions for documentary films that have worked particularly well in humanities classes. The lively conversation that followed got me thinking about what I use and why. A cursory look through my syllabi reveals that I really like showing films. Truth be told, I have a difficult time limiting the amount of class time I allot to film viewing because there are so many fabulous documentaries available. A great story, told effectively through documentary film, can move even a quiet student to participate in discussion  This week I thought I would offer suggestions of films I use in my United States History to 1877 course in hopes that other history professors will share their favorites as well.

 

Slavery and the Making of America (PBS) This four-part series chronicles the history of slavery in the United States from seventeenth-century Dutch New Amsterdam until the era of Reconstruction. I introduce my students to slavery by showing Episode 1: The Downward Spiral early in the semester in conjunction with a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade during which we use primary sources from the web site The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record. The film is particularly effective in helping the students to see the way in which the institution of slavery evolved over time and how regional concerns (weather, soil, crops, etc) influenced the characteristics of slavery in different parts of the colonies. Students are particularly struck by the story of John Punch and remember it long after we have moved on from discussing the colonial era.

 

We Shall Remain: America Through Native Eyes (PBS) is a five-part series that examines the history of the United States through the perspectives of people native to North America. Although each episode is lengthy (approximately 90 minutes) I have shown segments of the film with great success. In particular I use Episode 2: Tecumseh’s Vision to examine the grave challenges faced by native people in the wake of the American victory in the Revolutionary War. This film forces students to consider the consequences of the war for people on the frontier and to evaluate the condition of native tribes at the start of the nineteenth century. For an historian such as myself with no formal training in Native American history, the series is extremely valuable as a supplement to lectures and discussion.

 

African-American Lives (PBS)  This Henry Louis Gates, Jr., series originally aired in 2006 and was expanded in subsequent iterations. I like the 2006 episodes in particular because they demonstrate the historical process. In the episode Searching for Our Names students are introduced to the concepts of genealogical and archival research. They learn about “slave schedules” and the role that wills, marriage, birth and death records can play in helping us to recover history. Concrete examples of human beings as property are profoundly illustrated as the series’ subjects (Oprah Winfrey and astronaut Mae Jemison, among others) learn of their families’ direct connections to slavery.

 

I have show segments of many other documentary films in United States to 1877 but these are the three films that I feel add the greatest value to my teaching of the first-half of the survey. What are you showing your students? What has worked and why?

 

 

 

 

LaunchPad’s unique video assignment tool enhances my online teaching by facilitating student interaction with primary source archival video footage material. The video assignment tool is simple to use.  First, I embed a video and then create a social media-like discussion about the video.  Students respond to my prompts.  They may submit general comments at the beginning of the video.  They also have the option to stop the film and post a comment directly related to that point in the footage.  This feature is my favorite because students make poignant observations about particular arguments at that moment in the film.

 

Students earn full credit on the assignment if they submit the minimum number of replies stipulated in the assignment.  I appreciate that the auto-grading function saves me time.  I quickly review the student comments, ensure the posts are on-topic, and meet my length expectations. 

 

I use it twice in an online section of American History Since 1865.  One assignment asks students to compare and contrast an official U.S. government film about Japanese American internment with a website, which contains numerous primary sources about Camp Harmony.  The second assignment asks students to analyze Dr. King’s arguments in his speech “Why I Am Opposed To The Vietnam War”. 

 

Students tell me that they enjoy these assignments because of how the video assignment tools allows them to interact with the footage while also being able to read everyone else’s comments.  I enjoy this function because I am continuously amazed with their insightful observations.

 

How are you using the video assignment tool?  Are you willing to share any assignment directions?

 

Here are the directions for two assignments I mentioned above:  

 

  1. Japanese American Internment

Before you watch the video, first explore the Camp Harmony website exhibit about the experience of Japanese American internment.  Here is the link: https://www.lib.washington.edu/specialcollections/collections/exhibits/harmony/exhibit

 

The Camp Harmony exhibit contains several primary source images and explanations of what life was like at Camp Harmony.

 

Then watch the 9-minute video based on government archival footage about Japanese American internment.

Japanese Relocation. Office of War Information – Bureau of Motion Pictures.

https://youtu.be/BK6ZtcLocaA

 

Post at least three separate comments comparing and contrasting what you see in the video with the information from the website.

 

 Length expectation: Each post should contain at least a full paragraph.

 

Please note your comments will look like social media postings so you can respond to each other as well as responding to the video.

 

You can also set the “time code” for where your comments apply.  For example, if you want to comment about a specific image shown 5 minutes in, you can adjust that.

