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A third of the way into the film “Gangs of New York” (Miramax, 2002) my son asked if we could choose something else to watch. The time period, he argued, was “boring and bland.” He had already lost interest in the story. For the sake of relevance here I will leave debate about the merits of “Gangs of New York” as a film and piece of historical fiction to the experts and focus on what this conversation meant for me as a history professor.


Sadly, I cannot help but think that the perspective my eighteen-year-old expressed from our couch in the middle of summer was not unlike that shared in recent semesters by students in US History survey courses. It can be difficult for students to draw connections between our technologically-driven lives today and a time when there were no automobiles or televisions or smart phones. What made this conversation all the more significant to me is that my son is only weeks away from himself being a college freshman. Dozens of students just like him will soon populate my courses.


           As we approach the start of a new academic year I’m thinking a lot about the challenge of connecting these students to the non-digital and non-technical world of our past. As historians we are often poor judges of what might be engaging to students because we find the subject matter inherently interesting. What can we do to get them excited and engaged about topics that seem remote to their 21st-century lives? Are there pre-1900 topics that have connected particularly well with your students? Or, how about topics that you no longer cover in the survey because today’s students do not find them relevant?


           This week I’ve posted a poll to help guide future blog topics. I’ve included several (general) topics with which I have struggled to engage student interest and discussion. I’m hoping to tackle the practical challenges of these topics in coming blogs. Please participate in the poll and share your ideas in the comments section below.


Which topic do you find most difficult to teach to today's students? 

     In an editorial for the Washington Post published earlier this week former First Lady Laura Bush compared images of children being separated from their parents by the Department of Homeland Security to scenes from the home front during World War II: “These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.” Her reference reiterates the importance of helping our students to understand historical time and place. As we witness the public outcry over the current administration’s policies towards families seeking to enter the United States, it is a meaningful moment to consider ways in which we can connect students’ thinking about current events to the historical eras we cover in class. Engaging them in discussion of public opinion, past and present, is a great way to stimulate conversation. Here are just a few examples of ways in which the home front of the World War II era offers fruitful connections to current events.  


National Interests versus Human Rights


Ask students to think about the United States’ role as a world leader and military power during the Second World War: did our leadership require that our nation hold itself to a higher standard of morals? What responsibility did our leaders have to the nation’s citizens and did that responsibility eclipse responsibilities to the men and women of other nations? How did economic debates factor into political decisions? Ask students to apply those same questions to modern-day political issues.  


Students can think about these questions through the historical lens of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust and through the contemporary example of how the United States is responding to refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged nations. On the web, ask students to visit The Jewish Virtual Library to learn about the Wagner-Rogers Bill. The excellent, though somewhat dated, PBS series The Great Depression (see Episode 6 “To Be Somebody”) contains a short segment on how public opinion influenced President Roosevelt’s decision to not support an expanded refugee program in 1939, which can easily be shared in class through YouTube.




The debate over immigration will likely continue to rage into the fall semester. Ask students to think about how their opinions are being shaped by both the news media and the government. What sources do they find credible? How might they seek out additional sources to challenge their long-held beliefs?


Milton Eisenhower, head of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), narrated the short-film “Japanese Relocation” which was presented to the public in 1943 to explain internment. I use this 9 minute piece as a staple of my discussion of World War II. Eisenhower offered viewers a succinct explanation for government policy broadcast over images of relocation in progess. As they watch, ask students to weigh the pros/cons of Eisenhower’s argument. Today’s students --  comfortable with questioning government policies and pronouncements -- are able to poke holes into Eisenhower’s justification of Executive Order 9066 with surprisingly little background information. My students have expressed particular interest in Eisenhower’s argument that the US Government was “protecting” those of Japanese descent. Use this short film in conjunction with the National Archives site “Japanese Relocation and Internment” which provides images and lesson plans.


Political Cartoons


In virtually every print or web-based news source today we can find visual analysis of current events.  “Daily Cartoon” (New Yorker) and are good places to start for opposing (liberal v. conservative) viewpoints. Most daily newspapers contain at least one editorial cartoon. Ask students to bring cartoons of interest to class and allocate the first five minutes to sharing.


My students have enthusiastically studied the World War II-era cartoons of Theodore Geisel (aka, Dr. Seuss) using the web collection Dr. Seuss Went to War  (University of California at San Diego). The site is indexed both chronologically and thematically making it accessible for discussion of nearly any topic for the period 1941 to 1943. Ask students to consider Geisel’s depictions of the Japanese versus those of Germans and Italians. How do modern-day cartoonists depict people of color or people who are not American?


