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2020

As Black History Month comes to a close, I think it's important that we remember that learning about Black history shouldn't be confined to the month of February; it is imperative that we continue to learn and understand the contributions Black Americans have made in the United States.

Here is a list of great books and videos to learn more:

 

Read

  1. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet A. Jacobs
  2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
  3. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  4. Beloved, by Toni Morrison 
  5. Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
  6. The 1619 Project, by The New York Times
  7. Chocolate Me!, by Taye Diggs 
  8. Becoming, by Michelle Obama
  9. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  10. Chasing Space: An Astronaut's Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances by Leland Melvin
  11. I am Perfectly Designed, by Karamo Brown
  12. 28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World, by Charles R. Smith Jr.

 

  1. The Dangers of Whitewashing Black History | David Ikard | TEDxNashville
  2. Talks to celebrate Black History Month
  3. BlacKkKlansman
  4. Freedom Riders

   5. Quincy

We are almost at the midpoint of spring semester and requests for letters of recommendation are starting to pile up. Teaching at a community college necessitates that faculty support students' transfer applications, which are generally due later in the admissions process than those of first-year students. The fact that the overwhelming majority of my students are not continuing on in my field of study makes writing these letters more challenging. I would love to be able to share the perspective that a student’s love of history would no doubt flourish when he/she had the opportunity to take upper-level courses. Reality, however, is that in the nearly fourteen years I have taught community college students, fewer than a handful have gone on to major in history. It’s my job, then, to help admissions counselors to see that a community college student’s success in a college-level humanities class is, in fact, indicative of his/her potential to be successful in virtually any area of study. 

 

While I cannot be certain that my approach to writing letters of recommendation for transfer students is the “right” way, here are some of the things that I ask my students to think about and share with me before I write a letter:

 

  • What specific field is the student hoping to enter and why?
  • What has he/she done work/internship/class-wise that has led to this decision?
  • What specific personal challenges has he/she overcome to be successful academically?
  • How has community college prepared him/her for the next step in their journey?

 

In my letters I focus on the specific skills that I believe college-level history classes offer to all undergraduates, regardless of their intended field of study: critical thinking, research, and writing. Since all of my students are required to complete a research project I am able to describe the individual student’s written work and what he/she accomplished with the assigned project. For many community college students, history is one of the few fields in which library-based research is required. I emphasize to college admissions committees that to pass introductory-level college history classes my students have had to prove proficiency in basic research methods that include developing thesis statements, supporting arguments with primary source documents, and properly citing materials. 

 

Since my students regularly participate in group discussions, I tell admissions counselors about the individual student’s ability to formulate an oral argument and share ideas with the class. This is particularly useful as a letter of recommendation topic when a student has shown leadership potential in a group setting.

 

I’m currently writing a letter for a student who will study engineering at his next college. Simply telling the admissions committee that he received an A in each of my introductory level classes, I believe, is insufficient. It is in our students' best interests that we as humanities faculty directly identify to people outside of our fields the academic competence and confidence that students gain from humanities courses like history and how those skills can be applied to virtually any academic field. And, that we convince admissions counselors that our students' humanities experiences at the two-year college level will make them quality contributors to their next academic community.

As a historian I struggle with Hollywood-versions of history. Based on a “true story” or “actual events” generally indicates, to me, that some well-meaning writers have taken an historical event and glamorized it for a modern-day audience. While the scenery and costumes might seem authentic, the stories themselves are often re-invented with minimal historical accuracy.

 

In 2002, during my first teaching job after graduate school I taught a class that covered US history 1960 to the present. We spent a lot of time talking about popular culture and I encouraged students to share with the class music from the period that they found historically relevant. That same semester I let students earn extra credit by seeing movies related to topics we covered in class and writing reviews that addressed historical accuracy. This assignment was useful until students became more internet savvy and realized that they could plagiarize reviews from web sites without ever having to see the films. 

 

Although I have since stopped rewarding students extra credit for seeing historically-based films, I still love to discuss them in class. In recent years several films have provided topics for discussion, including “Hidden Figures,” “Green Book,” and “Selma.” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” sparked an interesting pre-class discussion recently as students sought to understand what actually happened to actress Sharon Tate versus the filmmaker’s fictionalized version of events. My Macmillan Community colleague, Jack Solomon, addressed this film in a recent blog about facts in this era of fake news. 

 

“1917” is another historically-based film that has captured a lot of attention in recent months. Having read numerous reviews of the film, I finally had a chance to see it with my high school-age son. Since I’m not a military historian I am not able to evaluate the accuracy of director Sam Mendes’s recreation of World War I battlefield scenes. I did, nonetheless, appreciate the way in which the film captured the anxiety of being a soldier in the era of trench warfare, including the shocking visual horrors of the battlefield. As we talked about the film afterwards, I found myself wishing that I knew more about trench warfare so that I could answer my son’s more specific questions. Herein, I thought, lies the problem with Hollywood’s historical fiction: historians are not readily available to talk to movie-goers post-viewing about what is/is not accurate in the film.  

 

A few days later, however, an amazing thing happened: my son told me that he had chosen the English poet and war-veteran Wilfred Owen as the subject of the in depth author study that his 10th-grade English class was beginning. “1917,” it seems, had inspired him to think about how the characters in the film would have described their experiences in writing. Studying Owen’s poetry, he hopes, will provide some insight into an aspect of the war’s history that viewers of the film can only imagine. 

 

I share this story here on my blog because I have been guilty in the past of avoiding historical fiction because of what it gets wrong. I’m inspired to find new ways to get my current students to think about 21st-century historical interpretations because of the possibility that modern-day depictions of such events might in fact encourage them to want to learn the true historical facts. Ideas and suggestions welcome!