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58 Posts authored by: Suzanne McCormack Expert
Suzanne McCormack

Taking Note(s)

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Sep 18, 2019

We just finished the second week of the fall semester and I’m already feeling anxious about the notes my students are not taking during class. 

 

History classes are notorious for being heavy with note taking. My on-campus classes meet twice a week for 75 minutes each. I plan for students to be taking notes from my lecture for at least some part of each meeting. To guide their note-taking I distribute a handout at the start of each class meeting containing key terms for the lecture and any images that we will be discussing. I intend for the students to use the handout to follow along with lecture and I instruct them to do so during the first week of classes. They know that the handout is theirs to keep and that if they miss a lecture they should get a copy of the handout to begin catching up. 

 

All that being said … some of my students are not writing down anything I say. Nothing. 

 

I look around the room a lot as I’m lecturing to gauge whether students are following the lesson. Many are writing in notebooks or on the handout, a couple are typing notes on a laptop or iPad. Others are doing nothing. No moving pencil or pen, no laptop: just a desk empty but for the handout I’ve distributed. It’s these students about which I’m truly worried. I know how much of the exam will come directly from the very lecture I am delivering at that moment and yet I cannot seem to convey to those students the importance of taking notes. 

 

I recently spoke with a counselor in student support services at my college about this problem. Our school, I learned, now employs “academic coaches” to help students learn to better utilize both classroom and independent study time. I can definitely see the need for such a professional -- not a content specialist but someone who can help students figure out what they need to know and how best to learn it. Academic coaches are available to meet with our students one-on-one or to address them as a class during our meeting time. 

 

Thinking about the topic for this blog led me to do some research of my own and I found that there is, of course, an abundance of note-taking advice available online for students. Many student support web sites have note-taking tips to share with students. More interesting to me, however, are suggestions to faculty about how to make our lectures more friendly to note-taking. A particularly helpful site is the University of Nebraska’s Teaching Students to Take Better Notes, which is intended as a guide for new-to-teaching graduate students but is a great reminder to any of us who lecture about keeping our thoughts succinct and organized.

 

I’ve decided to address the issue of note taking at the start of each class this week. My hope is that my reminder about the importance of class notes for exam preparation will have some impact. Are your students taking notes? Is there anything in particular you do to ensure that their note taking is productive? Thoughts welcome.  

In August the New York Times released The 1619 Project, an ambitious publication of the paper’s weekly magazine that seeks to address our nation’s troubled history with slavery at its 400th anniversary. Written and produced by black authors and historians The 1619 Project, according to the Times, “is first and foremost an invitation to reframe how the country discusses the role and history of its black citizens.” (“How the 1619 Project Came Together”) The result is a resource rich with thought-provoking work on nearly every aspect of slavery from capitalism to segregation to myths about black bodies, among many others. 

 

Everyone who teaches the history of the United States should set aside some time to grapple with the works presented by The 1619 Project. These are twenty-first century- scholars and writers seeking to place the history of slavery at the forefront of our modern-day discussions of race. They recognize that the history of this “peculiar institution” remains inextricably linked to our daily lives 400 years after its origin. College students of all races and political perspectives can benefit from consideration of this critical historical topic in a contemporary setting. As I write this blog I’m working my way through the articles and thinking about how best to add the work to what I already teach about slavery. 

 

I’m hoping to integrate the project -- as well as published responses to it -- into my Black History course this fall. My plan is to have students read an article of their choice from The 1619 Project and then react to the published criticism in an informal journal entry. A quick Google search provides numerous examples of criticisms of the project by politicians and social commentators who view it is as a form of propaganda, as well as those who have supported the Times’ decision to tackle this important topic. Discussion of The 1619 Project offers an opportunity to broaden the classroom study of slavery while also enabling students to consider how contemporary scholars and politicians continue to respond to our national history. The start of a new school year is the perfect time to help students grapple with these complex issues. Are you using The 1619 Project in your classroom this fall? If so, please share your thoughts and ideas with the Macmillan History Community.

Prep time for fall semester and I’m in that familiar August headspace where I’m questioning how I can make certain “must teach” topics more enjoyable for the students and for me! I’ve written here before about struggling with topics that are not of great interest to me (see, for example, my blog from one year ago “Teaching the American Revolution”). As I plan for fall semester I’m tackling another area that I find difficult: the Industrial Revolution. 