These are just a few ideas I’ve been thinking about as I watched and read the news over the past week. If you have additional ideas to link current events to any historical era or topic, please share!

Suzanne McCormack

Turn Up the Music

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Jun 5, 2018

As of June 5 the music video for “This is America” by Childish Gambino (aka, Donald Glover) has been viewed more than 239 million times on YouTube. The New York Times, NPR, Variety, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and Rolling Stone, among others, have dedicated web and/or air space to discussion of the artist’s vision of race relations in twenty-first-century America. As politically-charged music/popular culture released in 2018, the reach of “This is America” is unparalleled. Had this video been released earlier in the semester I have no doubt that my students would have discussed it in class as it offers a great starting point for a discussion of modern-day politics, including race relations and the debate over gun culture.


The wide reach of Glover’s work should make all classroom teachers pause a moment to think about the mediums we use in our classrooms and whether they are truly reaching our students. Over the last twenty years of college teaching I have accumulated hundreds of images to use with classroom lectures and as assignment prompts. I’ve shown documentary films and video clips of varying lengths. I have not, however, successfully integrated music into my courses. I have not yet figured out how to effectively utilize music (including music videos) as a teaching tool.


Inspired by the public's fascination with “This is America" (and a conversation with my wonderful officemate, a sociologist), I spent some time recently searching the web for college-level assignments that utilize protest music.  Since my courses are a mix of social and political history we spend a lot of time examining public response to political debate, economics, and international events. Music would seem to be a natural addition to these discussions.


The lack-luster results of my web search were not a total surprise to me: the overwhelming majority of politically-themed, music-based assignments shared on the web are for middle and high school students. Either college faculty are not sharing or we do not know where to start.


If, like me, you do not know where to start, here are a couple resources that I will utilize as I plan some new lecture and discussion material for the fall semester:


Lesson Plan: Teaching with Protest Music  Published on the web as part of “The Learning Network: Teaching & Learning with the New York Times” this site offers teachers some background history on musical responses to political events since the early 20th century. Most helpful to a novice like myself, the authors include a thematically-organized list of songs that work well in student assignments.


Protest Music of the Vietnam War is a site developed by Historians for Peace and Democracy in concert with the Peace History Society. The site offers helpful analysis to someone (like myself) new to examining song lyrics and an extensive list of Vietnam War-era music.


Finally, if you have an interesting college-level assignment that involves music (protest or otherwise), I invite you to share it here!

I require students to complete library-based research in all of my history courses. In the past I’ve blogged about a successful project that I assign in US History I and II, which involves historical images and requires students to use a book-length narrative history as well as academic journals to explain historical context (See “Picture This”). Over the years I’ve been very pleased with students’ responses to the project. Based on the students’ submissions I believe that they are learning valuable skills that will be applicable to subsequent college-level research.


This week I’d like to share an assignment that I’ve had less-than-fabulous success with and ask for feedback and suggestions from you, the Macmillan Community. This is an assignment that I use in varying forms in both US Women’s History and in Black History, both of which are 2000-level courses at my college, which means students should have taken at least US I or II before enrolling. For the purpose of this week’s discussion, I will focus on how the project has worked/not worked with students in Black History.


Click here to read my instructions to the students.


I’ll start with the positive. Students have embraced the opportunity to research something of interest in the civil rights movement. Many female students have chosen to study lesser-known female activists. This past semester one of the best submissions was a project on Daisy Bates and her work with the Little Rock Nine. Another student who had briefly visited Selma on a school trip researched the 1965 actions there. Others chose Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party for their topics.


Since they have so many options for their topic choices, all of the students start the project with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We spend seventy-five minutes of class time in the college library getting started with the research by working with a reference librarian. The students are re-introduced to the library’s academic databases (they use the same databases earlier in the semester) and have a refresher demonstration in their use. This time is especially helpful for students who are having a difficult time narrowing down their topic. At the end of this class meeting students commit (in writing) to a topic after which I send them on their way. They have a full month to pull together sources and complete the project on their own, knowing that if they require assistance both myself and our reference librarian are available.


What happens next?


In my experience over the last two years of assigning this project about half of the students meet the general criteria I have set forth for the project with a satisfactory or better result. They understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, make a good effort at proper citations (this assignment is not the first to require citations in this course), and try to make an effective argument about the overall significance of their topic.


