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52 Posts authored by: Suzanne McCormack Expert

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?

 

   

Last October in a blog titled [My] Research Seminar I introduced the Macmillan Community to the research project I am working on during my semester-long sabbatical -- a study of care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island during the first half of the twentieth century. Last fall as I wrote that blog I was trying to imagine what a semester of research would feel like after eleven years of teaching full-time at a community college.

 

Preparation for spring semester usually starts something like this for me: I take some time to look the the materials I will be using in my spring courses. I go through my notes, studying the syllabi from previous semesters, to make sure that I remember to implement necessary changes. Often I will do some additional secondary source reading to add new content.

 

I find myself now in uncharted January waters: Where do I start? It’s time for me to listen to the advice I’ve long given my students about conducting research: plan carefully and ask for help.

 

My research has been on the periphery of my teaching for three years now, which means I’ve accumulated a significant amount of stuff: books, articles, emails, and notes-to-self about various ideas and leads. As much as I want to immediately get started in the archives, I have instead spent the last few days organizing everything that I gathered in the planning stages of this project. Through this seemingly mundane task I have been able to start a list of questions about potential sources and research materials.

 

As I’ve become more “organized,” however, I have grown increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material that exists on my topic. My typical advice to students about narrowing their topic to something manageable echos in the back of my mind. At this point, however, it is too early for narrowing: I need to visit the archives before I can take that important step. For the time being, therefore, I need to tread water in this sea of names, dates, places, theories, diagnoses, and treatments.

 

In hopes of making sense of all that is ahead of me I’m turning to the experts for guidance. Over the past two weeks I’ve sent dozens of emails to librarians and archivists seeking advice about collections. I’ve also spent a good deal of time comparing early-twentieth-century diagnosis terminology with modern-day terms. I’m hopeful that all of this prep-work will help me to be more efficient in the archives.

 

What advice do you give to students as they are beginning a research project? Are there things that you personally do to keep from being overwhelmed by a large amount of material? Any new apps for keeping archival research organized? Please share!

The topic for this week’s blog came to me in a dream: I was handing out a 10-page exam to students in US History II when I realized I did not have enough copies for the entire class. I ran back to my office to print more but could not find the file on my thumb drive. Gone. Lost forever. I was left with a terrifying question: how would I assess those students for whom I had no copy of the exam? A sweat-inducing panic swept over me and I woke feeling utterly overwhelmed.

 

Last year at this time I blogged about the challenges of dealing with student stress prior to finals. This year, as I’m preparing for a semester-long research sabbatical, I’m feeling more end-of-the-term stress than usual. In addition to grading students’ work and computing final grades, I’m planning my spring research trips. In spite of all of my list-making and organizational efforts, I am stressed out! This week’s blog, then, is more a collection of my rambling thoughts than a succinct discussion of a teaching topic.

 

In the past I’ve thought about changing my syllabi and having fewer assignments due at the end of the term. I’ve agonized over final exams: do they have any real value as assessment tools or are they simply something I do because everyone else is doing them? I’ve read articles and blogs arguing their merits: see, for example, “A Final Round of Advice for Final Exams” (The Chronicle of Higher Education) and “Final Exams Fail at Giving Students Anything of Value” (The Daily Campus). In my upper-level courses I long ago replaced the final exam with projects. Students complete weekly content-based online assessments and then spend the end of the semester researching and writing.

 

So in spite of having already made some of the many expert-recommended changes to alleviate end-of-semester-chaos, after fifteen-plus years of college teaching, I am still feeling the stress…deeply.

 

A student came to my office this week for what I assumed was help preparing for her history final exam. I was surprised to discover that she had come to talk to me about another class. She was at a loss at how to prepare for a science exam and was completely overwhelmed by the volume of material. My disconnect from the subject matter enabled me to help her organize and make a plan. Although she left my office without an enhanced understanding of the key biology concepts, she nonetheless left with a smile: voicing her concerns about the exam had helped and in that moment talking was enough.

 

I guess my point with this week’s blog, then, is not to solve the problem of end-of-the-semester stress but instead to simply vent it.

 

I feel better already.

I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As a child there in the 1970s and 1980s I was bombarded with colonial history. So much so that when I chose history as my undergraduate major I stayed far, far away from courses on Colonial America and focused instead on those that covered post-Civil War society and politics. I took only one class in colonial history at college and one required seminar in Early America as a graduate student.

