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As we sprint towards the end of the semester I find myself trying to cover as much post-World War II history as possible. I’ve written previously about the challenges of coverage and this semester is no different. Back in January I revised my syllabus for US History II with the intent of cutting back on certain topics to create more space for others. I have succeeded in some areas and failed miserably in others. Take, for example, the Great Depression: last spring I spent four classes (5 classroom hours) covering the period 1920-1939. Believing this content could be condensed I planned for three class meetings this semester … and then, much to my dismay, I used four.


Now that I’ve (very quickly) covered the Second World War I find myself in another time crunch: how much of the Cold War can I cover without oversimplifying a topic so central to the role of the United States in twentieth-century world history? Since my survey weighs heavily toward social history I need to find a way to provide the students with a succinct introduction to cold war-politics and then shift quickly into a discussion of how the political conditions impacted the home front. In this week’s blog I will share my recent efforts to tackle these challenges.


The first assignment in my abbreviated Cold War study required students to read a textbook chapter and complete an online quiz before coming to class. The multiple-choice quiz was open-book and intended to provide an introduction to key people and terminology.


Next, at our class meeting (75 minutes), we spent the first thirty minutes watching and discussing a dense section of educational film titled “The Cold War Part I: 1945-1961.” My college subscribes to both Kanopy and Films on Demand, which grant faculty and students access to thousands of films. In this case, the first 16 minutes of the film provided visual evidence of the “Big Three” at Yalta and the end of World War II in the Pacific, plus maps explaining the division of Germany and the development of the Marshall Plan. Students listened to brief segments of speeches by Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin.


To facilitate discussion of the film segment I distributed a handout with key terms (See McCormack Handout Cold War) and two images: a European-made poster celebrating the Marshall Plan (“All Colours to the Mast”) and Rube Goldberg’s cartoon “Peace Today” (1948). In post-film discussion I asked the students to come up with definitions of the terms and then to consider Goldberg’s audience and intent. The uncomplicated seesaw metaphor enables a smooth transition from world politics to a consideration of how all of these international tensions impacted day-to-day family life.


Finally, for the last thirty-minutes of class we watched “Red Nightmare” (produced by Warner Bros. in conjunction with the Department of Defense). The Jack Webb-narrated picture introduced to students the concept of how American society was conditioned to fear communism. For my purposes, the idyllic image of suburban family life portrayed by the fictional family was a great transition into our next-meeting’s discussion of gender roles in this era.


I relied more heavily than usual on video for my introduction to the Cold War in part because my recent coverage of the Great Depression has me feeling as if perhaps I need to say less and cover more. One of the greatest challenges of teaching history is that it is easy to get excited about sharing content and forget that -- at least in my case -- the goal is an introduction to subject matter and not exhaustive coverage. What about you? How do you whittle down the Cold War to a day or two of class time? Please share!

This article was originally posted and written by Katherine Jewell on on March 28, 2018.

In my last post, I explored how to employ social reading in the online classroom using Perusall, Padlet, and other digital tools.


In that application, my main goal is to ensure students are reading critically. By that I mean not just scrolling through a textbook, but actually engaging with it. I want them to consider the implications of what they are reading, and to think about how different points connect across the chapter. I want them to see how I pose questions to give some shape to their summary of events and to see how various interpretations might emerge. By putting the textbook into their own words, I’m hoping that they retain the material and apply it in other assignments.


In that application, the tool has been useful for giving me a glimpse into how the students are processing information. I can see where concepts begin to breakdown in their understanding, or how they apply contemporary metaphors and analogies to what they have been reading.


In my elective, however, I have different goals. While I’m still looking for students to do critical reading, I have two other goals. The first overlaps with my survey and online environment: I want a tool to ensure students are actually doing the reading. As is often the case, I have visions at the beginning of a semester of the engaging activities students will pursue, but they fall behind in the reading and that engagement breaks down. Students skim the reading or don’t do it at all, and I’m left having a conversation with only the students who have read, or having those students carry the load in group discussion. Like it or not, this is a reality that I must grapple with as an instructor.