 

I’ve decided this year to focus largely on local history in my coverage of the Industrial Revolution. My campus is only seven miles from Slater Mill, the first water-powered cotton mill in the United States. In spite of our proximity to this historic location, the majority of my students have no understanding of its significance. As a result I’m challenging myself to a quick study of local history over this next month. My hope is that students will become more interested in the topics of the Industrial Revolution if they can relate it to a place that some of them pass by everyday. A field trip would be fun but does not fit into the already overflowing US History I syllabus.

 

I started my preparation with a search for quality primary sources and quickly found the 1917 publication  “Pawtucket Past and Present,” a document billed as a “promotional and advertising tool” for the Rhode Island city. While the entire publication at more than sixty pages is too large to use in class, sections of the document vividly depict a popular interpretation of how cotton production came to be in Rhode Island. I’m hopeful that the prose -- intended to sell the city to readers -- will capture the historical imagination of my students in ways that my lectures have failed in previous years. Here is a sample:

 

In a shop in what was then Quaker Lane and is now East Avenue...Samuel Slater with meagre assistance began the manufacture of the Arkwright models. His pay was a dollar a day. The windows of the small shop where he worked were shuttered and the doors barred, and every effort was made to keep the project secret. His patterns were made of wool, and the motive power was furnished by a wheel laboriously turned by a negro named Primus. (10)

 

One idea I’m toying with is having students conduct on-the-spot web research in small groups and then report to the class. This short paragraph offers a starting point for the kinds of questions they could answer quickly: what was the Arkwright model? Was $1/day a decent rate for the 1790s? Why were the windows shuttered? What was the demographic makeup of Rhode Island in the early industrial period?

 

My hope is that spending the first third of our meeting time in active conversation and research about local industry will better prepare students to consider the broader, national history of industrialization covered by my lecture. A review of last year’s notes from the one class meeting I had to cover the Industrial Revolution reminded me that a 75-minute lecture did little to pique student interest. Pinning my hopes on a new approach this year!

Suzanne McCormack

Sabbatical's End

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Jun 26, 2019

My semester-long sabbatical ended abruptly with the start of summer session at my college so it’s the perfect time to reflect on five months of research. The goal of this project at the outset was to study the care of women categorized as mentally ill (today’s terminology) in the period 1870 to 1920 in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. As with any project, I’ve met with some success and some failure while being introduced to questions that I did not know I needed to answer. 

 

My research at the Rhode Island State Archives, for example, has proved more fruitful than I expected. Not only have I been able to learn a lot about the state’s efforts to care for mentally ill women, I’ve also been introduced to the challenges of basic health care for poor women in a way I had not anticipated. Looking specifically at conditions and challenges in our nation’s smallest state has been alarming. Sick women often arrived at the RI State Almshouse with children-in-tow. Sometimes those children were healthy and other times they were even sicker than their mothers. In all cases, however, the Almshouse -- one of the only safety nets for poor women in this era -- was the last resort as care at private hospitals was financially out of reach.  

 

Learning more about the history of the US healthcare system has been a goal of this project from the start. In an earlier blog, “Making Connections: History & Medicine”  I mentioned my interest in helping students at the community college where I teach develop an understanding of healthcare historically. In a future semester I’m hopeful that I can offer a  course designed specifically for our nursing and health-care focused students. Secondary readings toward that end are my focus for the remainder of the summer. 

 

Finally, the greatest challenge I have faced during this sabbatical is access to sources. Access to patients’ records and/or doctors’ notes that could shed light on illnesses and treatments has been inconsistent. Historians have published several narrative histories utilizing 19th-century patients’ records in states such as New York and Virginia -- sometimes changing patients’ names and other times publishing doctors’ notes verbatim. In New England, however, I have been challenged by the inconsistency of repositories’ policies on access. While some libraries allow review of patients’ records after a waiting period of 70 years (from the document’s creation), others have closed patients’ records entirely by citing modern-day state laws regarding patient privacy. I continue to engage in discussions with these libraries about the importance of medical records as historical sources. While I certainly understand concerns about privacy I also believe that being one-hundred years removed from the time period is a significant buffer, especially when coupled with the promise of patient anonymity. 