 

Nowadays, as a professor at a community college, I teach aspects of Colonial America every semester in US History, Women’s History and Black History. As an historian I’m often distressed when I reflect on the history I learned as a child. I’m keenly aware that my students, many of whom also went to grade-school in New England, were taught a sanitized version of colonial history in which pilgrims and Indians feasted together through long, cold winters. As a result, I’m constantly looking for new ways to help my students develop a more sophisticated understanding of the history they were introduced to as children.

 

The month of November is a particularly good time to ask students to reconsider the historical lessons learned in elementary school. For those of you, like myself, who are not experts in the field of colonial or Native American history, a great way to expand students’ understandings of the myths and historical misrepresentations wrapped up in our yearly Thanksgiving celebrations is to bring in an expert. Earlier this month our college invited representatives of the Tomaquag Museum to speak to students at two of our four campuses. Tomaquag is the only museum in the state of Rhode Island dedicated specifically to the history of native people. In addition to bringing numerous artifacts to share with students, museum educator Silvermoon LaRose offered an alternative historical narrative that helped students to break down some of the common misconceptions they have about native life in Rhode Island.

 

I was struck during the presentation by how little my students knew about their own communities. In my US History I course, for example, students study Tecumseh and his movement to unify native people in the early nineteenth century. We study Indian Removal in the southeast and the Trail of Tears. My choice of topics on native people in those periods has stemmed, in part, on a need to cover a geographically diverse history of the United States. As I listened to educators from the Tomaquag, however, I realized that in my efforts to look at life in Ohio, Indiana, Georgia and other places not New England, I had inadvertently missed the opportunity for students to learn more about the ethnic diversity of their own communities.

 

My initial thought was to make changes to the content of my course for next time around. When I considered what the students told me that they gained from the visit from the Tomaquag Museum educators, what I realized is that students relish the opportunity to hear native voices. Talking with students after the visit, for example, yielded discussion of their interest in the musical instrument one of the visitors played and the artifacts that the indigenous historians had shared with the students. My students were enthusiastic about having heard authentic native voices telling the stories of their history. Instead of changing next fall’s plans for readings and lectures, therefore, I’m in search of other potential classroom visitors who can provide my students with diverse voices and historical narratives. Suggestions welcome.

As our country considers the fallout of this week’s midterm elections, I find myself engaged in an internal dialogue about what goes on in my classroom day-to-day.

 

Prior to November 6th my students appeared to be of two minds: either they were committed to voting OR they were completely disinterested. Admittedly, the latter perspective has driven me a bit crazy over the last couple weeks. While one of my on-campus classes was anxious to discuss the “caravan” of refugees moving north through Mexico, the other two could not have been less interested. I did my best to remain non-partisan and encourage them to vote. “Which day?” one of them asked innocently.

 

On the other hand, over the last couple weeks if I were to bring up the World Series, the score of the most recent New England Patriots game, or a local performance by a big-name entertainer my students were full of energy and deep analysis. Even the students who are generally quiet in class could cite statistics on Red Sox pitchers or Tom Brady’s passing numbers.

 

I cannot help but wonder why it is that when these same students are asked to answer essay questions on an exam their answers lacks detail and specificity. I know they are capable of remembering all kinds of minutia and yet when it comes time for them to apply that skill to the material they learn in my class, most fall short.

 

Engagement is undoubtedly a key to success whether we are talking about student learning in the classroom or convincing an electorate to vote. This observation is nothing new or groundbreaking. When they are engaged with something they enjoy -- popular culture, sports, etc -- my students demonstrate an enormous capacity for both memorization and analysis of factual material. They read websites and newspapers, and listen to music or to sports radio. The information they hear becomes embedded in their minds without any effort. When citizens believe that voting will matter (ie, have an impact on their personal lives), they vote.

 

How do I replicate this phenomenon in class? How do I convince my students that engagement with the material in our class will have a significant and lasting impact on their success as students?

 

I feel particularly compelled to wrestle with this question as we are now past midterm exams and entering what I see as the toughest part of the semester: that period between midterms and Thanksgiving Break when, in my experience, many students stop attending classes regularly and start to miss important deadlines for assignments. Engagement at this stage of the semester may be more critical than at any other point because students have invested a great deal of time in the course and are close completion.

 

So that’s this week’s big question: what are you doing in class right now to help your students stay engaged?

Next semester I will be on sabbatical. Instead of teaching five classes, I will dive headfirst into a research project that has been taking shape for three years now. A new research project is a great big unknown, which is a little bit terrifying. This week’s blog will be the first in an occasional series that focuses on historical research and writing.

