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69 Posts authored by: Suzanne McCormack Expert

I think it’s safe to say that none of us are experiencing the spring semester we envisioned when it began in January. I was on Spring Break when COVID-19-related closures, cancellations, and postponements began. My college extended our break a second week to give faculty time to plan for fully-online teaching and students an opportunity to figure out what their at-home technology needs will be. 


For students who take all their courses in traditional, on-campus classrooms the change to fully online is daunting. A few have emailed me and expressed concern about their internet access. I’ve sent dozens of emails to students over the past seven days with instructions about plans for this coming week online. I can only hope that students are able to access email at home and are carefully reading my messages. It is my hope that in the months that follow this crisis there will be a larger discussion about internet access for all. As a commuter campus, many of my students rely on the college’s computing center or their public library for WiFi access necessary for their academic work. With the campus completely closed to human visitors, it remains to be seen what the impact will be on students’ ability to complete courses.


No doubt we are all struggling to learn as much as possible about the current pandemic while  finding ways to help our students understand the historical context. For those of you not familiar with the history of medicine and healthcare in the United States, I want to recommend some resources that may be useful during this time.


For general suggestions about connecting the history of medicine to survey-level US history classes, see my blog from January 2019 “Making Connections: History & Medicine”. If you have not previously incorporated healthcare history into survey courses, now is a great time to start planning to do so in the future. 


Revisiting my 2018 blog about influenza may also be helpful, see “Sharing ‘the Flu’ with Students”. My US History II students studied the 1918 outbreak in February. I’ve heard from several students who feel some relief in having historical context with which to evaluate this current crisis. 


Finally, there are many informative articles being published online that can be useful in our struggle to contextualize current events for today’s anxious students. I highly recommend history faculty visit PULSE: Medical & Health Humanities, a site produced by scholars in the Netherlands; particularly useful is Professor Manon Parry’s article “Learning from the (Recent) Past” (March 23rd, 2020). In addition, many scholars are sharing materials online to help each other through this challenging teaching moment. The American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM)’s Facebook page is a great place for historians and teachers to ask questions and exchange information, including primary sources, during this crisis.


Finally, it may also be meaningful to remind your students that they are living through a major historical event. Suggest that they keep a journal or scrapbook to memorialize this period of their life. Historians of the future will one day be gathering evidence of what we experienced during this pandemic. Encouraging our students to document their personal experiences is a great way to connect them to the larger human narrative that we seek to share as historians. 

In January the New York Times evaluated the narratives presented by eight US history textbooks  to explore the choices states make about history education. Focusing on California and Texas, in “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two Stories”  Dana Goldstein argues, “In a country that cannot come to a consensus on fundamental questions — how restricted capitalism should be, whether immigrants are a burden or a boon, to what extent the legacy of slavery continues to shape American life — textbook publishers are caught in the middle. On these questions and others, classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.”


As a full-time faculty member I have complete control over which textbook I choose for my community college students. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by the Times examination of the textbook question because what students learn in K-12 truly influences how they think about the world around them and the ideas of our national history that they bring with them to college. In most public schools history teachers are racing to cover dozens of topics in the span of a nine-month school year. For those whose states require standardized testing for graduation, the stakes are often higher and more complex.


The political differences evidenced by the topical choices made by textbook publishers did not surprise me. More conservative school boards choose textbooks that reflect their way of thinking and vice versa for moderate and liberal boards. What fascinated me most about the Times piece were the comments by readers. I’m assuming that demographically the average New York Times reader is both educated and interested in the world around him/her. Threads among the more than 600 comments, however, reflected readers’ short-sighted assessments of the quality of teachers who use textbooks. “Very Silly in Colorado,” for example: “I had incredible history professors in high school...none of them used textbooks.” “James from Boston,” a teacher, boasts the “use [of] zero textbooks” in his classroom. Other readers suggested the development of one textbook to be used by public school children nationwide would solve the problem of over-zealous school boards. “AJC in Paris” writes “If only we could have a National Curriculum researched and vetted by educators only.” 


These -- and many, many other -- comments concern me on a number of levels. The notion that a classroom teacher is somehow deficient or lazy because he/she uses a textbook needs to be dispelled immediately. I teach at a community college. My students range in age from seventeen-year-old high school students working towards college credit to traditional eighteen-year old freshman to middle-age parents trying to complete degrees or changing careers. We need a common place to start: a shared narrative to explore, which is what a good textbook provides. Are there students in my classes who disagree at times with the textbook publishers’ thematic choices or are critical of what they view as a political perspective? Absolutely. Nonetheless, the text is a central starting point for my teaching. Am I biased in my choice? Yes! Although I teach the general US surveys, I deliberately choose a textbook that focuses specifically on social and cultural history. No doubt a political historian would find my choice short-sighted.