 

I’m excited to continue this research. Taking a few months away from the classroom to focus on a project that is entirely my own has reinvigorated my academic interests and my desire to find new topics to share with students. I’m inspired to better manage my teaching/preparation time so that all of this amazing research I’ve done does not collect dust. Suggestions welcome.  

 

Happy Summer! 

 

   

 

  

Teaching our students to properly cite sources is an essential component of college-level history courses. In a previous blog I mentioned that last summer I started requiring a rough-draft of the Works Cited page in the earliest stages of my students’ research. This week I will share that brief assignment and the reasons I have found it effective.

 

Open my assignment here.

 

Requiring (and grading) a draft Works Cited page has proved useful for a number of reasons.

 

First and foremost, this assignment forces my students to get to work locating sources immediately. My assignment starts with students submitting a research topic. In my experience this step should be completed through Google Docs, the Blackboard “Journal,” or some other tool that enables feedback directly to the student. I respond to the students as the topics are submitted and encourage them to ask questions before they begin searching for sources. Once they have an approved topic the students have one week to submit their draft Works Cited page. I employ this quick turnaround period to discourage students from putting the assignment aside once the topic is approved and forgetting about it until the week before the due date.

 

Second, the draft Works Cited page enables me to stop bad research in its tracks. It is not uncommon, for example, for students to ignore my instructions about the required library databases and instead conduct a web search (ie, “Google” their topic). I’ve also had students submit draft Works Cited pages that will not lead them to detailed research materials because the sources they have chosen are too general. Or, students will sometimes use the wrong databases in spite of my link to history-specific materials. A philosophical or literary evaluation of Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is not the same as a historian’s examination of what was happening in Birmingham when King was jailed. Catching these problems in the drafting phase is critical.

 

Finally, I have found that when I place the Works Cited front and center the students view it as more than an afterthought. For years I inadvertently allowed students to throw together their Works Cited pages as they completed their projects only to be surprised by their poor quality. No doubt many of those Works Cited pages were pieced together in the middle of the night!  Asking students to consider this critical component of their work in the earliest stages of research has heightened their view of its importance, and ultimately increased their understanding of why sources matter.

 

What do you do to help students understand the value of quality sources and citations? Please share!

I was first introduced to Jane Addams during my junior year of college when my professor assigned Twenty

Years at Hull House. It was not until several years later when I used the book with students in a course of my own, however, that I was truly impacted by Addams’s work. Today I teach at a community college where some of my students are immigrants for whom English is not their native language and many more are first-generation Americans seeking to bridge the vast cultural divide between the country of their parents’ birth and their lives in the United States. Addams’s work, for me, is more relevant than ever.

 

My interest in Addams was renewed last week when I visited the Hull House Museum in Chicago. Addams established Hull House in 1889 with fellow activist Ellen Gates Starr. The settlement would serve as her personal and professional home until 1935. According to the museum’s web site, Hull House “residents” -- educated women (and occasionally men) recruited by Addams and Starr -- “provided kindergarten and day care facilities for the children of working mothers; an employment bureau; an art gallery; libraries; English and citizenship classes; and theater, music and art classes.” Their work intimately connected them with the diverse people of their South Halsted Street neighborhood: Greeks, Italians, Irish, Bohemians, Russians, Polish, African Americans and Mexicans.

 

Although the settlement at Hull House would eventually encompass several buildings the museum as it stands today consists of only the main home at 800 S. Halsted Street on the edge of the University of Illinois Chicago campus. College students from UIC guide guests through rooms that display documents, images, and other artifacts from Addams’s life work. Visitors learn that art and music were prominent in the lives of Hull House residents and visitors, no doubt a welcome distraction from the long hours many immigrant men and women spent in Chicago’s factories. The simplicity of Addams’s upstairs bedroom with its twin bed, desk and fireplace is in sharp contrast with museum pieces that remind us that Addams was once considered by the FBI to be “the most dangerous woman in America.” (Social Work & Society International Online Journal).

