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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.

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?