The notion of a “national curriculum” is also problematic. The idea that such a thing could be created without bias is implausible. Historians are among the scholars best suited to convey to students a deeper understanding of the reality that all information is, in fact, biased: from the newspapers that we read, to the texts/emails/letters that we send, to the textbooks in all of our classrooms. In the classroom we make choices based on what we believe will work best with our student population and school boards do the same in their communities. Recent criticism of the The 1619 Project by prominent scholars should remind us that even historians do not completely agree when it comes to modern-day interpretations of America’s past. 


As historians and teachers, the best that we can do for our students is offer them a starting point for understanding our national past, recognizing that all interpretations are going to be influenced (in good ways and bad) by biased sources. Encouraging the students to find the flaws in the sources -- even in their course textbooks -- might be the most effective way to guard against creating a generation of students whose beliefs conform to only one idea or argument. Helping our students recognize and question bias needs to start in our classrooms with our textbooks.

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Suzanne McCormack

(Extra) Help Wanted

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Jan 22, 2020

It’s the first week of spring semester and I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of duties ahead of me in the coming months. Yesterday in class I heard myself telling students “not to be overly stressed by the syllabus on the first day.” At the same time in my own head I was thinking: “how will I ever get all of this accomplished in 3½ months?”


Reality is that I’ve been teaching long enough to know that while the semester will move quickly  somehow what I planned for my students will get done. It struck me yesterday, however, that the students who sit before me do not have years of academic success to fall back on as reassurance that they can conquer the challenges ahead. While some students come to a community college for reasons that include economics, change of career or geography, many also come because they have failed to achieve their academic goals at four-year colleges. I’m thinking a lot this week about how we as faculty can help those students who have under-achieved in the past be successful in the future.


Yesterday, in addition to outlining the syllabus and academic requirements, I added a short pep talk to my course introduction: not one person in the room, I reminded them, signed up with the intention of failing and/or withdrawing. I asked them to think carefully about what being “successful” will require. 


Success amidst the challenges of family and work life will require putting in the time necessary to complete course assignments. As I went through the syllabus yesterday I suggested that students give serious thought to how long it will take each of them to read a textbook chapter. In other words, I encouraged them to start the semester off by planning their homework time realistically. In any academic subject area, step one of this challenge is getting students to accept that they need to make a significant time commitment to their academic success. In reading-intensive subjects such as history and English the necessity of mapping out their use of time is often overlooked because they may not be asked to turn something in with every section of reading assigned. 


Talking with students on the first day of classes I was reminded that one of the biggest obstacles to student success is their willingness to acknowledge when things are not going well and to ask for help. While this responsibility falls squarely on each students’ shoulders, I’m planning to introduce an additional safety net to my introductory level classes this semester by taking advantage of our college’s new outreach program from the Student Success Center. My on-campus classes will be introduced next week to an “academic coach” from the Center who will share with them all of the support systems available at the college and then be available to my students throughout the semester via email and individual appointments. My hope is that by introducing this academic coach to my students in a short 10-minute presentation during our class time they will be better equipped to ask for extra help with writing and reading when challenges arise during the semester.


Ultimately, my students need to be able to transfer their community college credits to four-year schools. Beyond the credit hours and grades, however, they need to take with them the skills and confidence necessary for academic success. I’m hoping that linking an academic coach to my introductory history courses will offer them extra support in this process and result in better student outcomes. Looking forward to sharing an update later in the semester!


What challenges are you preparing for as we begin spring semester?

I’ve been viewing the documentary “The Murder of Emmett Till” (PBS) with students in my US History II sections for as long as I can remember. The tragic history of this young boy’s murder, more than any other civil rights-related story I’ve shared, seems to captivate the students, many of whom are only recently out of high school, and instill in them a deep sense of frustration and anger. It forces them to grapple with the profound sadness of Mamie Till while also recognizing the courage with which she challenged Americans to face the horrifying reality of violence against African Americans in her lifetime. 


As I plan to teach the course again in the spring I’ve been (as always) reassessing my syllabus. Based upon this semester’s students’ interests, I’ve decided that we will increase our study of the Till case in the spring to include both online resources and recent coverage of the reopening of the case by the Justice Department. Here are some of the resources I plan to use with my students.


  • PBS maintains a web site to accompany the film with numerous articles valuable for class discussion and analysis. Included is the published confession by the two men who murdered Till as well as historical information on lynching in the United States.


  • Florida State University has launched The Emmett Till Archives with archival materials derived from the case as well as audio-visual documentation of interviews with participants in the trial and subsequent legal actions.


