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61 Posts authored by: Suzanne McCormack Expert

Students in my US History I and II classes have recently started a short research project, which means we are spending class time in the library getting everyone acquainted with identifying and citing research materials. As I assist students in locating relevant library-based materials for their projects I am simultaneously conducting web searches to identify new materials not yet available at my college library. While helping a student locate sources on Indian boarding schools this past week I came across an amazing resource that is deserving of some special attention by those of us who teach US history: the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center created and maintained by Dickinson College.

 

If you are not familiar with the history of Indian boarding schools in the United States a great place to start is the (some-what difficult to locate) documentary film “In the White Man’s Image” (PBS, 1992). There are numerous narrative studies of the schools and biographies of their most famous attendees, including Kill the Indian, Save the Man : the Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools by Ward Churchill (City Lights Publishers 2004). In recent years, writing by students at the schools have been published. See, for example, Recovering Native American writings in the Boarding School Press edited by Jacqueline Emery (University of Nebraska, 2017) and Boarding School Seasons: American Indian families, 1900-1940 by Brenda J. Child (University of Nebraska, 1998).

 

If, like myself, you only have a short period of time to introduce students to Indian boarding schools, there is no better resource on the web than the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center. In addition to hundreds of searchable images of children and young adults who attended the school, there are Student Records searchable by name, date of entry, and nation or tribe, as well as log books and student registers. Modern day history students are introduced through these digitized records to names (native and Americanized), birth dates, and some family history of the Carlisle students. We are able to get a sense of how long students stayed at the school and the types of pressures that led to their dismissals and/or personal decisions to return home. Finally, a section of the resource devoted to Teaching provides lesson plans for younger students that can easily be enhanced for work with first and second year college students.

 

Have you stumbled upon any new or new-to-you web-based history resources that you think may benefit your history colleagues? If so, please share in the comments below!

My son, a high school 10th-grader, has been using an iPad in school regularly since 5th grade. He’s grown up in a generation of students for whom digital textbooks and computer-based learning are commonplace. And yet, he’s not sold on the idea. As we sat in a doctor’s office waiting room last week he commented to me that he prefers his teachers to assign readings from a printed text. In his view, the only pitfall of the printed text is the excess weight of his heavy backpack. His digital textbooks, on the other hand, are loaded onto devices that contain many, many distractions (text messages, games, etc).

 

At the start of each semester I present my students with the option of purchasing a digital or printed textbook. Inevitably before heading to the campus bookstore a student will ask which format is “better.” My typical answer is that textbook format is a personal choice based on a variety of factors. For community college students, cost is always tops the pros and cons list. It is difficult for me to counter the argument that their need to afford textbooks for five classes necessitates choosing the least expensive options. Nonetheless, when I am asked by a student for advice about digital v. print textbooks, here are some of the questions -- in addition to cost -- that I suggest they consider:

 

  • Do you have regular access to a reliable laptop/computer/tablet and WiFi? If the answer is no, I suggest that they think realistically about when/how they will access an eBook. If the campus library is several bus stops away and only open when they are working their own part-time job, for example, the print text might make more sense.

 

  • What will you be using the textbook for? In my classes, for example, students are allowed to use the textbook to complete open-book online quizzes and assignments. I suggest that they consider how they will manage such tasks with an eBook. Some students are able to use their own device with a desktop system in the college computing, which works very well. For others, moving back and forth on one device between an eBook and an online assignment can be more difficult depending on their comfort level with the learning management system.

 

  • Have you talked to other students? Every semester I have students in my classes who willingly provide feedback to their classmates as to any challenges they had with either print or the eBooks in the past. I find that students generally value their classmates’ perspectives. I have even had students planning to use the eBook decide, in addition, to share one purchased copy of the printed text with a classmate.

 

  • Have you utilized the college library’s resources? I place a copy of each of course textbook on 2-hour reserve in the college library so that it is always accessible. I make sure the students are aware of this option as a safe alternative if they are struggling for any reason with computer access and/or the eBook, have misplaced their print copy, or simply want to try both options before making an economic commitment to one or the other. 

 

I emphasize to students that textbook purchasing is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Helping our students understand which format will work best with their homework schedules and learning styles in an important component of our teaching. As we prepare this month to order textbooks for the spring semester I’m working with our campus bookstore to make sure students have choices and flexibility in the process.  

Last week’s announcement that there will be an impeachment inquiry into the actions of President Trump has created an opportunity to talk with students about the historical precedents of this action. The nearest my courses this semester get chronologically to any discussion of impeachment is the Watergate scandal and that’s only if I get through the civil rights movement at record pace. As a result, I find myself recommending sources for students to consult outside of class.

 

Here are some (very) general online sources that I have found particularly helpful for first and second year college students. Feel free to share these with your students and add your own suggestions in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

For those students who may have already studied the impeachment process in a political science course, I’ve found it meaningful to suggest that they undertake their own study of media biases. Have the students search the web for editorials and political cartoons that argue for/against impeachment. Remind them that today’s current events will be tomorrow’s subjects for history courses. Political cartoons and editorials from today’s papers will be used years from now to discern how Americans were reacting to events in Washington during this impeachment inquiry. 

 

Finally, suggest that they spend some time listening to the nightly cable news shows or talk radio -- most important here would be to compare what different news outlets are saying about the same topic. Ask them to consider how historians decades from now will view the arguments made in these forums.

 

The impeachment inquiry will no doubt be a complex period of highly charged debate among politicians in Washington. As a current event in 2019 it offers a valuable opportunity for history students to consider the complexity of the times in which the primary sources we are studying in our textbooks originated. 

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?