 

More than a century after Addams and Starr founded Hull House the challenges facing immigrants in the United States remain wrought with fear and uncertainty. In her commencement address at the University of Chicago in 1905 Addams cautioned her audience that Americans  “refuse to see how largely the question [of immigration] has become an economic one.” Addams’s many years of direct involvement in the lives of immigrants remains relevant today as we address similar questions of citizenship and assimilation, standards of living and economic progress. If you’re not already sharing Addams’s story with your students, I encourage you to revisit turn-of-the-century immigration questions through her writings.

 

   

According to my social media feeds, National Teacher Appreciation Day was May 7th. Reading posts thanking teachers and mentors last week led me to think a lot about what my years in the college classroom have meant to me personally. Although in higher education we are called “professors,” when it comes down to what we do day in and day out, we are teachers.

 

Rather than rehash what I’ve “given” to my students over the years, this week I’d like to share three lessons I have learned from my students:

 

First, most days the most important contribution I can make to the classroom is a positive attitude. My students are working long hours at low-paying jobs and caring for children and/or parents, in addition to the demands of their academic schedule. They need supportive reminders that their hard work is going to pay off in the long term even more than they need to hear my assessment of the newest publications on slavery or 19th-century urbanization. I’ve witnessed first-hand that some days the encouragement of a teacher is the only thing keeping my students from deciding that the demands of finishing their education is too much.

 

Second, human beings learn best from our failures. Conversations with students who are failing a course because of bad decision-making, poor planning, or plagiarism are heartbreaking for us teachers. On more than one occasion, however, I have heard from students months or years later that my having held them accountable for their actions in the classroom led to a positive change in their life. I’ve also had the great fortune of what I call “repeat” students: those who failed my course and chose to do a retake with me. Seeing these students successfully pass a course the second-time-around is immensely gratifying

 

Finally, “to those who much is given, much is expected.” My brother wrote this quote -- attributed to President John Kennedy among others -- in a book he gave me many, many years ago when I was starting graduate school. The degree I was pursuing at the time was funded by a generous tuition scholarship and teaching assistant-ship. It was not until I had been teaching at a community college for several years and came across his handwriting in that book that I really thought about what that quote meant. My students remind me every single day to value my education and the sacrifices that were made along the way.

 

Those of us who have had the privilege of earning graduate degrees in the humanities have so much to offer our students. Their desire to learn from us -- to be our students -- is truly a gift that we should not take for granted.

Researching care of the mentally ill during my semester-long sabbatical has shown me just how much I have overlooked the importance of teaching the history of medicine in my courses. I blogged earlier this semester about some of the web-based resources I plan to share with students in future courses (see “Making Connections: History & Medicine”). Although I teach US Women’s History every semester, discussion of health-related issues in my courses has revolved solely around the political arguments for/against birth control and abortion rights. During this sabbatical I’ve been introduced to the works of several historians who are exploring the myriad of roles that doctors and hospitals have played in the lives of women. Here are two examples of recently published research that I recommend that faculty share with US history students:

 

In Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (University of Georgia 2017) historian Deirdre Cooper Owens explores the way in which black women’s bodies were used to aid the development of medical specialization. “Within the professional women’s health-care world,” Owens writes, “diseased and living black women’s bodies were...profitable. Doctors used the diseased reproductive organs of black cadavers to facilitate gynecological research and provide education in the field of gynecology.” (p. 17) White interests in preserving enslaved women’s ability to reproduce was central to these studies and played a significant role in the development of this important medical specialization. Black women, however, were exploited through this process in both life and death. According to Owens, “Although the biomedical research that nineteenth-century doctors conducted sought to locate the alleged biological differences between black and white people, white doctors used black women’s bodies in their research because they knew that women’s sexual organs and genitalia were identical to white women’s.” (p. 21) Owens’s study forced me to consider the horrifying medical/scientific components of the institution of slavery that I have often overlooked in my courses as I focus on living conditions and the labor of slaves.

 

Wendy Gonaver’s 2018 work The Peculiar Institution and the Making of Modern Psychiatry 1840-1880 (University of North Carolina Press 2018) documents the histories of two Virginia asylums in the 19th century with a focus on the lives of slaves, free blacks, and white women. Of particular interest to me for my general US and Women’s History classes is her discussion of domestic violence. White women who alleged domestic abuse in Virginia found themselves -- often voluntarily -- in the state’s asylums. “In a sense,”  Gonaver contends, “the asylum became the paternalistic caretaker to those who had been wounded by the abuses of patriarchal power and, for a number of reasons, were unable to fend for themselves.” (p. 135) Rather than punish the abusers, therefore, women were re-victimized by surrendering their personal freedoms and control of their children in exchange for the physical protection of institutionalization.