The other half, however, fall short of the mark in some significant way. The most profound problem I’ve faced has been the students’ choice of sources. Even with the time in the library and in spite of the instruction that general web materials (Wikipedia and, for example) are not acceptable sources, a handful of students in each class will completely ignore my warnings and use only those unacceptable sources. Even students who have otherwise done well in the course to this point will sacrifice their overall grade by ignoring source requirements.


Next time around, therefore, I’m trying a new approach: I’m requiring students to turn in a draft of their Works Cited page before they write the essay. My hope is that I will catch (and correct) those students using the wrong kinds of sources before they write the research paper. It’s my way of staging an academic intervention. While I’m hopeful that this new requirement will help, I’m also frustrated that so many students are not grasping the value of academic sources.


What are you doing to ensure that all of your students are using appropriate academic sources? Are you experiencing the same kind of struggle I am? Help wanted. Suggestions welcome.

As we enter Final Exams Week I’m already starting to think about what did/did not work this past semester. My efforts to increase content coverage in the US History since 1877 (US II) survey, for example, had mixed results and I’ll be evaluating the syllabus this summer, again, to find space for additional material. This semester I changed from having three in-class exams in US II to only two. I’ll have a better sense of whether that decision was prudent when I grade exams later this week.


Once again this semester my hybrid Black History course ran out of time without a tidy endpoint. We were just starting to cover black power and black nationalism when the semester ended. Current events are often detrimental to content coverage in this course. It never fails that something happens in the outside world that students will connect to a theme or topic from the course. I am always willing to let our discussion stray (at least briefly) from the course topic to some domestic or world event related to Black History. As interesting as those conversations were, now that the semester is over I’m wishing I had managed some of that discussion time differently.


In my courses that are fully online I make regular use of discussion board. I like the way that online discussion provides a space for each student to have a voice. It allows me to get to know the students’ perspectives and provides short samples of their writing before they submit their research projects. Since my hybrid class has one weekly meeting, I’ve had the students focus their independent/online work on learning content so that our in-class time could be used for face-to-face discussion.  


I’m of two minds when it comes to using discussion board in my hybrid course. On the one hand, because the students do see each other in class I want to take advantage of our time together for face-to-face discussion. In previous semesters I have intentionally not used the online discussion board with my hybrid students because I thought it would take away from the quality of in-class discussions. Students might be reluctant to say something because they have already “said” it in the online portion of the course. Or, conversely, they might simply restate ideas that were already addressed in discussion board.


After several semesters of teaching the course this way, however, I’m beginning to wonder if the face-to-face discussions would, in fact, be improved by use of the discussion board. Would it make sense to start discussion of a particular topic online and continue it in class (or vice versa)? In the past I have assigned students films to watch between our meetings with the plan being a group discussion of the film when we are face-to-face. Admittedly, this assignment has not been a success. On a typical day, a handful of students come to class having watched the film while the rest sit quietly and avoid making eye contact during the discussion. Would moving this discussion online as a graded assignment significantly change the dynamic? Currently our class meeting time for this hybrid course is split evenly between lecture and discussion. Would it make sense for me to increase the amount of lecture for the sake of coverage?


As more courses at our college move to hybrid delivery we are grappling with questions about what makes sense in the brick-and-mortar classroom versus online. I’d love for readers to weigh in: how do you breakdown your hybrid courses? What assignments are online and what absolutely must happen in-person in the classroom?

Teaching at a community college has provided me with the opportunity to introduce hundreds of students to the history of American women. One subgroup of women I’ve paid almost no attention to in my teaching, however is that which we call first ladies. I’ve been thinking a lot about our nation’s first ladies lately as a result of news coverage following the recent death of Barbara Bush. First Lady Melania Trump has found herself under near constant microscopic examination by the press since her husband’s election and this scrutiny has only increased this week as she prepares to host her first state dinner.


With the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, I have made a deliberate choice to pay little attention to first ladies in part because I’ve heard from some students that they chose to enroll in women’s history under the (erroneous) assumption that we would talk extensively about first ladies. Prior to taking my course, these students assumed that any focus on women in a history class would be limited to those in high-profile positions. As an historian it is my job to introduce these students to the myriad of ways in which women of all social classes have been historical actors. The press coverage of the Bush memorial service has prompted me to think more broadly about what the stories of these unique women may have to offer to students of women’s history, especially in light of the personal challenges many of these women have faced during their husbands’ time in office.


A quick search for web-based sources on first ladies, however, produced limited academic results. I discovered quickly that while I could secure an image of nearly every first ladies’ inaugural gown online, there does not exist comparable evidence of their political or intellectual pursuits. The National First Ladies Library, for example, provides general biographical information on each US first lady as well as bibliographic sources and lesson plans (disclaimer: I have not tried any of these plans). The site, however, is intended as an introduction to the Canton, Ohio, historical site dedicated to US first ladies and is not equipped for college-level research. The White House Historical Association also offers general biographical information.


