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2017

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

   

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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