 

In a typical semester I teach five courses. While valuable research is being published nearly every day, my teaching responsibilities limit the time I can dedicate to examining new content that could dramatically alter my students’ perspectives. The work of these two historians reminds me why taking the time to read new research is critical to our success as teachers. What have you read recently that will impact future iterations of your courses? Please share.

Writing this blog is akin to keeping a journal of my professional life. The topic development, drafting, and editing process that takes place every two weeks allows me to evaluate what I’ve done in my classroom or my research, and helps me to formulate future plans. As a result I’ve become increasingly introspective about the implementation of ideas and content in my classroom. Since this week’s edition is my 50th blog for Macmillan Community I thought I would take some time to reflect on how blogging has enhanced my teaching over the past two years.

 

First and foremost, blogging has helped me to identify what has and has not worked. Prior to writing this blog I admittedly spent very little time thinking about why an assignment was a success or a failure. I would annotate my copy of the assignment with comments/feedback from students or observations I had made and then, inevitably, those notes would disappear into a course folder only to resurface the next time the very same assignment was about to be employed. Knowing that each assignment is potentially something to share with the Macmillan Community has led me to embrace the process of self-evaluation and reflection.

 

Blogging has increased my attention to student outcomes. Everyone working in higher education today has faced the challenge of identifying ways in which learning goals can be determined and measured. Certainly I had worked with colleagues to establish outcomes for our history courses prior to writing my first blog. Writing about my assignments, their goals, and outcomes, however, has helped me to fine-tune this process. I’ve been able to recognize ways in which students may be guided to see more clearly how learning history truly does aid them in their paths to professional (non-historian) careers.

 

Finally, blogging has encouraged me to take the time to do more careful reading. Though I’ve always encouraged my students to read newspapers and websites to draw connections to historical topics, I have not always listened to my own advice. It is so easy to get caught up in the day to day challenges of life that we cannot take the time to truly reflect upon what we are reading. Writing this blog has encouraged me to slow down my reading -- especially of online content -- and consider with greater thoughtfulness how I might help students place what they read in context.  

 

What I continue to gain from the experience of blogging, therefore, is the knowledge that writing about teaching contributes to a more meaningful experience for me as the teacher, even after nineteen years in this profession. Two years after starting this blog I feel more connected to what happens in my classroom than ever before. It is my hope that my students’ learning experiences have been enhanced as well.

 

Do you keep a journal about your classroom experiences? If so, what have you learned from that practice?

During my sabbatical this spring I’ve taught only one class: Black History delivered fully online. It’s at this point in the semester, with five weeks of classes remaining, that I assign students a final research project: a 6-8 page study of a person, event or organization from the post-World War II civil rights movement. I let students choose their own topics with the hope that they will be more motivated if they have a personal interest in the subject matter. I have several goals for this project.

 

First I want students to demonstrate proficiency in basic library research. I require each student to use one book-length narrative, two academic articles, and three primary sources. Proficiency in library research requires properly formatted citations and a complete Works Cited page. Students are required to submit a draft of their Works Cited page to me early in the process, which is graded.

 

Second, I want students to show me that they understand the broader significance of civil rights activism over time. I ask them in this project to identify with examples the people, events, or ideologies from earlier historical periods that have influenced their topic. For example: students who choose to examine Brown v. the Board of Education need to demonstrate that the founding of the NAACP in 1909 had a long-term impact for the civil rights legislation in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

 

Properly integrating primary source examples into the narrative of their essays is my third focus. The three primary sources I require can be images or text. I encourage students to include images of their subjects but remind them that they must explain the images to their readers. Often times students will simply copy and paste an image into the research paper. My instructions, however,  include an example of how students can add to the quality of their projects by providing historical context for the images and citing them in-text.

 

Finally, I want to give students the opportunity to study a topic in detail that we might not cover in class readings/discussions. To cover Black History from 1600 to 1970 or so in one semester is virtually impossible. Many students have deeper interests in people or events that can be more fully explored through this kind of research project.

