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If there was one thing I did not expect to make an appearance in my blue-state neighborhood during the COVID-19 pandemic it was the Confederate flag. There it was, however, unmistakably adorning the front of a neighbor’s house. Thankfully, this unwelcome visitor stayed only for the weekend. As suddenly as it appeared, it was gone.

 

As a historian the sight of the Confederate flag hanging in any capacity other than as a relic in a museum is disturbing. To see it on display in my suburban neighborhood set off a maelstrom of questions in my mind, the most obvious being: what exactly are my neighbors seeking to express with such a display? I am not personally acquainted with these neighbors and have no knowledge of any specific connection they might have to the Confederacy. The fact that the flag appeared for the first time this past weekend leads me to assume that they were expressing frustration over the slow process of re-opening our state’s economy in the wake of the current pandemic. A quick Google search finds numerous examples of people protesting the COVID-19 business shut downs by symbolically embracing the flag of the Confederacy: protesters in Wisconsin displayed the flag at anti-quarantine rallies as did those in Ohio and Michigan

 

I live in Massachusetts where we have a very popular Republican governor, Charlie Baker, and are represented in the Senate by one of that body’s most liberal Democrats, Elizabeth Warren. And yet, even here in notoriously liberal Massachusetts -- home to some of the most prominent hospitals and universities in the world -- there are people paying homage to the racist sentiments of the old-time South while claiming to argue for their personal “rights.” 

 

I teach my students that the sight of the Confederate flag should immediately conjure up images of slavery, discrimination, and violence. In class we discuss the historical connections between Confederate veterans and the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. In 2020, however, white Americans in cities and towns across the country are clinging to the flag as symbolic of their violated rights -- as if being required to wear a cotton face mask into the grocery store can in any way be compared to the conditions that led to the American Civil War.

 

As historians it is our duty to ensure that students truly understand the meanings of these symbols from the past and do not accept reinterpretations to fit modern-day circumstances. Just this week we have witnessed a horrifying example of police brutality that reveals to us, once again, that our national history of racism is, in fact, not in the past. Coming on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery’s senseless murder in Georgia earlier this month, the death of George Floyd at the hands of white Minnesota police offices reminds us again, painfully, that racism in the United States is not a past or historical topic: it continues today to plague our cities and towns North, South, East, and West. 

 

We, as history teachers, must ensure that our curriculum makes it abundantly clear to students that racism and racially-based violence are not topics to be relegated to the month of February. When today’s students see news coverage of protesters embracing the flag of the Confederacy to express their pandemic-related economic frustrations, they must immediately recognize that the choice to display such a flag represents more than anger about face masks and stay-at-home orders. One hundred and sixty years after the birth of the Confederacy, the flag still represents ignorance and racism. 

Happy International Museum Day

 

International Museum Day, in my opinion, is like the MET Gala but for museums around the world. Every year, museums plan for events and activities to promote the theme of the year: this year’s theme is “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion”¹. 

 

Want to learn more about what museums from around the world are doing

Click here to see what museums from around the world are doing on this day/week: https://livemap.getwemap.com/iframe.php?emmid=12548&token=45DMVKFY0FBGF93I788OQ63HQ#/search@43.7014420,7.2784980,2.00

 

Below are some events that I think are interesting. In addition,I have also included a webinar that Macmillan had hosted on how to make your online classroom more inclusive.

 

The George Washington Museum and The Textile Museum, ‘Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell’: https://museum.gwu.edu/virtual-cinema-kindred-spirits

 

Canadian Museum for Human Rights, “Short films, a live presentation” https://humanrights.ca/event/short-films-a-live-presentation

 

Macmillan Learning, “5 Ways to Make Your Online Classroom More Inclusive” https://community.macmillan.com/events/1477-webinar-5-ways-to-make-your-online-classroom-more-inclusiveWebinar: 5 Ways to Make Your Online Classroom More Inclusive

 

Interested in taking a virtual tour of museums? Google lets you take a virtual tour of some of the most iconic museums from around the world: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/10-top-museums-you-can-explore-right-here-right-now/igKSKBBnEBSGKg

 

1. International Council of Museums, "The theme 2020 – Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion", The theme 2020 - Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion - IMD - IMD 

Spring semester ended officially today when I submitted my students’ final grades. No doubt the remnants of our experiences teaching during the pandemic will carry over into the fall semester. For the moment, however, I will focus on the positives of having survived this challenging semester! I cannot remember a time in my teaching career when I have so desperately longed for the positive energy of daily interactions with students and co-workers.

 

I teach two upper-level courses that meet entirely online and have final research projects instead of exams. Since the students use digital library resources for these projects -- and these students had started the semester in a fully-online course -- I was not at all concerned about their preparedness to complete the courses.

 

The students about whom I truly worried when the stay-at-home-orders went into effect were those who started on campus and then had to abruptly switch to online. If I were to make a non-scientific judgement based solely on the fact that the majority passed their final exams, I would say the semester was a success in spite of the significant change. The eight weeks we spent in the classroom before the pandemic provided enough time for the majority of them to feel comfortable and stay motivated to continue in an online format. I did my best to keep practices consistent with what I did in the classroom with one major change: no synchronous lectures or exams.

