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Teaching at a community college has provided me with the opportunity to introduce hundreds of students to the history of American women. One subgroup of women I’ve paid almost no attention to in my teaching, however is that which we call first ladies. I’ve been thinking a lot about our nation’s first ladies lately as a result of news coverage following the recent death of Barbara Bush. First Lady Melania Trump has found herself under near constant microscopic examination by the press since her husband’s election and this scrutiny has only increased this week as she prepares to host her first state dinner.


With the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, I have made a deliberate choice to pay little attention to first ladies in part because I’ve heard from some students that they chose to enroll in women’s history under the (erroneous) assumption that we would talk extensively about first ladies. Prior to taking my course, these students assumed that any focus on women in a history class would be limited to those in high-profile positions. As an historian it is my job to introduce these students to the myriad of ways in which women of all social classes have been historical actors. The press coverage of the Bush memorial service has prompted me to think more broadly about what the stories of these unique women may have to offer to students of women’s history, especially in light of the personal challenges many of these women have faced during their husbands’ time in office.


A quick search for web-based sources on first ladies, however, produced limited academic results. I discovered quickly that while I could secure an image of nearly every first ladies’ inaugural gown online, there does not exist comparable evidence of their political or intellectual pursuits. The National First Ladies Library, for example, provides general biographical information on each US first lady as well as bibliographic sources and lesson plans (disclaimer: I have not tried any of these plans). The site, however, is intended as an introduction to the Canton, Ohio, historical site dedicated to US first ladies and is not equipped for college-level research. The White House Historical Association also offers general biographical information.


A more fruitful search netted a report produced by The George W. Bush Institute in conjunction with The International Center for Research on Women: A Role without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies by Natalie Gonnella-Platts and Katherine Fritz. This report examines both US and foreign “first ladies” and includes interviews with several.   


So this week I reach out to you, my fellow historians: do you include any discussion of the historical significance of first ladies in your courses? If so, what kinds of sources do you use? Can you recommend any web-based materials to share with students?

As we sprint towards the end of the semester I find myself trying to cover as much post-World War II history as possible. I’ve written previously about the challenges of coverage and this semester is no different. Back in January I revised my syllabus for US History II with the intent of cutting back on certain topics to create more space for others. I have succeeded in some areas and failed miserably in others. Take, for example, the Great Depression: last spring I spent four classes (5 classroom hours) covering the period 1920-1939. Believing this content could be condensed I planned for three class meetings this semester … and then, much to my dismay, I used four.


Now that I’ve (very quickly) covered the Second World War I find myself in another time crunch: how much of the Cold War can I cover without oversimplifying a topic so central to the role of the United States in twentieth-century world history? Since my survey weighs heavily toward social history I need to find a way to provide the students with a succinct introduction to cold war-politics and then shift quickly into a discussion of how the political conditions impacted the home front. In this week’s blog I will share my recent efforts to tackle these challenges.


The first assignment in my abbreviated Cold War study required students to read a textbook chapter and complete an online quiz before coming to class. The multiple-choice quiz was open-book and intended to provide an introduction to key people and terminology.


Next, at our class meeting (75 minutes), we spent the first thirty minutes watching and discussing a dense section of educational film titled “The Cold War Part I: 1945-1961.” My college subscribes to both Kanopy and Films on Demand, which grant faculty and students access to thousands of films. In this case, the first 16 minutes of the film provided visual evidence of the “Big Three” at Yalta and the end of World War II in the Pacific, plus maps explaining the division of Germany and the development of the Marshall Plan. Students listened to brief segments of speeches by Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin.


To facilitate discussion of the film segment I distributed a handout with key terms (See McCormack Handout Cold War) and two images: a European-made poster celebrating the Marshall Plan (“All Colours to the Mast”) and Rube Goldberg’s cartoon “Peace Today” (1948). In post-film discussion I asked the students to come up with definitions of the terms and then to consider Goldberg’s audience and intent. The uncomplicated seesaw metaphor enables a smooth transition from world politics to a consideration of how all of these international tensions impacted day-to-day family life.


Finally, for the last thirty-minutes of class we watched “Red Nightmare” (produced by Warner Bros. in conjunction with the Department of Defense). The Jack Webb-narrated picture introduced to students the concept of how American society was conditioned to fear communism. For my purposes, the idyllic image of suburban family life portrayed by the fictional family was a great transition into our next-meeting’s discussion of gender roles in this era.


I relied more heavily than usual on video for my introduction to the Cold War in part because my recent coverage of the Great Depression has me feeling as if perhaps I need to say less and cover more. One of the greatest challenges of teaching history is that it is easy to get excited about sharing content and forget that -- at least in my case -- the goal is an introduction to subject matter and not exhaustive coverage. What about you? How do you whittle down the Cold War to a day or two of class time? Please share!

This article was originally posted and written by Katherine Jewell on on March 28, 2018.

In my last post, I explored how to employ social reading in the online classroom using Perusall, Padlet, and other digital tools.


In that application, my main goal is to ensure students are reading critically. By that I mean not just scrolling through a textbook, but actually engaging with it. I want them to consider the implications of what they are reading, and to think about how different points connect across the chapter. I want them to see how I pose questions to give some shape to their summary of events and to see how various interpretations might emerge. By putting the textbook into their own words, I’m hoping that they retain the material and apply it in other assignments.


In that application, the tool has been useful for giving me a glimpse into how the students are processing information. I can see where concepts begin to breakdown in their understanding, or how they apply contemporary metaphors and analogies to what they have been reading.


In my elective, however, I have different goals. While I’m still looking for students to do critical reading, I have two other goals. The first overlaps with my survey and online environment: I want a tool to ensure students are actually doing the reading. As is often the case, I have visions at the beginning of a semester of the engaging activities students will pursue, but they fall behind in the reading and that engagement breaks down. Students skim the reading or don’t do it at all, and I’m left having a conversation with only the students who have read, or having those students carry the load in group discussion. Like it or not, this is a reality that I must grapple with as an instructor.


The second is to go further in the kind of engagement students have with readings at the elective level. I want them to come to class having identified the argument(s) of an article. By having them engage with other students IN the actual reading, prior to class, my goal is to begin class discussion from a position at which we can begin to engage with the argument. Often times class time is spent coming to a decision about what a scholarly article or chapter (or book excerpt) actually said, rather than engaging with the ideas presented and critiquing them in light of other course material. My goal is to have students — sometimes helped along by those who have a better sense of where the argument is in a piece — come to class with that groundwork laid.


I am hoping see students highlighting sections of the reading that they think demonstrate the argument, or follow up sections that develop that argument further. Right now, I need a better way to explain this second goal to students, and to set them up with the tools to identify scholarly arguments. I am hoping that the work we have done so far in the semester will help with that goal. Evidence so far suggests I may not be successful. In the first social reading at the elective level, the first goal was much more front and center. I showed the students Perusall’s analytics feature after only 5-10% of the class opened the reading. I now need to figure out the “carrot” to accompany this “stick” of accountability. Follow-through in assignments and discussion is where my teaching abilities will be tested — and hopefully, I’ve assigned readings that will be relevant and useful long after students leave the classroom.


Be sure to check out Part I of Katherine's post, Social Reading and the Online Classroom (Part I of II).