A more fruitful search netted a report produced by The George W. Bush Institute in conjunction with The International Center for Research on Women: A Role without a Rulebook: The Influence and Leadership of Global First Ladies by Natalie Gonnella-Platts and Katherine Fritz. This report examines both US and foreign “first ladies” and includes interviews with several.   


So this week I reach out to you, my fellow historians: do you include any discussion of the historical significance of first ladies in your courses? If so, what kinds of sources do you use? Can you recommend any web-based materials to share with students?

As we sprint towards the end of the semester I find myself trying to cover as much post-World War II history as possible. I’ve written previously about the challenges of coverage and this semester is no different. Back in January I revised my syllabus for US History II with the intent of cutting back on certain topics to create more space for others. I have succeeded in some areas and failed miserably in others. Take, for example, the Great Depression: last spring I spent four classes (5 classroom hours) covering the period 1920-1939. Believing this content could be condensed I planned for three class meetings this semester … and then, much to my dismay, I used four.


Now that I’ve (very quickly) covered the Second World War I find myself in another time crunch: how much of the Cold War can I cover without oversimplifying a topic so central to the role of the United States in twentieth-century world history? Since my survey weighs heavily toward social history I need to find a way to provide the students with a succinct introduction to cold war-politics and then shift quickly into a discussion of how the political conditions impacted the home front. In this week’s blog I will share my recent efforts to tackle these challenges.


The first assignment in my abbreviated Cold War study required students to read a textbook chapter and complete an online quiz before coming to class. The multiple-choice quiz was open-book and intended to provide an introduction to key people and terminology.


Next, at our class meeting (75 minutes), we spent the first thirty minutes watching and discussing a dense section of educational film titled “The Cold War Part I: 1945-1961.” My college subscribes to both Kanopy and Films on Demand, which grant faculty and students access to thousands of films. In this case, the first 16 minutes of the film provided visual evidence of the “Big Three” at Yalta and the end of World War II in the Pacific, plus maps explaining the division of Germany and the development of the Marshall Plan. Students listened to brief segments of speeches by Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin.


To facilitate discussion of the film segment I distributed a handout with key terms (See McCormack Handout Cold War) and two images: a European-made poster celebrating the Marshall Plan (“All Colours to the Mast”) and Rube Goldberg’s cartoon “Peace Today” (1948). In post-film discussion I asked the students to come up with definitions of the terms and then to consider Goldberg’s audience and intent. The uncomplicated seesaw metaphor enables a smooth transition from world politics to a consideration of how all of these international tensions impacted day-to-day family life.


Finally, for the last thirty-minutes of class we watched “Red Nightmare” (produced by Warner Bros. in conjunction with the Department of Defense). The Jack Webb-narrated picture introduced to students the concept of how American society was conditioned to fear communism. For my purposes, the idyllic image of suburban family life portrayed by the fictional family was a great transition into our next-meeting’s discussion of gender roles in this era.


I relied more heavily than usual on video for my introduction to the Cold War in part because my recent coverage of the Great Depression has me feeling as if perhaps I need to say less and cover more. One of the greatest challenges of teaching history is that it is easy to get excited about sharing content and forget that -- at least in my case -- the goal is an introduction to subject matter and not exhaustive coverage. What about you? How do you whittle down the Cold War to a day or two of class time? Please share!

One of my favorite assignments to do with my US Women’s History students offers them a hands-on experience with primary sources in a research library. I started doing this assignment after attending a professional conference where an historical society director lamented that college history professors very rarely engage their students with local historical organizations. I returned to my institution determined to find a way for my students to learn more about the work of our state’s largest historical organization, the Rhode Island Historical Society.


To start I contacted the RIHS director who connected myself and a colleague with the organization’s educational outreach coordinator. Together the three of us  brainstormed ways that CCRI students could explore the RIHS collections. We needed to be realistic: our US Women’s History course is a second-year history course that many students take to fill an elective and not because they want to be historians. Professionally I recognized that I could not allow my students to invade the RIHS research room without a clear plan of action. In spite of all the questions I had about whether this idea could work, I was guided by my belief that the research skills that we gain as students of history can be utilized in nearly any occupation. 