 

 

 

  1. Dr. King’s “Why I Am Opposed To The War In Vietnam”

Watch this video of a famous speech by Dr. Martin Luther King.  This video is almost 23 minutes long.  Post at least three comments to this video.  Each comment must be at least a full paragraph.  Consider critiquing his argument and supporting evidence.  Consider connecting his comments to evidence from the textbook.  Or just explain your own thoughts about the relevance and lasting importance of his message in this particular speech.

Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Why I Am Opposed To The War In Vietnam

https://youtu.be/b80Bsw0UG-U

   The final three weeks of the semester following Thanksgiving Break are harried, to say the least. Even though I try to plan accordingly I am inevitably swamped with grading over Thanksgiving and, subsequently, I flail into the final exam period barely keeping my head above water. I know I’m not the only academic who struggles with this problem. Having taught college students for fifteen years now I have accepted that I will be overwhelmed as the semester is coming to a close so I embrace the chaos: I listen to music, get to an extra power yoga class, or go for a long walk to re-set.

 

I cannot, however, quickly or easily deal with my students’ stress. Here is the scenario I have imagined over and over in my mind: students spend the holidays with well-meaning family members asking how their classes are going. For some of the students there is a horrible realization during those conversations that their history class is not, in fact, going well at all. My office hours the week after Thanksgiving are subsequently spent fielding breathless questions: What can I do to pass? Can I complete an extra credit assignment? What grade do I need on the final exam to earn a C?

 

Generally by the time these stressed-out students come to meet with me they know how grim the situation is. With digital grade books available for every class the students’ current course grade is not a surprise to them as they prepare for final exams. The challenge for me, then, is figuring out what to say to help them learn from the predicament so that the next semester is more successful. These conversations are sometimes difficult. I’m not a proponent of “extra credit” assignments unless they are used as a device to get students to do something they would not otherwise do -- attend a public lecture by a visiting scholar outside of class time, for example -- so the hopeful request of a failing student to do additional work leads only to more disappointment when I tell him/her extra credit is not an option.

 

The sad reality is that by the end of November the majority of the grades that my students will receive for the course have been earned and there is not a lot of room for dramatic improvement. As I write this blog, for example, my US History I students have only two quizzes and the final exam left in the semester. Nonetheless, it is not until after Thanksgiving that students who are struggling generally come to discuss their grades with me.

 

It’s also at this time of the semester when I inevitably am faced with at least one case of plagiarism. I cannot recall a single semester in the last ten years of teaching when this problem has not surfaced. A sense of disgust and disappointment that a student handed in work that was not his/her own is mixed with my frustration that in spite of how many times I implored students to come to me for help with their writing or studying, one or two instead chose the route of academic dishonesty. Did I not make myself accessible enough? Did they procrastinate and then panic?

 

So these are the unpleasant realities that I’m dealing with as the semester comes to an end. As in years past, I find myself wondering how to get students in academic distress to engage with me earlier than the week after Thanksgiving. This week I would love to hear from fellow faculty who have forged successful efforts to get students to send out an academic SOS prior to Thanksgiving. Mandatory meetings at office hours? Anonymous student surveys? What have you done to make the last few weeks of the semester less stressful?

Last week I attended the national conference of the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA). Hosted by the Community College of Baltimore County and sponsored in part by Macmillan, the event included more than one hundred panels with faculty representing community colleges nationwide. If you teach at a community college and are not familiar with CCHA, I encourage you check it out. Nearly any discipline taught at a community college that can connect itself in a meaningful way to the humanities is welcome. As a result, the national conference offers an opportunity for an historian like myself to explore a multitude of interdisciplinary perspectives. I was inspired by much of what I heard and saw so this week I want to share just a tiny sample.

 

   Dr. Sheri Parks (University of Maryland) opened the conference by chronicling efforts by humanities scholars in Baltimore to document public reaction to the uprising in that city following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray. Emphasizing the importance of listening to the voices of the people, Dr. Parks shared the process that the program Baltimore Stories (funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities) has undertaken to document the experiences of Baltimore’s citizens. Keynote speaker and Baltimore resident D. Watkins followed with anecdotes from his own neighborhood to project the message that individual actions can lead to significant social change. To the audience of community college faculty this message truly resonated. Amidst the day-to-day struggles of teaching an often under-prepared student population, faculty welcomed the reminder that education has an enormous impact on individuals, neighborhoods, and communities. Watkins’s own successful career as a writer and activist are shining examples of what can happen when an otherwise disinterested student is turned on to reading and critical inquiry.

