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All Places > History Community > Blog > 2017 > July

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?