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All Places > History Community > Blog > Author: Suzanne McCormack

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.

Google “the American Dream” and you will be met with links to countless articles offering perspectives on what constitutes success in the United States today. When I ask students in my US History II courses to define the “American dream” the first response is almost always “rags to riches.” As they flesh out the the definition, however, the students include the opportunity to be educated, to own a home, or obtain citizenship. Teaching at a community college since 2007 has afforded me the opportunity to witness many families’ “American dreams” in progress. In the classroom, we use Horatio Alger’s story Ragged Dick as our centerpiece for discussing the concept in the context of (post-Civil War) nineteenth-century American life.


I like the simplicity of the plot of Ragged Dick, in particular the way that the story offers readers a glimpse of urban life and child labor, albeit through fiction aimed at young readers. I’ve been told by students over the years that following the well-intentioned -- and very lucky -- protagonist through his adventures as a New York City bootblack is “fun” compared with the more complex readings assigned by their college professors. I’m ok with this analysis: we cover some really heavy topics in US History II so I’ll take “fun” where I can find it!


We discuss the story during the second week of classes, which forces the students to jump quickly into reading for my course. The story is easily accessible through a free online download, which makes it a great choice for the start of the semester when students may be having challenges figuring out the bookstore or with financial aid. I include a link to Project Gutenberg on our learning management system so that students can get started with the reading without delay.


My class meets twice a week for seventy-five minutes and students need to have the reading completed by our fourth class meeting. When they arrive at class they take a ten-question multiple choice quiz on the plot and then we break into discussion groups of 4-6 students. I lecture for 10-15 minutes to provide students with some historical context about Horatio Alger and remind them what was going on nationally when the book was published in 1868. The first couple chapters in their textbook reading have supplied them with background as well.


The students then brainstorm the following questions (posted on the board) with their groups:

  • Define the “American dream” in 2018
  • Define the “American dream” as portrayed by Alger’s story
  • How has the “dream” changed since Alger’s writing of the book?
  • What does this story teach us about childhood in the mid-late nineteenth century?


I ask the students to first think about what the “American dream” means today because it is often the topic that gets them the most excited during the discussion. I’ve found that the rest of the discussion builds on that energy and enthusiasm. I also provide the students with a recent analysis of current economic conditions in the United States to offer some comparative perspective to what they have been reading in their textbook about the nineteenth century. This semester, for example, I shared the article “Unbalanced: Seven Notes on Our Gilded Age” (Boston College Magazine), which offers a succinct analysis of earnings and wealth that students can skim quickly as part of their group discussion.


After the students have been working with their group members for 10-15 minutes, I add these questions to the list:

  • Who is missing from Alger’s story?
  • How do race and gender impact the formulation of one’s “American dream”?

With these last questions I want the students to focus in on the fact Ragged Dick is a story about white males. I ask them in our discussion to imagine New York City in this era through the eyes of a person of color, an immigrant, or a female of Dick’s age.


We spend the last 10-15 minutes of class time sharing each groups’ answers to the questions. In particular, I want them to draw some larger conclusions about the “American dream” that will set us on a path for discussion of turn-of-the-century topics such as immigration and expansion.


Is there a short story or novel that you are using in a history course that inspires energetic and meaningful class discussion?  Please share!

Some of the most thought-provoking primary sources I use in United States II are videos available to us all via the world wide web. I feel fortunate to teach in a time when so many great resources are available for us to share in our classrooms. Here are a few that have provided my students with visual records of the past while stimulating quality class discussion.


Japanese Relocation 1942 and Manpower 1943

    If you’re examining the home front during World War II these two short films are a great way to supplement lecture materials on the internment policy and the need for workforce mobilization during the war. My students have been particularly fascinated by the depiction of the Japanese as helpful and happy during their forced migration, and by how the audience may have reacted to the contents of this short film. Women and African-American men are the focus of Manpower, which explains the government’s need for full employment during wartime, especially the goal of placing people in jobs where their pre-war skills could be best utilized. Each of these sources runs less than 10 minutes.


Duck and Cover - Bert the Turtle (1951) and Survival Under Atomic Attack (1951)

No class discussion of the Cold War is complete without at least one of these short civil defense films, which help students better understand the way in which American society was trained to respond to the threat of nuclear weapons. Both films seek to reassure the public that preparedness is key. Students in my classes have raised questions about the scientific foundations on which these films were based and compared modern-day propaganda seeking similar objectives. Each of these films also runs less than 10 minutes.


Crisis in Levittown (1957)

    At nearly 30 minutes in length, Crisis in Levittown requires more class time but is time well spent. In this rare documentary , a sociologist’s analysis of Levittown, Pennsylvania, residents’ responses to the arrival of the neighborhood’s first black family is interspersed with footage of interviews with the residents. This film is a great way to connect discussion of 1950s’ suburban life with the civil rights movement. The fact that it took place in a northern state adds layers to the discussion.


I’m constantly seeking new ways to inject energy and enthusiasm into class meetings by supplementing. If you have suggestions for short, primary source videos t on the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, please share!

As a conversation starter on the first day of classes I always ask what my students did during our three month academic break. A summer job or extra hours at their year-round place of employment are the most common answers. Some take a summer class or two, occasionally a student will have traveled somewhere interesting. When they ask me the same question I tend to focus on the fun stuff I did with my family -- concerts, movies, and family bike rides. I generally spare students the reality of what most faculty do during summer break: work.


