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2017

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.