With the thoughtful guidance of the RIHS staff we developed a list of topics that would enable students to interact with primary sources in a short period of time. Our goal was that each student would spend approximately two-hours at the RIHS research library (ie, one visit). RIHS sent a representative to meet with our students in the classroom on the day I assigned the project and she was able to introduce them to the policies and procedures of their visit (ie, use of pencils, the need for a picture identification, etc). Here is the assignment we developed: Click here to read the assignment.


Every local historical institution is unique. At RIHS there exists a large collection of women’s diaries that suited the needs of this assignment. Wherever you may be teaching, however, there is likely an organization holding a collection of sources that could provide an introduction to library-based primary source research -- maps, letters, newspapers, speeches, etc. The archivist will be able to determine what makes the most sense. While students were initially resistant to the logistics of doing research at an off-campus location, the RIHS is easily reached via public transportation and was, therefore, accessible to all students. Our students were not charged a fee for use of the archives so there were no financial impediments to their conducting research. These are important factors to consider when identifying a partner organization.


As much as I enjoyed reading the students’ final papers, even more exciting (and useful) was their engaged discussion of the process. Sending my students off campus to do archival research opened their eyes to the work that historians do in a way that in-class coverage of textbook content cannot. If you’re looking for an adventure in research with your students, give this assignment a try!

      President Trump’s derogatory references to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Pocahontas” are a provocative topic for class discussion. Since it is March -- Women’s History Month -- it’s a great time to think about how we can incorporate more women’s history into our survey courses. The Pocahontas/Warren/Trump controversy offers a space for discussion of gender in an historical context, and a starting point for students to consider what they know and don’t know about native women.


When I asked my United States History I students to explain the most recent Pocahontas reference they knew it had something to do with Warren’s controversial claim to Native American heritage, which has been widely criticized. Their knowledge of Pocahontas, however, was limited to the Walt Disney-version. The reality is that for many students in a survey-level US history course Pocahontas is the only Native American women about whom they think they know anything. Their knowledge, in turn, is largely based on Englishman John Smith’s version of events. When the president used her name to attack a political foe he offered another example of a white male claiming ownership of Pocahontas’s story.


We can begin to demystify the story of Pocahontas -- and other Native American women -- by encouraging students to learn some basic facts. The National Women’s History Museum offers a brief introduction to Pocahontas that sets straight some of the commonly-held myths about her brief life and suggests resources for learning more. Asking students to compare recent documentary films such as Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth (Smithsonian Channel) to the popular culture interpretations can be an informative way to evaluate sources while considering how our public understanding of native women in our nation’s history, including Pocahontas, has been shaped by cultural misinterpretations. Once the students have a better sense of who historians believe she was, ask them to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a modern-day politician invoking her name in public discourse.


Suggest to students that they continue to look for women’s history in the news. While it is difficult to incorporate every topic of interest into our US history survey each semester, the daily newspaper can provide prompts for informal discussion that can be quite fruitful. Discussing the Pocahontas reference in class helped to provoke the natural curiosity of some of these students who told me later that they had spent considerable time after class trying to better understand her historical significance. Inevitably their informal research led them to the stories of other native women with whom they were previously unfamiliar. Most importantly, the students were forced to grapple with how twenty-first-century historians can tell accurate stories of seventeenth-century native women’s lives and how politicians can shape those stories to fit their needs. In this era of “fake news,” encouraging student engagement with women’s history may be more meaningful than ever before.

Influenza is generally not at topic we humans like to think about. Just hearing the word “flu” evokes negative connotations of coughing, high fever and body aches -- none of which are pleasant reminders of a misery that nearly every human being has experienced. This year, however, marks the 100th anniversary of the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918. There is no better time than winter 2018 to discuss the historical significance of this outbreak. Here are some resources to get started:


Documentary film is an easy way to introduce the 1918 influenza to students in a US history survey course. I assign the documentary film “Influenza 1918” (PBS) every semester in United States History II because influenza offers me, an historian with no formal training in the history of science or medicine, a bridge to introductory discussion of public health. Students begin to consider the history of vaccinations and the public use of surgical masks and are forced to reconcile the crisis of spreading influenza with the needs of wartime mobilization. I like this particular film for its focus on family histories. There are other documentary films on the 1918 influenza crisis with decidedly greater focus on science including “We Heard the Bells” (US Department of Health and Human Services), which examines the study of flu victims’ remains preserved by their burial in the permafrost.


If there is time for only a brief reading on the topic, historian John Barry’s “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread across America” (Smithsonian Magazine) offers a succinct history of the pandemic in the States. This article may serve as an introduction to larger class discussion that could include documents from the National Archives digital collection, “The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918”. In addition to images, the collection includes reports on the spread of influenza at US military establishments and among Native Americans. Finally,  “Ten Myths About the 1918 Flu Pandemic” by Robert Gunderman (Smithsonian Magazine) provokes students to think not only about the flu as an historic event but also to consider our nation’s memory of the period.


