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2018

As a conversation starter on the first day of classes I always ask what my students did during our three month academic break. A summer job or extra hours at their year-round place of employment are the most common answers. Some take a summer class or two, occasionally a student will have traveled somewhere interesting. When they ask me the same question I tend to focus on the fun stuff I did with my family -- concerts, movies, and family bike rides. I generally spare students the reality of what most faculty do during summer break: work.

 

This summer’s “work” can be broken into three distinct areas: teaching summer courses, preparing fall courses, and getting organized for my upcoming sabbatical. I view the work I do during the summer months as incredibly important because it rejuvenates my courses while also allowing me some mental space to think beyond the day-to-day prep, grading and lectures. So here are some reflections on this summer’s work.

 

Summer classes at my college are intense at six-weeks in length; barely enough time to cover the material but a sufficient time for me to rethink some of what I cover during the academic year. Often I will use the summer intensive course to try something new. This summer I instituted an additional requirement for my students’ research projects: a draft Works Cited page.

 

While grading students’ papers at the end of spring semester I was frustrated that in spite of the amount of instruction provided by myself and our reference librarians, the students’ Works Cited pages were poorly executed. In several cases students used an incorrect format (ie, APA instead of MLA), while others chose to ignore my instructions completely and utilize sources that were deemed unacceptable in the assignment instructions (ie, Wikipedia and history.com). Although requiring a draft Works Cited page created more grading for me at the outset of the project, I was much happier with the final projects. The draft was due a full two weeks before the project itself and I aimed for a very quick (24 hour) turnaround with comments for students. In the cases where problems were discovered, students then had two days to submit a new draft.  I’m planning to continue this practice with my fall semester students because I was so pleased with the overall quality of the projects, even though they were completed in a condensed period of time.

 

I spent a lot of time prepping for fall classes during the summer. Most important in this process was revisiting my syllabi and trying to discern the meaning behind the handwritten notes I kept about assignments that did not work as intended. My last blog discussed how I plan to make changes to my US I syllabus in light of rethinking how I cover the American Revolution. In upcoming blogs I will share additional changes to my US I and II syllabi.

 

I was most excited this summer to organize and plan for my spring sabbatical. The semester off from teaching will be my first in more than ten years and I want to make the most of it. My research will focus on care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century. I was able to spend some time finalizing where I will conduct my research and reviewing secondary literature. Most fruitful, however, was my contact with the local historical societies in towns where state institutions were located. I was reminded this summer of how many talented historians are hard at work in the historical society buildings we regularly pass by in our daily lives. My interaction with these professionals has motivated me to think more about what I could be doing in my classroom to better connect students to the local history near my college.

 

All in all, it was both a relaxing and a productive summer, which I hope has rejuvenated my mind, body and spirit for the semester of teaching ahead!

 

How about you? What did you do over your summer vacation?

In my August 1st blog I reflected on the challenge of relating pre-twentieth century US history topics to today’s college students. In part I blame my past difficulties in this area on the fact that I’m personally more interested in 20th-century history. It’s easier for me to get excited about teaching topics that I have invested time researching. No doubt my depth of knowledge in those areas translates into a more passionate approach to teaching the subjects, which then generates greater enthusiasm from the students.

 

If only I could stick to teaching only those topics that interest me most, right?

 

The reality of teaching history at a community college is that I am one of two full-time professors of US history at my institution. Although his field of specialization is the 18th and 19th centuries, we both teach all facets of US history depending on the semester-by-semester needs of our department.

 

As I’ve been thinking about this coming semester, and the challenge of teaching two sections of US History I, I’ve turned to the web for some new ideas and inspiration on the topic I find most difficult to teach: the American Revolution. This week’s blog will share some of what I’ve  found as I searched the web for alternative strategies.

 

In previous iterations of US History I, my approach to the American Revolution has been largely narrative and chronological. In retrospect I can’t blame the students for finding this method less than exciting. This time around, therefore, I’ve decided to have the students complete an introductory reading on the entire period cumulatively, and then I will focus the lecture/discussion on a few specific areas: documents/artifacts, economic boycotting, and African Americans during the War.