 

   Professors Carolyn Perry (Collin County Community College/TX) and Guillermo Gibens (Community College of Baltimore County) shared the often-overlooked roles of LGBTQ and Latin American characters respectively in American films from the first half of the twentieth century. Their panel, “Forgotten Hollywood,” showcased the fascinating ways that Hollywood films can act as primary sources by providing windows into how previous generations of Americans have depicted everything from relationships to minority groups to foreign cultures. As someone who has never taken a film class, I was inspired to find ways to incorporate this genre into my US history classes.

 

    Finally, Mark Lamoureaux, a poet and English professor at Housatonic Community College (CT), presented “Watching the Detectives: Using Genre Fiction to Teach Composition.” My favorite part of Professor Lamoureaux’s presentation was his discussion of how he employs the card game Whist to enliven students’ understanding of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in Rue Morgue” by asking them to consider questions such as “what kind of thinking does the game encourage?” and “what kind of observations are helpful in playing the game?” By playing the game in class, students are asked to reflect on why Poe might have chosen to have characters play the game in the story. I love the way in which this lesson asked students to think critically about an author’s motives while also introducing them to an unfamiliar piece of cultural history.  

 

    It’s been my habit in the past to attend conferences organized by/for historians (like myself) and to therefore continue thinking like an historian about the field of history. The work of each of these humanities scholars, however, reminds me how important it is for us as teachers to continue to learn -- to expose ourselves to other fields of inquiry and pedagogical practices for the sake of enhancing the experience and knowledge of our students.

 

    Is there something that you’ve read, seen, or heard recently -- an article, podcast, film or lecture -- that inspired you to learn something new? Please share!

   

Have you ever come across something on the Internet that really shakes you-- not simply because it is incendiary or troubling (that is a daily occurrence in today's world), but because you couldn't believe you've never seen it before?

 

Recently, a friend shared an uncovered 1939 documentary-style video of American Nazis gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York City. My first thought was that it couldn't be authentic, especially since the first place I saw the 'share' was on Facebook. However, after finding the original article in The Atlantic and finding out that the footage was edited by award-winning documentarian Marshall Curry, it seems that the questions posed in the article were some of the same that I had myself. How come I was never shown this in high school? How have I never seen this and how could this have happened in the heart of New York?  Further still, when I was in NYC for work last week, I emerged from beneath Penn Station to face Madison Square Garden in awe of its seemingly forgotten dark past.

 

I thought about sharing this post, but then I thought "is this too dark, too deeply disturbing to dissect with college students?" I thought about it for a few days before realizing all that this information and analysis unlocked for me. It asked me to research the source, to critically analyze the footage-- its veracity, its intended audience, and its implications. Most shocking of all was how spookily relevant it felt to the current political climate. Themes included: discussions on the first amendment, when and how rallies of free speech can happen especially when it veers into hate speech; who really writes our histories; nationalism, and how national atrocities don't happen overnight -- all of these notions buzzed in my own head for days.

 

After a few days where it kept resurging, I realized I felt compelled to share. I had to hear what others thought about this unearthed piece of our own dirty history. Most importantly, I did not want to be complicit in burying history and then being surprised when frighteningly similar patterns emerge today. 

 

If you think you could bring this into the classroom, please share your stories on assignments created or discussions you had! Link below.

 

Footage of German American Bund Nazi Rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939 - The Atlantic - The Atlantic 

I spend the first three or four minutes of every class meeting discussing things I know very little about with my students. When I read the Sunday newspaper I purposely look for articles that might provide some tidbit of information to make me appear knowledgeable about the things that my students care about. To me this is a small but important part of class preparation. At the start of the semester the majority of students don’t know what to think when I engage them in this pre-class banter. And yet, I persist for this reason: if they will not talk to me about LeBron James, the World Series, or “The Walking Dead,” how can I expect to interest them in discussion of topics that really matter in my classroom?

 

   I never gave much thought to the five minutes before class starts until I started teaching at a community college. At the four-year residential colleges where I taught previously, the students came to class in small groups from the dining halls or the dorms. At a non-residential college, however, teaching faculty are the direct link between the students and the college. Sure students visit the bursar’s and registrar’s offices at various times in the semester. They use the library and computing center services, and work with academic tutors. But the people they see regularly are us: their professors.  

 

   The concept of making small-talk with students so that they will be more engaged during class time may sound simplistic and, to some, even silly. It goes without saying that I did not invent this “strategy,” if I may call it one. I am simply stating the obvious: if our students believe we are interested in who they are, they are more likely to be interested in what we are teaching. Further, my hope always is that the students will come to me for academic assistance because they believe I care about them as people and because they have connected to me and their classmates in a meaningful way.