World civilization classes may be enriched by reading Susan K. Kent’s The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 (The Bedford Series in History and Culture). Through a collection of primary sources Kent enables an international study of this pandemic and includes materials from the United States, Europe, parts of Asia, Nigeria, and South Africa.


If, like me, you have struggled in the past with integrating science and medicine into your survey courses, the influenza outbreak of 1918 is a very accessible topic for twenty-first century college students. Since students are already familiar with what it means to be afflicted by the flu, their connection to the subject matter is great, which makes for informative and energetic classroom conversations.


Are there other topics in the history of science and medicine that you have successfully integrated into a survey course? Please share!

At the midpoint of February, “Black History Month,” it makes sense to consider how we as history professors can ensure that black history is a central component of American history and not a subject relegated to the year’s shortest month. Here are some of the things that I have done to incorporate black history into my United States history survey courses year round:


Explore black history textbooks: Compare the table of contents from a black history textbook to that of the general US history textbook you currently use. Look for topics that could broaden content and enliven discussion. While students are often familiar with World War II-era images of “Rosie the Riveter,” for example, they know very little about the “Double V” campaign of the same period. Incorporating such a topic into a US survey’s coverage of World War II creates space for students to examine gender and race comparatively. When students begin to consider the experiences of African-American “Rosies” the conversation broadens to explore the economic challenges faced by women of color.


Research and share: One of the many fabulous things about “Black History Month” (and “Women’s History Month,” etc) is that we are introduced to unfamiliar stories that forge pathways to larger discussion. Consider having students research a topic of interest and then share it (briefly) at the beginning or end of each class meeting. This task can be assigned for any topic in any course. If your class is studying the Great Depression, for example, ask students to Google-search what happened on a given date in the 1930s related to race or gender or the economy. A low-stakes assignment like this one can be graded pass/fail and included in a student’s class participation grade. It’s a great way to get the students talking at the beginning of a class meeting while broadening the content of the course.


Ask students to reflect: The right assignment can act as a conduit for students to recognize and accept black history (or women’s history or LGBTQ history, etc) as American history. An interesting way to do this is to ask them to develop a museum exhibit: Imagine you are curating a three-room exhibit on 19th-century life. Identify three topics that, together, best illustrate a collective view of American society/ politics/economics. I’ve used this prompt in various forms many times as a mid-semester exam question. I give the students the question ahead of time and allow them to group-brainstorm possible topics. Generally students do an excellent job of incorporating race (and gender) into their fictional museums.


In 2018 it is a rare college campus that does not celebrate Black History Month. We as history professors can widen the reach and increase the value of such programming by incorporating black history seamlessly into our US history survey courses every month.





Engaging students in meaningful participation during the first class meetings can be very challenging. At this early stage in the semester as I’m trying to remember students’ names, I am simultaneously working to convince a roomful of strangers to raise their hands and be active members of an academic community. These goals do not always act in sync. This week I will share an assignment that has worked well with my students early on in the semester. What I will describe in this week’s blog is an assignment that I use in a Black History class but which could be adapted for use in virtually any history classroom.


Week one of my Black History course focuses on the Atlantic slave trade, including a brief study of slavery in western African nations and an in depth look at the Middle Passage. At this point in the semester students are becoming familiar with the textbook, Freedom on My Mind,  and our course learning management system. During this week they are assigned the first two chapters of reading in the textbook. Having been introduced to the Atlantic slave trade in their readings, students are instructed to visit the resourceful website developed by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia. The students are then assigned the following tasks:


  1. Open the link for “Explore the Collection”
  2. Select one of the following categories:
    1. “Capture of Slaves & Coffles in Africa”
    2. “European Forts & Trading Posts in Africa”
    3. “Slave Ships & the Atlantic Crossing (the Middle Passage)”
    4. “Slave Sales & Auctions: African Coast & the Americas”
  3. Find one image that you would like to share with the class. The image should speak to some aspect of the slave trade that you found particularly interesting or insightful.
  4. Copy and paste the image to our course Discussion Board. Your thread should be your first name and last initial. Your chosen image must be posted before our next class meeting.
  5. Come to class prepared to explain the image and what specifically about it spoke to you as significant.
  6. Here’s the catch: NO REPEATS. Look carefully at images your classmates have posted and do not post any duplicates.