The second is to go further in the kind of engagement students have with readings at the elective level. I want them to come to class having identified the argument(s) of an article. By having them engage with other students IN the actual reading, prior to class, my goal is to begin class discussion from a position at which we can begin to engage with the argument. Often times class time is spent coming to a decision about what a scholarly article or chapter (or book excerpt) actually said, rather than engaging with the ideas presented and critiquing them in light of other course material. My goal is to have students — sometimes helped along by those who have a better sense of where the argument is in a piece — come to class with that groundwork laid.


I am hoping see students highlighting sections of the reading that they think demonstrate the argument, or follow up sections that develop that argument further. Right now, I need a better way to explain this second goal to students, and to set them up with the tools to identify scholarly arguments. I am hoping that the work we have done so far in the semester will help with that goal. Evidence so far suggests I may not be successful. In the first social reading at the elective level, the first goal was much more front and center. I showed the students Perusall’s analytics feature after only 5-10% of the class opened the reading. I now need to figure out the “carrot” to accompany this “stick” of accountability. Follow-through in assignments and discussion is where my teaching abilities will be tested — and hopefully, I’ve assigned readings that will be relevant and useful long after students leave the classroom.


Be sure to check out Part I of Katherine's post, Social Reading and the Online Classroom (Part I of II).

One of my favorite assignments to do with my US Women’s History students offers them a hands-on experience with primary sources in a research library. I started doing this assignment after attending a professional conference where an historical society director lamented that college history professors very rarely engage their students with local historical organizations. I returned to my institution determined to find a way for my students to learn more about the work of our state’s largest historical organization, the Rhode Island Historical Society.


To start I contacted the RIHS director who connected myself and a colleague with the organization’s educational outreach coordinator. Together the three of us  brainstormed ways that CCRI students could explore the RIHS collections. We needed to be realistic: our US Women’s History course is a second-year history course that many students take to fill an elective and not because they want to be historians. Professionally I recognized that I could not allow my students to invade the RIHS research room without a clear plan of action. In spite of all the questions I had about whether this idea could work, I was guided by my belief that the research skills that we gain as students of history can be utilized in nearly any occupation. 


With the thoughtful guidance of the RIHS staff we developed a list of topics that would enable students to interact with primary sources in a short period of time. Our goal was that each student would spend approximately two-hours at the RIHS research library (ie, one visit). RIHS sent a representative to meet with our students in the classroom on the day I assigned the project and she was able to introduce them to the policies and procedures of their visit (ie, use of pencils, the need for a picture identification, etc). Here is the assignment we developed: Click here to read the assignment.


Every local historical institution is unique. At RIHS there exists a large collection of women’s diaries that suited the needs of this assignment. Wherever you may be teaching, however, there is likely an organization holding a collection of sources that could provide an introduction to library-based primary source research -- maps, letters, newspapers, speeches, etc. The archivist will be able to determine what makes the most sense. While students were initially resistant to the logistics of doing research at an off-campus location, the RIHS is easily reached via public transportation and was, therefore, accessible to all students. Our students were not charged a fee for use of the archives so there were no financial impediments to their conducting research. These are important factors to consider when identifying a partner organization.


As much as I enjoyed reading the students’ final papers, even more exciting (and useful) was their engaged discussion of the process. Sending my students off campus to do archival research opened their eyes to the work that historians do in a way that in-class coverage of textbook content cannot. If you’re looking for an adventure in research with your students, give this assignment a try!

      President Trump’s derogatory references to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Pocahontas” are a provocative topic for class discussion. Since it is March -- Women’s History Month -- it’s a great time to think about how we can incorporate more women’s history into our survey courses. The Pocahontas/Warren/Trump controversy offers a space for discussion of gender in an historical context, and a starting point for students to consider what they know and don’t know about native women.


