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All Places > History Community > Blog > 2018 > January

            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!