 

My students will use their textbook, Understanding the American Promise (Macmillan), to introduce the general concepts and chronology of the period. Students in my survey courses read textbook chapters in preparation for class and take an online quiz ahead of our class meeting using LaunchPad  (Macmillan).

 

In addition to textbook reading this semester I will also assign this new-to-me interactive timeline developed by the Museum of the American Revolution. Since my first area of study will be documents and artifacts, the timeline will not only reinforce the chronology of the war years but also supplement the textbook reading with additional visual evidence of the period. In particular, I want the students to think about kinds of artifacts have been preserved -- weapons, powder horns, written documents, kitchen wares, even door handles -- as well as what is missing.

 

There are many websites that enable students to examine written documents from the era of the Revolution. In particular I like The Coming of the American Revolution 1774-1776 by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Since one of my goals is an in depth discussion of the economic issues surrounding the war, this site’s section on Non-Importation and Non-Consumption is particularly useful. In previous semesters my best class discussions relating to the Revolution have come from student interaction with the primary sources included on the MHS website, especially “An Address to the Ladies.”

 

The third area on which I want to focus is the lives of African Americans during the war. Of particular importance is helping students to understand the vast differences in experience faced by black Americans depending upon their legal status and their geographic location. Colonial Williamsburg hosts a website that addresses some of the challenges faced by slaves in the Revolutionary War era. See, for example, “Fighting … Maybe for Freedom but Probably Not” and Finding Slaves in Unexpected Places.   

 

I continue to search for resources on the northern slave experience during the war years. I’m hopeful that combing through the many online resources related to the history of New England during the war years will help me to broaden my students’ understanding of what it meant to be a slave in the North in this era. Suggestions welcome!

 

 

 

 

Exactly one year after the mind-boggling events of Charlottesville, VA, Spike Lee released his new film "The BlacKkKlansman." This past rainy Saturday I went to see it and it was clear why Lee thought this was the right story to release at this particular time.

 

Spoiler alert: in addition to the movie's eerily relevant and poignant political parallels sprinkled in throughout the movie, the movie ended with live footage from the Charlottesville protests. I'm sure I had seen this newsreel dozens of times, but seeing it abutted to the story of the Colorado Springs black police officer that infiltrated the KKK packed a punch. My husband and I left the theater in tears, angry and shaken, about how similar much of the story felt some 40 years later. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I'd highly recommend it. It won't be the easiest thing you process that day, but it's worth your time.

 

Additionally, here's an NPR story about the main actor, John David Washington, and his disbelief that the Ron Stallworth story was a true one: 'I Wasn't Sure If It Was True': John David Washington On The 'BlacKkKlansman' Story : NPR 

A third of the way into the film “Gangs of New York” (Miramax, 2002) my son asked if we could choose something else to watch. The time period, he argued, was “boring and bland.” He had already lost interest in the story. For the sake of relevance here I will leave debate about the merits of “Gangs of New York” as a film and piece of historical fiction to the experts and focus on what this conversation meant for me as a history professor.

 

Sadly, I cannot help but think that the perspective my eighteen-year-old expressed from our couch in the middle of summer was not unlike that shared in recent semesters by students in US History survey courses. It can be difficult for students to draw connections between our technologically-driven lives today and a time when there were no automobiles or televisions or smart phones. What made this conversation all the more significant to me is that my son is only weeks away from himself being a college freshman. Dozens of students just like him will soon populate my courses.

 

           As we approach the start of a new academic year I’m thinking a lot about the challenge of connecting these students to the non-digital and non-technical world of our past. As historians we are often poor judges of what might be engaging to students because we find the subject matter inherently interesting. What can we do to get them excited and engaged about topics that seem remote to their 21st-century lives? Are there pre-1900 topics that have connected particularly well with your students? Or, how about topics that you no longer cover in the survey because today’s students do not find them relevant?

 

           This week I’ve posted a poll to help guide future blog topics. I’ve included several (general) topics with which I have struggled to engage student interest and discussion. I’m hoping to tackle the practical challenges of these topics in coming blogs. Please participate in the poll and share your ideas in the comments section below.

 

Which topic do you find most difficult to teach to today's students?