When I asked my United States History I students to explain the most recent Pocahontas reference they knew it had something to do with Warren’s controversial claim to Native American heritage, which has been widely criticized. Their knowledge of Pocahontas, however, was limited to the Walt Disney-version. The reality is that for many students in a survey-level US history course Pocahontas is the only Native American women about whom they think they know anything. Their knowledge, in turn, is largely based on Englishman John Smith’s version of events. When the president used her name to attack a political foe he offered another example of a white male claiming ownership of Pocahontas’s story.


We can begin to demystify the story of Pocahontas -- and other Native American women -- by encouraging students to learn some basic facts. The National Women’s History Museum offers a brief introduction to Pocahontas that sets straight some of the commonly-held myths about her brief life and suggests resources for learning more. Asking students to compare recent documentary films such as Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth (Smithsonian Channel) to the popular culture interpretations can be an informative way to evaluate sources while considering how our public understanding of native women in our nation’s history, including Pocahontas, has been shaped by cultural misinterpretations. Once the students have a better sense of who historians believe she was, ask them to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a modern-day politician invoking her name in public discourse.


Suggest to students that they continue to look for women’s history in the news. While it is difficult to incorporate every topic of interest into our US history survey each semester, the daily newspaper can provide prompts for informal discussion that can be quite fruitful. Discussing the Pocahontas reference in class helped to provoke the natural curiosity of some of these students who told me later that they had spent considerable time after class trying to better understand her historical significance. Inevitably their informal research led them to the stories of other native women with whom they were previously unfamiliar. Most importantly, the students were forced to grapple with how twenty-first-century historians can tell accurate stories of seventeenth-century native women’s lives and how politicians can shape those stories to fit their needs. In this era of “fake news,” encouraging student engagement with women’s history may be more meaningful than ever before.

Ida B. Wells. Sylvia Plath. Diane Arbus. Henrietta Lacks. Madhubula.


What do these women have in common? They were all remarkable women that were overlooked in the NYT obituaries. In honor of Women's History Month, I'd like to share the article: Overlooked, where these women finally get their stories shared in the manner they deserve.

This article was originally posted and written by Katherine Jewell on on March 4, 2018.

In an April 9, 2017, article in Salon, Martin Harris explored the potential implications of the rise of social reading and story creation. He proposed, “Our stories are going social and, as new platform technologies remake the reading experience into something increasingly interactive, we now must ask what we’re giving up in the bargain.”

With crowdsourcing of books and other social interactions regarding reading changing the creation of stories, the “quiet empathy of solitary styles,” he explains, could disappear. Social networks and the ever-present possibility of sharing over a text could reshape the reading experience fundamentally, with other audiences or connections always present.

Harris raises this cautionary tale that points to issues that also arise in the college classroom. I am not alone among my colleagues to remark upon students’ difficulty with engaging with long texts. Without any strong evidence base we nevertheless speculate about whether social media platforms are creating different expectations for textual engagement, perhaps even weakening students’ abilities to concentrate in solitude over long, technical readings.

But social reading may also present possibilities for the college classroom. By catering to how students are accustomed to engaging over texts, social reading has the potential to identify areas of student confusion; help students prepare more effectively for class; learn how to read textbooks, dissect primary sources, and identify arguments; and create engaged online spaces. In this post, the first of two, after reviewing a few tools that are available, I’ll explore how I’ve been using social reading in my online survey. In the next, I’ll discuss my use of social reading in an in-person elective.

Social reading could be performed using any number of existing tools. File-sharing in real time via Google Docs or Dropbox would allow multiple students to read and comment on (or edit) a document simultaneously. Uploading a pdf with an attached discussion would allow students to engage with the text and others as they read, with students submitting questions for discussion in class. Crowdsourced tools such as Padlet enable students to share their own links, images, documents, and summaries and comment, enabling for conversation over documents and images in multiple ways.