Prior to the class meeting I keep a running list of the images that students are posting. Since they cannot post a repeat image many students complete the assignment well in advance of the class meeting, which allows me to make notes about whose images will be discussed at which point in the lecture. I am not always able to get through every posted image, but I do get through enough that we are able to have a variety of visual interpretations to discuss. Often times students will offer additional comments when they see an image they had wanted to post but could not because a classmate already had. These are often the most lively parts of the discussion.


There are many, many websites with fabulous visual images that can be incorporated into a similar type of class participation activity. Here are a few of the other sites that I have used with my students: for United States History I try The Met Museum’s Art and Identity in the British North American Colonies, 1700–1776.  For United States History II visit the Brandeis University collection World War I and II Propaganda Posters. Finally, almost any US history discussion can be enhanced by the images available at the Library of Congress site, including photographs from the Civil War and wide-ranging collections that include historic buildings, baseball cards, cartoons, and Depression era photos from the WPA and FSA.  


All things considered, the stakes are low with this assignment. Students receive points for completing the assignment and those points go towards participation, which in my class is only ten-percent of their final grade.  They receive full credit as long as they complete the assignment. From my perspective, however, equally important to the students completion of the assignment is the effort I make to help them feel as comfortable as possible when they are called upon to speak. It is my hope that this assignment will help foster an environment in which students are willing to be active participants in our classroom community for the remainder of the semester.

            As Winter Break draws to a close I find myself revisiting the theme about which I wrote my very first blog for Macmillan Community: how to address a divisive political issue within the context of the undergraduate history classroom. Recently the national debate about immigration was accelerated by controversial comments attributed to the President. I’m anticipating that my students will raise questions about the history of immigration when we resume classes next week so I’d like to share several web-based resources that faculty might use in class or offer to students as a way to talk politics with historical context.


These three websites offer sources for both primary and secondary examination of immigration to the United States. The Population Reference Bureau, in particular, is a fabulous resource for statistical information about the waves of immigration that have occurred over the past two-hundred years.


Library of Congress Immigration: Challenges for New Americans


Harvard University Library Open Collections Program: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930  


Population Reference Bureau “Trends in Migration to the United States”


Once students have a better sense of how important immigration has been to our nation’s history and development, it is critical for them to understand that current attitudes towards immigration are not historically unique. Comparing political cartoons from past eras to what students may find in contemporary news sources is one interesting way to place the debate in context. These two websites share visual examples and resources:


Historical Society of Pennsylvania Anti-Immigration Attitudes


“Analyzing Anti-Immigrant Attitudes in Political Cartoons”  


There has been no shortage of opinion or “perspective” pieces on the topic published in the last several months including Hidetaka Hirota in the Washington Post (January 16, 2018) and Kevin D. Williamson in the National Review (August 6, 2017). I recommend that faculty seek out a variety of perspectives and then allow students to use their developing skills as historians to discuss and analyze.


Time permitting, it is also worthwhile for students examine the homelands of people who came to this country in earlier waves of immigration to compare social, economic and political conditions. Ask students to research conditions in Ireland, Italy, Germany or other nations from which large numbers of men and women entered the United States in the nineteenth century and then compare those conditions to the modern-day regions from which immigrants seek to enter the United States. Then, provide students with resources that consider the impact of immigrants on the communities they join. Historians Marilynn Johnson and Deborah Levenson at Boston College have created Global Boston, a website that offers insight into the history of immigrants in Boston, for example, and shares concrete examples of neighborhoods that have been dramatically influenced by the large immigrant population. Finally, Reimagining Migration contains web-based sources to help educators work with students who have their own migration stories to share.


           Remember, above all, that while immigration is an important historical topic, it is one that may be deeply personal to students. In a typical classroom at my community college, for example, I have a diverse mix of first and second generation Americans seated side-by-side with American-born students whose beliefs about the need for immigration reform have been influenced by their families’ economic insecurities. As humanities faculty we are uniquely positioned to help students on both sides of the debate to see the importance of their shared humanity and their connection to both the past and the future.

The fall semester ended in a flurry of research projects and final exams. Now that the new year has begun I’m reevaluating my fall courses and contemplating changes for the upcoming semester. My teaching load is 5-5 with three course preparations each semester. The only constant in my schedule is that each semester I teach one section of Black History. I reevaluate this course every August and January to assess what did/did not work in the previous semester. For this first blog of the New Year I thought I would share some of my thought process with the Macmillan Community. As always, suggestions welcome!