This summer’s “work” can be broken into three distinct areas: teaching summer courses, preparing fall courses, and getting organized for my upcoming sabbatical. I view the work I do during the summer months as incredibly important because it rejuvenates my courses while also allowing me some mental space to think beyond the day-to-day prep, grading and lectures. So here are some reflections on this summer’s work.


Summer classes at my college are intense at six-weeks in length; barely enough time to cover the material but a sufficient time for me to rethink some of what I cover during the academic year. Often I will use the summer intensive course to try something new. This summer I instituted an additional requirement for my students’ research projects: a draft Works Cited page.


While grading students’ papers at the end of spring semester I was frustrated that in spite of the amount of instruction provided by myself and our reference librarians, the students’ Works Cited pages were poorly executed. In several cases students used an incorrect format (ie, APA instead of MLA), while others chose to ignore my instructions completely and utilize sources that were deemed unacceptable in the assignment instructions (ie, Wikipedia and Although requiring a draft Works Cited page created more grading for me at the outset of the project, I was much happier with the final projects. The draft was due a full two weeks before the project itself and I aimed for a very quick (24 hour) turnaround with comments for students. In the cases where problems were discovered, students then had two days to submit a new draft.  I’m planning to continue this practice with my fall semester students because I was so pleased with the overall quality of the projects, even though they were completed in a condensed period of time.


I spent a lot of time prepping for fall classes during the summer. Most important in this process was revisiting my syllabi and trying to discern the meaning behind the handwritten notes I kept about assignments that did not work as intended. My last blog discussed how I plan to make changes to my US I syllabus in light of rethinking how I cover the American Revolution. In upcoming blogs I will share additional changes to my US I and II syllabi.


I was most excited this summer to organize and plan for my spring sabbatical. The semester off from teaching will be my first in more than ten years and I want to make the most of it. My research will focus on care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century. I was able to spend some time finalizing where I will conduct my research and reviewing secondary literature. Most fruitful, however, was my contact with the local historical societies in towns where state institutions were located. I was reminded this summer of how many talented historians are hard at work in the historical society buildings we regularly pass by in our daily lives. My interaction with these professionals has motivated me to think more about what I could be doing in my classroom to better connect students to the local history near my college.


All in all, it was both a relaxing and a productive summer, which I hope has rejuvenated my mind, body and spirit for the semester of teaching ahead!


How about you? What did you do over your summer vacation?

In my August 1st blog I reflected on the challenge of relating pre-twentieth century US history topics to today’s college students. In part I blame my past difficulties in this area on the fact that I’m personally more interested in 20th-century history. It’s easier for me to get excited about teaching topics that I have invested time researching. No doubt my depth of knowledge in those areas translates into a more passionate approach to teaching the subjects, which then generates greater enthusiasm from the students.


If only I could stick to teaching only those topics that interest me most, right?


The reality of teaching history at a community college is that I am one of two full-time professors of US history at my institution. Although his field of specialization is the 18th and 19th centuries, we both teach all facets of US history depending on the semester-by-semester needs of our department.


As I’ve been thinking about this coming semester, and the challenge of teaching two sections of US History I, I’ve turned to the web for some new ideas and inspiration on the topic I find most difficult to teach: the American Revolution. This week’s blog will share some of what I’ve  found as I searched the web for alternative strategies.


In previous iterations of US History I, my approach to the American Revolution has been largely narrative and chronological. In retrospect I can’t blame the students for finding this method less than exciting. This time around, therefore, I’ve decided to have the students complete an introductory reading on the entire period cumulatively, and then I will focus the lecture/discussion on a few specific areas: documents/artifacts, economic boycotting, and African Americans during the War.


My students will use their textbook, Understanding the American Promise (Macmillan), to introduce the general concepts and chronology of the period. Students in my survey courses read textbook chapters in preparation for class and take an online quiz ahead of our class meeting using LaunchPad  (Macmillan).


In addition to textbook reading this semester I will also assign this new-to-me interactive timeline developed by the Museum of the American Revolution. Since my first area of study will be documents and artifacts, the timeline will not only reinforce the chronology of the war years but also supplement the textbook reading with additional visual evidence of the period. In particular, I want the students to think about kinds of artifacts have been preserved -- weapons, powder horns, written documents, kitchen wares, even door handles -- as well as what is missing.


There are many websites that enable students to examine written documents from the era of the Revolution. In particular I like The Coming of the American Revolution 1774-1776 by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Since one of my goals is an in depth discussion of the economic issues surrounding the war, this site’s section on Non-Importation and Non-Consumption is particularly useful. In previous semesters my best class discussions relating to the Revolution have come from student interaction with the primary sources included on the MHS website, especially “An Address to the Ladies.”


The third area on which I want to focus is the lives of African Americans during the war. Of particular importance is helping students to understand the vast differences in experience faced by black Americans depending upon their legal status and their geographic location. Colonial Williamsburg hosts a website that addresses some of the challenges faced by slaves in the Revolutionary War era. See, for example, “Fighting … Maybe for Freedom but Probably Not” and Finding Slaves in Unexpected Places.   


I continue to search for resources on the northern slave experience during the war years. I’m hopeful that combing through the many online resources related to the history of New England during the war years will help me to broaden my students’ understanding of what it meant to be a slave in the North in this era. Suggestions welcome!