 

In all, exams during the COVID-19 pandemic were rather anticlimactic. Usually I am helping students prepare by meeting with them individually or in small groups at my office to organize their notes and review content. This semester, however, there were no such meetings and very few students asked questions via email in preparation for the final. I think for many students the desire to get the semester “over with” influenced their reluctance to do any extra preparation for exams. The option to change to pass/fail from a letter-grading system was also, no doubt, attractive to some students.

 

Rather than the spring semester ending with commencement exercises and the excitement of my community college students transferring to four-year colleges, this semester ended with a whimper: no big celebration, no congratulatory hugs, and no end-of-the-year faculty lunch. 

 

The greatest challenge for me now that this difficult semester has ended is figuring out how to get motivated for the fall semester with so many looming unknowns. How are you feeling about the end of spring 2020? What are your greatest concerns for teaching in the fall? Will we be on campus or remote? How will our enrollments be affected by COVID-19 and its dramatic economic impact? Will you be adding any new topics to your history courses to help students better understand the COVID-19 pandemic?

 

Share your thoughts and stay healthy.

28 years ago today marked the beginning of one of the most prolific events in American History: the LA riots. Five days of civil unrest led to numerous assaults, property damage, and race relations deteriorated drastically. But, how did this all begin? For years, there was always tension building up between multiple ethnic groups, and the government, but what really sparked the riot was the Rodney King trial.

 

On April 29 1992, people eagerly waited for the verdict on the trial of Rodney King. The trial was to decide whether the court should indict four white officers who were charged for assaulting Rodney King, an African American, after they had pulled him over for speeding through a highway and for trying to dodge the officers¹. Before the trial began, it was already problematic. Of the twelve jurors who had served on the trial, nine of them were white, none of them were African American².

 

Three hours after the court acquitted the officers, people started rioting: businesses were robbed and destroyed, and white Americans as well as light-skinned Latinos became became targets³. In addition, the LA riots also involved the Korean community, which already had a tense relationship with the African American community. Around the same time as the Rodney King incident, a Korean store clerk shot and killed a 15 year of African American who they had thought was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice⁴. 

 

Race relations in the United States continue to be in flux, often meandering between many high and low points. Even in a city as diverse as New York City is not exempt from this problem. Growing up in New York City, I’ve had the benefit of experiencing one the city’s most valuable assets--its diverse community. But, despite this, communities in New York City continue to struggle to build a strong relationship with one another, and especially with the government. For example, under “Stop and Frisk”, one of the most controversial policies in New York City, a majority of the people who were stopped were African American and Hispanic⁵. Even if it wasn’t their intent to target those groups, given the long complicated relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, it’s hard to not feel like they were being targeted. Pernicious policies such as this continue to have an everlasting impact on those affected and it is a part of the legacy of those who fail to curtail it. In this case, it was former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who had supported the policy, but he has since backtracked when presidential candidates derided him on the efficacy of this policy during the Democratic debates⁶.

 

Communities that are in close proximity to one another that are vastly different from one another often clash. Speaking from my own experience having grown up in a community that is mixed with Chinese, Italians, Jews, and Hispanics, something that can be considered normal in one group can be perceived as an offensive slight to someone else. Cultural and language barriers, as well as socio-economic status, often prevent people from building the relationships that are integral to the well being of the entire neighborhood, which creates racial enclaves where people are socially closed off from outsiders of their group.

 

Ultimately, I believe that all groups must come together to have a hard discussion about what their needs are and how they can work together to create policies that are beneficial to all groups involved. During my tenure working for a few social services nonprofits, something that stood out to me was having community leaders and representatives work closely with government officials to address the needs of the neighborhood. 

 

Additionally, one thing that I thought was beneficial was to have community events. In my old neighborhood, there were frequent block parties where all local residents, and those outside of it, gathered to enjoy the festivities and get to actually build relationships with one another. This is by no means a panacea to the problem, but I believe that it is one of the many ways we can build a positive relationship with members of the community.

 

 

  1. The Associated Press, “Rodney King riot: Timeline of key events”. The Associated Press, 2017. https://apnews.com/fa4d04d8281443fc8db0e27d6be52081/Rodney-King-riot:-Timeline-of-key-events
  2. Serrano, Richard A., Lozano, Carlos V., “Jury Picked for King Trial; No Blacks Chosen”, Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1992, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-03-03-mn-2987-story.html
  3. Bates, Anjuli, Bates, Karen Grigsby, “When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots”, NPR, April 26, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots
  4. Ibid.
  5. Southall, Ashley, Gold, Michael, “Why ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ Inflamed Black and Hispanic Neighborhoods”, The New York Times, February 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/17/nyregion/bloomberg-stop-and-frisk-new-york.html
  6. Ibid.