  • 2018 news coverage of the re-opening of the Till trial is available through numerous national news sites, including NPR, Time, and CNN, providing students the opportunity to consider how the narrative of the Till case is being shaped in today’s world in light of Black Lives Matter and other major civil rights initiatives.


Discussion of the Till case this past semester prompted students to ask questions about the clumsy process of school desegregation following Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which is not a topic I typically cover in the course. For spring semester I will be using components of Old Dominion University’s Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) web-based resources. I’m hopeful that the interest expressed in this topic by my fall semester students will be shared by those I teach in the spring. The biggest challenge will be deciding where I can trim the syllabus to make space! Have you done any trimming to your US II syllabus recently? Suggestions welcome.

Students are turning in final projects this week for my online courses. With only two weeks until final exams, the end of the semester is bearing down on us all. And though these students have been working with me since the first week of September, many are still struggling with a basic life skill: following directions. They have had several weeks to work independently on their projects and plenty of time to ask questions. Yet, in spite of what I have offered them in instruction and assistance, I am receiving finished work from students who clearly did not read the directions. 


Case in point: sources. Here is the actual text from my instructions (highlighting in original):

Required Sources: Three articles from assigned academic databases (*see below*)

*ACADEMIC DATABASES: Students must use materials from the databases linked through the college library to our course. Link is accessible through our course LaunchPad.

*UNACCEPTABLE SOURCES:  Wikipedia,, OR anything NOT from the assigned academic databases.

To my horror, the first few projects I received from students contain none of the required sources. I am wracking my brain to understand why. Was I mistaken to believe that highlighting what I considered an essential requirement of the assignment would force students to pay attention to it? Is there some new way of drawing students’ attention to key elements of instructions that I have missed? Or, are my online students simply not reading the directions? 

As a strong proponent of online courses I teach half of my course load online. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the students might miss by not physically being in a classroom for instruction. I, for example, do not have the opportunity to observe confusion on students’ faces when I give assignments. Instead I have no choice but to rely on students’ willingness to email me with questions. Is there something more I could be doing? Do we, as faculty, have an obligation to ensure that our online students have read and understood the directions? For those who teach online in any discipline, what (if any) steps are you taking to address this challenge? Please share.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to look through my high school report cards. It would probably shock my former history teachers that I pursued a career in a subject area where I squeaked out B-minuses semester after semester. As someone who teaches at a community college I find myself fascinated by the trajectory of student academic paths. So often I see students trying to choose a direction at a young age -- selecting a major or area of study as soon as possible so that course selection will be more seamless. Looking back at those high school grades reminds me that had I made a choice at 18 and stuck with it, I never would have ended up in my current career. 


For so many of my current students the cost of a four-year college is daunting. They arrive at community college hoping to get through the first two years of higher education without incurring debt so that they can borrow for years three and four. I imagine for those students the thought of spending thousands of dollars with no guarantee of a high-paying job is beyond frightening. 


My college path could not have been more different from that of my students. Arriving at Wheaton College (MA) as a freshman in the fall of 1990 -- with the financial and emotional support of my amazing parents -- I was certain that I would be an English major (probably because it was the subject I disliked least in high school). Second semester, however, I took a class in Modern US History -- a subject area we had never come close to in secondary-level history classes. My professor, Alexander Bloom, truly captivated me with his teaching style and obvious mastery of the subject matter. He invited students to stop by his office with questions and he showed episodes of the (then recent) documentary series “Eyes on the Prize” outside of class for extra-credit. I was hooked. I can remember searching my notebook for questions to ask just so I could chat with him for a few minutes at office hours.


Professor Bloom is preparing to retire this year. So many former Wheaton students owe a debt of gratitude to Alex for the way in which he encouraged us to love studying history. He was a truly gifted story-teller in the era before PowerPoint presentations and classrooms with digital projection. For students like myself who were searching for an academic interest to which we could connect personally and passionately, his intelligence and quick wit were a true gift in the classroom. No doubt countless students of every academic major took US history classes at Wheaton over the years because they wanted to experience the unique ways Alex connected students to the past.


Perhaps it’s cliche to be “thankful” in the month of November. I feel compelled to use this week’s blog, nonetheless, to acknowledge the teachers over the years who encouraged me. Every once in a while a student will write a note or send an email to me acknowledging some small act that I see as part of my job but that he/she felt particularly inspired by. I remind myself in those moments that I was not always a strong student -- I had many days that I was disinterested or uninspired. I had my share of lousy test grades. What kept me going was the hard work of men and women -- like Alex Bloom and many others-- who were committed to their students’ forward progress and who believed that any student could flourish when she found the right path.  For those, and many, many other lessons, I’m grateful. 

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!