 

   And so it is that the five minutes before my classes begin consists of me setting up classroom technology while also purposely engaging whoever is in the room at the moment in conversation. I’m not going to lie: the first couple weeks of chit-chat with a new group of students can at times feel like a trip to the dentist’s office. More than a few times I’ve seen students look around as if I cannot possibly be talking to them or reach for something in their backpack to avoid eye contact with me during these painful few minutes. In time, however, students warm to the pre-class, non-academic discussion and even initiate it.  

 

   After a few weeks of a new semester I have a pretty good feel for my students’ interests: hockey or football fans, television-junkies, or weekend movie-goers. We’ve talked about topics that range from favorite pizza toppings (argued heatedly, for example, whether lettuce belongs in the “toppings” category) to professional sports preferences to national and international news stories. Somehow, we’ve transitioned every random subject into that day’s academic focus – not seamlessly, but successfully. It’s my job, of course, to make sure that we do transition and often this requires ending a lively discussion about pop culture for the sake of starting class.

 

   Often I will overhear students resuming the pre-class discussion when our time expires. It’s in these five minutes before class that students realize what they have in common with each other and start to make the social connections that are sometimes difficult for non-residential students to forge but that are significant for students to be successful in college. Maybe they don’t have a dorm assignment in common, but they might quickly realize that they work retail in the same shopping mall, or that there are other waiters taking the class, or that they share the same television or sports interests. These strangers become the classmates that students turn to when they miss class notes or if they need to do group study for exams.

 

   What strategies could you share that have enabled you to forge more meaningful connections with your students?

In my survey class this semester, I am experimenting with a variation on the traditional term paper.  Instead of posing a research question, I created an Image/Object Gallery that includes several dozen images from the period covered in the class.  The images and objects are varied; they include historical maps, portraits, engravings, photographs, objects including a teapot, a pipe tomahawk, and a lukasa (or Congolese memory board), and the like.  This took a little while, but it was fun and took on a momentum of its own.

 

Once the images and objects were assembled into a single PDF, with a link for each that would lead students to its source and provide some bare-bones information about it, I asked them to choose one--or alternatively, propose an image or object of their own choosing--and research it.  Here is the instruction I provided:  "In general, you should begin with the following questions: What type of image or object is it?  Who produced it?  Who was the intended audience?  In what context was it created, and for what purpose?  How have scholars interpreted it?  Considering the materials we have covered in class, what larger meanings or interpretations can you ascribe to this image or object?"

 

Students will write a traditional essay about their image/object, but they will also prepare a visual presentation for the class on the subject.  These are short--no more than five minutes--and I have asked them to use Adobe Spark, which is currently free to users, though it would also work to use presentation software like PowerPoint or Prezi.  My purpose in this aspect of the assignment is, first, to give students a chance to share what they've learned (which most students love to do), and second, to encourage them to find other images or objects that accompany the one they've researched, and do a presentation that is as much visual as textual.

 

I'm excited to see the results.  Any other alternatives to a traditional term paper out there?

Blatantly ignoring the students’ eye-rolls and sighs, I assign one or two full-length novels or memoirs per semester in my introductory-level history courses. This week I would like to offer suggestions for books that have worked particularly well in my classes even when students’ initial reactions have been lukewarm at best. Here are my top three:

 

Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet Wilson

This novel never disappoints as a centerpiece for class discussion in United States History I and could also be used in a Black History or Women’s History course. Wilson’s semi-autobiographical work, first published in 1859, describes her life in the service of a brutal white mistress in mid-nineteenth-century New Hampshire. On its own the book provides students an opportunity to contemplate the state of being free, black, and female in the antebellum North. The novel also works well paired with Harriet Jacobs’s seminal memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to engage students with comparative perspectives of black women’s lives before the Civil War. Finally, as the bookstore staff at my college can attest, the title on its own provokes immediate discussion.

 

Ragged Dick; or Street Life in New York by Horatio Alger

    The story of an orphaned shoe-shine boy, Ragged Dick is a light read with no shortage of opportunities for critical thinking and discussion in a United States History II class. In recent semesters my students have used the story to examine the mythology of the American dream in post-Civil War America. Did this “dream” ever truly exist? Was it the same for everyone? How can we interpret the “dream” in today’s twenty-first-century society? Recent immigrants to the United States have found the story particularly interesting. Last spring, for example, two young men in my class compared the protagonist’s experiences surviving on the streets of New York in the nineteenth century with conditions they had faced in their native countries and as recent immigrants to the United States. I assign Ragged Dick at the start of the semester as our first small group discussion.