 

One of the challenges I face when assigning this project is convincing students to step outside of their comfort zone when they select a topic. It’s common, for example, for students to choose Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr, because they feel confident that they know something about these icons of the movement. By requiring each student to submit his/her topic to me via email before beginning the library research, I have been able to widen their focus. When a student chooses Rosa Parks, for example, I tell him/her that Parks’s arrest and actions in Montgomery in 1955 should account for no more than one paragraph of the final paper. Students who initially chose Parks as a topic because of the bus boycott have been amazed by all of the other -- less known -- work she did in her lifetime.

 

What kinds of projects are your students doing to end the semester? Are there challenges that you have faced in previous semesters that you seek to avoid this time around?  Let’s discuss.

The women I’m reading about in the archives of New England’s state hospitals will likely never be the subjects of celebratory Women’s History Month events. The tiny remnants of their lives that exist in the historical record are the opposite of inspirational; depicting instead emotional pain and instability that led to their institutionalization. And yet, to me, these women’s lives offer my students even greater value as academic subjects than the most famous of female subjects because their experiences speak to the challenges of daily life in virtually every era of human history.

 

One of my goals during this semester’s sabbatical is to find ways to incorporate the subject of mental illness into my US History and Women’s History survey courses. I am hopeful that sharing these women’s stories within a historical context will help students to better understand both the medical and social welfare systems of the 19th and early 20th-centuries as well as the degree to which mental illness has been a constant in American history.

 

Unearthing these women’s lives, however, has been quite challenging. As I wrote in a previous blog, diagnoses like postpartum depression that are commonplace in the 21st century were rather mysterious to 19th-century physicians. Notations on women admitted to institutions such as Rhode Island’s State Hospital for the Incurable Insane and the RI State Almshouse regularly included marital status, how many children she had (alive and deceased), and what kind of work she did outside of the home. The admitting doctor or nurse made very general observations of her temperament -- “temperate” or “intemperate” are the adjectives most commonly used -- before describing the situation or event that ultimately brought the patient to the institution. In most cases descriptions are brief and painfully sad.

 

There is -- at least on the surface -- nothing remarkable or extraordinary about these women. No famous act of rebellion or eloquent speech exists to propel my subjects directly onto the pages of a course syllabus. There are, instead, hospital notes: “uterine problems,” “gynecological healments,” “mania,” and “domestic unhappiness” are among the common phrases. How do I -- historian and teacher -- help students to see value in studying these nameless women’s lives?

 

I’m reminded as I pour through these documents of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s pivotal work A Midwife’s Tale (Vintage 1990). Describing Martha Ballard’s diary Ulrich wrote: “Taken alone, [the diary] tell[s] us too much and not enough, teasing us with glimpses of intimate life, repelling us with a reticence we cannot decode. Yet, read in the broader context...and in relation to larger themes in eighteenth-century history, [it] can be extraordinarily revealing.” (p. 25) As we honor Women’s History Month this March, let’s remember not only the (now) famous women who have persevered amidst seemingly insurmountable odds but also those who remain nameless and faceless in the historical record. Let’s recover their voices and share them with students in the hopes of creating a broader understanding of all women’s history ... and not just during the month of March.

A scholar new to the academic job market recently asked me to reflect on this question: what do I consider to be the greatest challenge of teaching history at a community college? So here goes ... community college students are often unprepared for the level of reading required to succeed in a college history course.

 

The caveat to this statement, of course, is that many four-year college students are also unprepared because so many high school students are not challenged to read and synthesize large amounts of written information. As a result, even those students who come into my community college classroom from college-prep and honors-level courses in high school often find managing reading assignments difficult. The problem of students not reading enough is not, by any means, unique to history courses. However, there are so many amazing sources available to us as historians -- narrative histories, memoirs, novels, speeches, diaries, etc -- that I have a painfully difficult time selecting readings. Ultimately I assign less than half of what I would truly like my students to read over the course of a semester-long US history survey course.