In my own courses, I’ve used the Padlet method above, particularly to facilitate informal conversations about books read. (I’ve had students “cast” with modern actors the characters and historical figures of various memoirs and historical novels we’ve read). It provides students with a familiar-feeling space to engage over texts that are sometimes hard to parse or connect to their own lives.

Most recently, I’ve been using the tool Perusall in my online and in-person classes. Perusall allows students to converse over a text in the side bar, ask questions (and upvote questions and useful answers). Unlike the other tools, it also provides useful algorithms and rubric-based auto grading to assess the quality and quantity of student contributions.

In my online US survey class, I went through the textbook and insert discussion questions to have students put the events into their own words. I’ve also incorporated short Bedford Document collections to help students read and analyze primary sources and create historical analysis. I’ve been gratified to be able to have this glimpse into how students are processing these historical questions. I am still trying to figure out how to identify particular areas of confusion that might not come though their questioning while also allowing space for students to figure out the information in their own words, informally. But the algorithms for evaluation have been useful in assessing student understanding, and I see the potential for the tool to not only replicate the in-person classroom, but also better identify student learning and improvement.

In the online survey, I see the social reading area as a stand-in for the in-person classroom. They receive information (the lecture/textbook), and discussion questions to help them process the information. They then apply their knowledge to primary source discussions. For longer, formal assessments, I ask reflective and thematic questions to tie the information they looked at across chapters. They also write a creative paper that uses three documents from the various readers to construct a narrative of change over time about some aspect of American life. I’m still reflecting on how I can craft these assignments to take best advantage of the social reading platform and connect to the conversations had there — that’s the next step!


Be sure to check out Part II of Katherine's post, Social Reading and Identifying the Argument (Part II of II).

Influenza is generally not at topic we humans like to think about. Just hearing the word “flu” evokes negative connotations of coughing, high fever and body aches -- none of which are pleasant reminders of a misery that nearly every human being has experienced. This year, however, marks the 100th anniversary of the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918. There is no better time than winter 2018 to discuss the historical significance of this outbreak. Here are some resources to get started:


Documentary film is an easy way to introduce the 1918 influenza to students in a US history survey course. I assign the documentary film “Influenza 1918” (PBS) every semester in United States History II because influenza offers me, an historian with no formal training in the history of science or medicine, a bridge to introductory discussion of public health. Students begin to consider the history of vaccinations and the public use of surgical masks and are forced to reconcile the crisis of spreading influenza with the needs of wartime mobilization. I like this particular film for its focus on family histories. There are other documentary films on the 1918 influenza crisis with decidedly greater focus on science including “We Heard the Bells” (US Department of Health and Human Services), which examines the study of flu victims’ remains preserved by their burial in the permafrost.


If there is time for only a brief reading on the topic, historian John Barry’s “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread across America” (Smithsonian Magazine) offers a succinct history of the pandemic in the States. This article may serve as an introduction to larger class discussion that could include documents from the National Archives digital collection, “The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918”. In addition to images, the collection includes reports on the spread of influenza at US military establishments and among Native Americans. Finally,  “Ten Myths About the 1918 Flu Pandemic” by Robert Gunderman (Smithsonian Magazine) provokes students to think not only about the flu as an historic event but also to consider our nation’s memory of the period.


World civilization classes may be enriched by reading Susan K. Kent’s The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (The Bedford Series in History and Culture). Through a collection of primary sources Kent enables an international study of this pandemic and includes materials from the United States, Europe, parts of Asia, Nigeria, and South Africa.


If, like me, you have struggled in the past with integrating science and medicine into your survey courses, the influenza outbreak of 1918 is a very accessible topic for twenty-first century college students. Since students are already familiar with what it means to be afflicted by the flu, their connection to the subject matter is great, which makes for informative and energetic classroom conversations.


Are there other topics in the history of science and medicine that you have successfully integrated into a survey course? Please share!

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 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:

Lewis and Clark:

Oregon Trail:


World History

Ancient Egypt (The British Museum):

A Pictorial Tour of Persepolis:

The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame:


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:


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.


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

   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?