 

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson

    The moral ambiguity of a black man “passing” for white in early twentieth-century America captivates students. I’ve used this book in US History II and Black History with similarly enthusiastic responses from students. The son of a black mother and white father, the story’s narrator chronicles his lifelong struggle to carve an independent path with his musical talent amidst a backdrop of segregation and violence. Students are never collectively satisfied with the story’s conclusion, which to me only adds to the value of Johnson’s work.

 

      As a student I loved the way that literature offered avenues through which I could explore historical narrative beyond the course textbook. Now, as a teacher, I seek opportunities to draw connections between history and literature with my students. What book-length reading assignments -- fiction or nonfiction -- have worked well in your classes? Do you have a favorite book that you use every semester? Or, Is there something that you assigned with mixed results in the past that you would like to try again?

“It’s easier to impeach than invoke the 25th Amendment,” Rosen added, “which is why no president has ever been removed under the disability provision of the 25th Amendment.”

 

Are your students asking about the 25th amendment?  Will they have to Google it along with most of America? The answers are complicated.

 

Here is an interesting talk piece for the classroom: What is the 25th Amendment and why does it matter for Trump? | McClatchy Washington Bureau 

Late last school year a group of students on our campus asked if we history professors could find ways to incorporate LGBTQ history into our courses. The request made a lot of sense and yet I was initially at a loss about how to respond: see, I am the only full-time Americanist on my campus and I have no academic training in LGBTQ history. I could recall having read only one book in graduate school that even remotely related to the topic (for the curious: the book was George Chauncey’s Gay New York).

 

Short term I decided the best way to begin addressing the students’ concerns would be to bring in some experts so I consulted the Membership Directory for my professional organization, the Organization of American Historians. In a matter of minutes I had a short list of credentialed historians teaching and researching in the field. After narrowing the list down to those within driving distance of my college (funding is, of course, limited), I started writing emails to introduce myself as a fellow historian in search of speakers to help my students better understand a field in which I personally have no training.

 

Working with the college’s Gender Equity Center, in September we hosted Dr. Jen Manion of Amherst College. Jen is not only a brilliant historian but hands down the most genuinely approachable guest speaker to ever visit our campus. After spending time with faculty, staff and students discussing her work at an informal lunch-time gathering, Jen delivered a public lecture attended by more than one-hundred members of our college community. Jen’s talk focused on research related to a work-in-progress titled Born in the Wrong Time: Transgender Archives & the History of Possibility, 1770-1870.

 

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Some of the student attendees were members of LGBTQ organizations on campus but many more were students brought to the talk by their English, history, and sociology professors, as well as many who felt personally compelled to attend the lecture out of curiosity for the subject matter. While many of our students asked intelligent questions what was more informative to me through this experience were the conversations I had with students in my classes in the days that followed Jen’s presentation.

 

I discovered, for example, that many of my students were genuinely surprised to learn that there are academics studying LGBTQ history. One student quite innocently commented that he assumed that being gay or lesbian had “only just developed” in the twentieth century. When pressed he said he did not have any specific reason for this perspective, only the observation that he had never been asked to think about LGBTQ issues as “history.” When I think about the implications of Jen’s presentation for this student’s worldview it is staggering to imagine how much his perspective might be changed. In the simplest terms, this student is now able to contradict anyone who callously claims that being gay is “a choice” with his knowledge that gay, lesbian and transgender people have been around as long as humans have walked the earth. The potential for empathy and understanding grow exponentially with his recognition.

 

Second, I was forced to reflect on how insulated and isolated we become at our home institutions. I have been a member of the OAH for more than twenty years and this experience was the first time I had ever used the organization to bring fresh ideas into my classroom in human form. While I have shared articles and essays from OAH publications, I had never thought to supplement my limited knowledge with that of the amazing scholars who work in fields outside of my own. Having an expert introduce appropriate language and complex ideas to my students, I believe, was far more meaningful than would have been their experience had I fumbled through material with which I’m completely unfamiliar.

 

And finally, I was (again) reminded of how much work we historians need to do. Those of us who teach the survey to first and second year college students, especially, must work to make our narrative as inclusive as possible. It dawned on me during Jen’s talk, for example, that there were students in that room who had never been able to connect themselves or their personal stories to any lesson taught in their history classes. This realization is particularly troubling as it is those personal connections to our past that often excite students and engage them to want to learn more. We historians must do a better job of enlarging the framework of the survey to be more inclusive so that all of our students can see themselves as part of a truly American history.