 

What makes this problem more challenging is that community college students are notoriously time-crunched by work, commuting, and family responsibilities. As a result of these competing responsibilities, unless there is a graded assignment tied directly to it students often will not read. Compared to completing a written assignment that will be turned-in for a grade, reading for general content and context appear less important and are easily dismissed. A recent survey of community college students conducted by North Carolina State University found that work responsibilities and tuition expenses are viewed as “the top two challenges community college students said impeded their academic success.” (Inside Higher Ed, 12 February 2019) I’ve come to accept that even the most committed student may unwillingly fall asleep reading his history textbook after an eight or ten-hour shift on the job.

 

So much of the learning that we ask students to do in our history courses requires a significant amount of reading. Students for whom English is their second language often find history courses difficult because they are seeking to understand both language and content simultaneously. With my community college students, therefore, I search for primary sources with accessible language and rely heavily on images to help those students understand key historical concepts as they continue to improve their reading skills. Photographs, political cartoons, maps, charts and graphs have become an increasingly important part of my course assignments to compensate for the fact that students simply either will not or cannot read the amount of material that I would like to assign.

 

There are many challenges to teaching history at a community college that I have embraced. Classrooms populated by students of diverse ages, political, social and economic backgrounds, for example, produce vibrant class discussion. My students’  different academic backgrounds inspire me to stay active in the field of teaching and learning, in addition to being up to date with historical content. I am particularly conscious of a need to search for new ways to share history with this diverse group and I embrace that challenge. Convincing students that reading will not only enhance their academic experience in my class but their overall quality of life remains the challenge with which I most struggle. Suggestions?

I’m a month into my research sabbatical and feeling as though the list of questions I set out to answer is only getting longer. Going into this project my plan was straightforward: learn all I can about care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and then find ways to integrate what I’ve learned into my survey US and US Women’s History courses. When I started the archival research I had no idea what stories would be uncovered but I was hopeful that the dozens of secondary sources I had already poured through would be adequate preparation for what lay ahead.

 

I hit a stumbling block during my very first archival visit. Reading through admission notes for female patients in the 1870s I notice that time and again doctors indicate that their female patients had recently (within weeks or months of the admission) experienced child birth. I began to wonder about postpartum depression and whether doctors in the late nineteenth century would have diagnosed such a condition. Later that evening I started back through some of the major secondary sources in search of post-childbirth diagnoses but came up empty handed.

 

The field of women’s history has expanded exponentially over the last forty years and yet, the more I search, the more frustrated I become: time and again searching for pre-twentieth century historical references to postpartum depression yields links to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and virtually nothing else. After combing academic databases for journal articles to no avail I posted queries to two list-servs asking fellow historians for input: what secondary sources exist to help contextualize post-childbirth mental health problems at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century?

 

It’s only a matter of hours before the first response arrives in the form of an email from a nursing professor who recommends that I contact an historian friend of hers on the faculty of a medical school. By the end of the day I’d been in touch with three historians on two continents who confirm that my inability to find secondary literature is the result of a vast empty space in the historical narrative. Historians, it seems, have been remarkably silent on the topic of postpartum depression before the Second World War and at this point I can only make broad assumptions as to why.

 

Historical research requires detective work: searching for clues to the past and seeking answers to questions big and small. My experience this semester is reminding me how important it is to share that research process with colleagues near and far, and to seek help when needed. Only a month into my sabbatical I am already indebted to numerous librarians, archivists and historians who have provided advice. I look forward to incurring more academic debt as my sabbatical continues.

In a May 2017 blog I shared my favorite short research assignment, which requires students to conduct secondary source research to place photographs and artwork from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries into historical context. I’ve thought a lot about that assignment over the past week since Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page became a source of public discourse. The image is startling to anyone who has studied the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries: two men, one wearing Ku Klux Klan regalia and the other, smiling, in blackface.

 

Public discussion of this image reinforces, for me, the importance of studying our national history. Rather than imparting our personal political views on our students, this situation is a case-study in why we need to let our students learn the lingering scars of history’s terrible truths for themselves. Contextualizing the men’s costumes within the history of race in the United States opens avenues of discussion in both contemporary and historical settings.