 

The last major research project I undertook was my doctoral dissertation. While dissertations in themselves are fraught with anxiety and roadblocks, completing my degree was enough to motivate me to push through the challenges. This time around the experience will be completely different: no academic advisor, no semester-based deadlines, and the flexibility to follow the questions and evidence wherever they may lead.

 

I’m hoping that if I use this blog as my one-woman Research Seminar I will keep my project on a forward-moving track the way Dissertation Seminar helped me through my dissertation all those years ago. So this week I’ll start at the beginning:

 

My project -- broadly conceived -- is a study of care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the early twentieth century. In the aftermath of my own medical crisis in 2004 I became increasingly curious about the history of women’s healthcare. I began to search for narratives to satisfy my curiosities and was introduced to the works of Gerald Grob and others whose studies examined the way that mental illness was addressed by American society as far back as the colonial period.

 

For nearly two years, while teaching full time, I read everything I could find on care of the mentally ill in the US. In addition to narratives histories that encompassed expansive periods of time and documented the evolving roles of asylums and hospitals, doctors and psychiatrists, I also read regional histories about places like Boston’s famed McLean Hospital and New York’s Willard Psychiatric Center. These studies evaluated the specific challenges addressed by patients, families, community organizations and state legislatures. They shed light on the value of local history in the study of healthcare.

 

Ultimately what I discovered is that I’m most interested in the period from the turn of the century until the start of World War II. And, I want to specifically learn about the communities in which I live and teach. I want to be able to share stories of local people and institutions with my students when my sabbatical concludes.

 

I’m hopeful that the archival work I will begin this January will uncover the lives of women who struggled with mental health problems in this era and lead me to some bigger questions. Laws protecting the privacy of patients in state hospitals will likely have a major on my work and the stories that are available. I’m excited, nonetheless, to engage in the detective work necessary to bring these stories to life. Stay tuned!

Instead of class discussions, lectures, or assignments, this week I’m thinking a lot about students and time management.

 

We are five weeks into our fall semester and several of my classes are currently working on short (4-6 page) research papers. For many of my students this assignment is the first time they have conducted research at a college library. Some arrived in September well-prepared for the challenge while others are finding the assignment quite overwhelming. In a previous blog I described the short assignment I developed for my US I and II students as an introduction to secondary-source research. Thanks in part to the fabulous librarians at my college, I’ve had great success with this assignment. Students learn to use the articles and journals databases at the library, they critically analyze an historic image and they consider what it means for something to be “in historical context.”

 

After ten years of tweaking, the assignment is a well-oiled machine. The students get started with two class periods in the library classroom and have three weeks to complete the their work.

 

After eighteen years of college teaching, however, I still cannot figure out how to convey to my students the absolute necessity of managing their time effectively.

 

I know I’m not the only college professor who struggles against her students’ habit of procrastination. It’s a human quality that nearly all of us possess on some level. When I have a stack of exams to grade and the sun is shining brightly I too engage in an internal struggle over what needs to be done versus what I would like to be doing. Hats off to those super humans who can procrastinate and then do amazing work.

 

The time-management stakes are high for students. On average they are taking three to five courses concurrently, which means they have a lot of work to complete. At the community college where I teach students are acutely aware that maintaining a strong GPA will make the transfer process easier. Unlike myself who can plan course syllabi so that all of my grading does not have to be done at the same time, students have no say as to when assignments are due. On top of academics they are often juggling family and work responsibilities. Time management, then, is of the utmost importance.

 

And yet, I have no idea how to “teach” this life skill. I’m not convinced that it is even my responsibility to do so.

 

Each time I assign a research project I implore my students: “make a plan,” “come to my office hours for help,” “bring a draft to the Writing Center.” And I hear crickets.

 

As much as I have tried to impress upon them that I’m willing and available to help, almost no one asks me a single question until we are within 48 hours of the due date. How do I convince them that waiting till the last possible moment to start a research project is a recipe for disaster? Are there techniques that I could incorporate into my assignments that would force students to be better planners? And, how much time can I afford to spend away from content if I decide that time management must be a learning outcome for US History I or II? Is a lousy grade the most effective remedy for students who need to stop procrastinating?

 

I’m tossing these questions out to the Macmillan Community this week because I’m quite certain that everyone of us who teaches has spent considerable time thinking about how to solve the problem of student procrastination. Thoughts? Suggestions?

 

No crickets, please.