Skip navigation
All Places > History Community > Blog > 2018 > February

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.