   During the summer of 2017 there was a marked increase in national debate on the future of Confederate monuments (see my blog from Summer 2017 A Monumental Debate). For fall semester, therefore, I decided to incorporate weekly discussions of articles from the collection Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (edited by James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton) with the idea that students would have the opportunity to talk about the current debate over Confederate monuments while also considering how the institution of slavery has been memorialized in the United States. I was able to locate several short videos from local television news coverage to provide students with examples of how communities around the country were grappling with the issue. Students were very open to discussing the topic of memorials as both a current event and an important component of understanding how Americans reflect upon our national history.  


    Also on the list of “positives” or “keeps” for this past semester was our class discussion of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. We used this novel as the focal point of a series of discussions that began with the ideologies and activism of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ida B. Wells and transitioned into a brief study of the Harlem Renaissance. Students were fascinated by Johnson’s fictionalization of a man “passing,” but also shared personal experiences and observations about whether this concept still holds weight in the twenty-first century.


    On the last day of classes I asked the students for feedback to help me plan for the spring semester. Without hesitation students told me that they wished we had more time in class to focus on the civil rights movement of the post-World War II era. My semester-long plan for the fall had centered around an independent study on a twentieth-century civil rights topic of their choice, which culminated in a final research project. Although the students seemed genuinely excited to focus on a topic of personal interest related to civil rights, the specific requirements of the assignment kept us from the kind of detailed discussion of the 1950s and 1960s that I usually undertake with the students in class. In other words, my assignment required a lot of outside reading that took away from the time they had to focus on meeting-specific content.


    For the spring semester, therefore, I’m scaling back the independent research project and adding to our syllabus Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s A Brief History with Documents edited by David Howard-Pitney. I chose this text in large part because 3 of 15 students in the class chose to study Malcolm X for their independent projects, and 2 chose King. As much as I want to engage students in a greater understanding of the lesser-known men and women who built the civil rights movement, they remain fascinated by these two enormous figures. I welcome the opportunity to use Howard-Pitney’s work to ground their interest in primary sources.


    As I plan for the end of January I would love to hear from other faculty about the kinds of reflection they undertake when a semester ends. Are you making incremental changes or tossing out the syllabus to start fresh? Please share. Happy New Year!





Recently I attended a conference session where a moderator asked audience members to share suggestions for documentary films that have worked particularly well in humanities classes. The lively conversation that followed got me thinking about what I use and why. A cursory look through my syllabi reveals that I really like showing films. Truth be told, I have a difficult time limiting the amount of class time I allot to film viewing because there are so many fabulous documentaries available. A great story, told effectively through documentary film, can move even a quiet student to participate in discussion  This week I thought I would offer suggestions of films I use in my United States History to 1877 course in hopes that other history professors will share their favorites as well.


Slavery and the Making of America (PBS) This four-part series chronicles the history of slavery in the United States from seventeenth-century Dutch New Amsterdam until the era of Reconstruction. I introduce my students to slavery by showing Episode 1: The Downward Spiral early in the semester in conjunction with a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade during which we use primary sources from the web site The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record. The film is particularly effective in helping the students to see the way in which the institution of slavery evolved over time and how regional concerns (weather, soil, crops, etc) influenced the characteristics of slavery in different parts of the colonies. Students are particularly struck by the story of John Punch and remember it long after we have moved on from discussing the colonial era.


We Shall Remain: America Through Native Eyes (PBS) is a five-part series that examines the history of the United States through the perspectives of people native to North America. Although each episode is lengthy (approximately 90 minutes) I have shown segments of the film with great success. In particular I use Episode 2: Tecumseh’s Vision to examine the grave challenges faced by native people in the wake of the American victory in the Revolutionary War. This film forces students to consider the consequences of the war for people on the frontier and to evaluate the condition of native tribes at the start of the nineteenth century. For an historian such as myself with no formal training in Native American history, the series is extremely valuable as a supplement to lectures and discussion.


African-American Lives (PBS)  This Henry Louis Gates, Jr., series originally aired in 2006 and was expanded in subsequent iterations. I like the 2006 episodes in particular because they demonstrate the historical process. In the episode Searching for Our Names students are introduced to the concepts of genealogical and archival research. They learn about “slave schedules” and the role that wills, marriage, birth and death records can play in helping us to recover history. Concrete examples of human beings as property are profoundly illustrated as the series’ subjects (Oprah Winfrey and astronaut Mae Jemison, among others) learn of their families’ direct connections to slavery.


I have show segments of many other documentary films in United States to 1877 but these are the three films that I feel add the greatest value to my teaching of the first-half of the survey. What are you showing your students? What has worked and why?