 

When I first present the image-based research project to my students they commonly respond that “there is nothing happening” in their assigned picture. I encourage them to reflect on the unspoken fact that photographs are taken to memorialize -- a moment, an experience, a relationship -- deemed important to someone. If we frame the discussion of Northam’s yearbook page in these parameters, we ask our students to confront the overt symbols of racism that continue to plague our country nearly two centuries after phrases like “blackface” and “Jim Crow” entered our public discourse.

 

So when your students ask about the Northam image, suggest that they do some research. Googling the term “Blackface,” for example, will bring students to articles about the practice as a form of entertainment for white people in the 19th century. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype”  (National Museum of African American History & Culture) explains the concept with visual examples that can help students to recognize how prevalent the custom was in the 19th century. Ask students to brainstorm times when they have seen blackface (or references to it) used in popular culture. Online resources about the Ku Klux Klan can illuminate student understanding of the longevity of the terror organization. Particularly useful is “Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism” (Southern Poverty Law Center), which provides a chronological history that enables students to see how the KKK has remained an active agent of hate for more than a century.

 

Finally, ask your students to think about the time in which Northam’s yearbook was published. What was going in 1984 that might have contributed to its inclusion?

 

Whatever reaction you may personally have to the Northam picture, do not allow your students to think “nothing is happening.”

While a good number of my students are General Studies and Liberal Arts majors, an even greater number are planning careers in the fields of health care, business, and engineering. Our community college is particularly strong in nursing education and allied health sciences so I am increasingly aware of the need to incorporate health-care related content into my history courses. This semester as I research care of the mentally ill during my sabbatical I am simultaneously reading general works on healthcare history that might help connect my nursing and other health-science students to US history through content that speaks directly to their chosen career paths.

 

            Historian Christopher Jones (Arizona State University) describes his institution’s efforts to grow history course enrollments in “Building History Enrollments Through Online Courses for the Professions: Lessons from Teaching the History of Engineering” (The History Teacher). Jones writes about the challenge of decreasing enrollments in history courses nationwide. “For those of us that believe history is an essential part of a well-rounded education for any student, be it for reasons of critical thinking, social empathy, or enlightened citizenship,” Jones contends, “it would be a shame to abdicate this mission simply because our classes are decreasing. If students are not coming to us, we should reach out to them.” (The History Teacher, p. 550). Jones’s creation of an online course focused on the history of engineering inspired me to think about ways that I could more effectively help students in the health-care professions to see the value of historical thinking, especially when it comes to critical thinking and problem solving.

 

In the past I have blogged about incorporating the 1918 influenza outbreak into US history II courses (see “Sharing ‘the Flu’ with Students”). While influenza as an historical topic fits nicely into discussions of the First World War, other medical/science-specific topics are more difficult to integrate. There is also the challenge of deciding what to drop to make space in the syllabus. In the long-term I like the idea of creating a course specifically targeting healthcare students. For now, however, I’m focusing on what materials could be added to my general US and Women’s History courses to enable students to expand their historical understanding of the history of medicine.

 

Here are some useful websites I’ve found recently are worth exploring:

 

The Science History Institute offers articles on the development of antibiotics and the science of crop rotation, among others. Their web-based resources Historical Biographies and Scientific Adventurers provide teachers and students with access to dozens of histories of men and women whose work in the sciences have brought amazing advancements including Alexander Fleming and George Washington Carver.

 

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia publishes the website History of Vaccines in which students can examine historical timelines related to the outbreaks of diseases and illnesses, as well the way in which scientists and governments responded to the challenges.

 

Many history of medicine websites publish images that document the development of the American healthcare system and the experiences of both doctors and patients. The New York Public Library has an amazing collection of images documenting epidemics and reactions. For classes studying the Civil War, the US Sanitary Commission Collection contains photographs of nineteenth-century ambulances and drawings of camp medical facilities, as well as doctors’ illustrations of patients’ injuries, including gangrene.

 

Finally, public health films from the Second World War are particularly informative and fun to watch. The US National Library of Medicine’s site The Public Health Film Goes to War offers both animated and live-action videos meant to educate both soldiers and the general public about hygiene and potential medical problems. “Fight Syphilis” (1942) is a particularly good example of how these films can offer students of all majors insight into health-care history while also broadening their perspectives of how Americans reacted to such challenges.

 

I’m brainstorming ways to integrate some of these fabulous resources into future sections of the US history survey. Any suggestions?