For me, and no doubt many others in the Macmillan Community, staying motivated since the widespread social distancing orders and campus shutdowns began in March has been extremely difficult. I’d love to be able to say that I’ve used extra time at home gained from not commuting to write or to read. Instead I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time keeping track of how many weeks it has been since I was last in my campus office (seven) and how long it has been since I had my haircut by a professional (seventy days). Some of the things I never thought I could miss -- a student walking into class after I had started lecture and asking a question I had already addressed -- are now the mundane normalcy I long for.

 

When it was clear that I would have to move classes from on-campus to online, I made a few changes to my syllabi. I had intended for students in one class, for example, to be using books and other library reference materials (not online) for an end-of-semester project. The closing of our campus as well as public libraries meant changing the assignment drastically to accommodate the students while still meeting the academic demands of the course. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can only do my best with the situation that all of us faculty face in this pandemic. I’ve said much the same to students who have been in touch about work and family issues that are significantly hampering their ability to complete the semester. 

 

This week, then, I want to find some positive areas on which to focus amidst this scary and depressing academic semester. There are some interesting assignments and projects being created by historians in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that are helping me to stay interested in the larger challenge of historical memory that will be so critical to future generations. Here are just three examples: 

 

The Washington Post last week highlighted an assignment created by University of Central Florida adjunct faculty member Kevin Mitchell Mercer in which students were asked to write about an artifact from 2020 that historians could use a century from now to tell the story of the pandemic. The Twitter discussion that followed the newspaper's coverage of Mercer’s assignment provides some insight into how our students are struggling with this major disruption in their academic and personal lives and will be valuable to future historians studying the social implications of the pandemic. 

 

In light of the intense focus now placed on 1918, the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE) has put out a call for fellow historians to more fully document the history of the 1918 pandemic. SHGAPE will publish contributions by historians and other academics as blog entries intended to expand understanding of the 1918 pandemic while we grapple with the current crisis. Interested researchers from any field should visit this link

 

Finally, the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy seeks public participation in its effort to document the experiences of Americans in pharmacies during this pandemic. The organization invites the public to “share your pharmacy stories, photos, videos, artifacts, and other documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic.” For more information visit the Project’s web site https://aihp.org/collections/aihp-covid19-project/

 

The advertising industry keeps reminding us that we are “all in this together.” So what are you doing to keep yourself intellectually motivated during this difficult time? Are you planning for summer and fall classes or simply trying to get through the end of spring semester? Please share!

Although I’ve been working with college students now for more than twenty years, this semester has been unlike any we in academia have experienced in the past.

 

A few years back, during a particularly difficult New England winter, my college canceled school on three consecutive Mondays because of snow storms. That semester one of my US History II classes met only on Mondays for 2½ hours. Very few students in the class had internet in their homes so most relied on the college computing center for WiFi and technology access. I remember being flustered at how far off the syllabus we were when the semester finally ended in May. 

 

Here, in the spring 2020, however, we have clumsily converted our on-campus courses to fully online. I say clumsily because most faculty had a week or less to figure out how to best implement changes to on-campus practices in an online environment. For my colleagues at a community college we faced the enormous challenge of insufficient internet and technology access by our students. In the face of this pandemic we have been fortunate that our college has the resources to lend materials to students and help them gain short-term home access to WiFi.

 

Since hindsight is, of course, 20/20, I thought it would be helpful this week to acknowledge three simple things I wish I had known and/or done in January 2020: 

 

  • Students must have a library orientation during the first weeks of the semester. Usually we venture to the library as a class after the midterm for guidance on research projects. Had I taken this step earlier in the semester, however, more of my students would have been comfortable accessing library materials from home when the COVID-19 closures began, which would have made certain assignments easier to integrate.

 

  • Students must have everything they need for the entire semester at the start. In the past I have been really lax with students when it comes to getting copies of supplementary readings (novels, memoirs, etc). Oftentimes on the first day of class I will say something to the effect of: “You do not need a copy of this novel until late March.” Not anymore. Lesson learned the hard way as I currently have students unable to get access to library materials and unable to afford to purchase books online because of COVID-19-related loss of income.

 

  • Students must be able to download and upload materials to/from our learning management system. My on-campus students generally pass in written work in printed form. I’m learning from this semester’s experience that many of those students who choose to never take online classes do not actually know how to upload their work as an email attachment or to a learning management system’s drop box. This fall I plan to have every on-campus student submit a one-paragraph autobiography to me via our LaunchPad dropbox as a low-stakes assignment. In turn, they will be downloading my autobiography. I’m hoping to quickly identify anyone who may need extra help with our online tools as the semester is starting.

 

Given the speed at which we were forced to move from on-campus to fully online, these three simple tasks completed at the start of the semester might have helped my students and me transition with less stress. As educators we already need to be adaptable in unexpected situations. The COVID-19 crisis has shown us how important it is for us to prepare for big-picture crisis management. While we are fortunate to have the option to continue working with our on-campus students through online platforms, we still need to work together to find ways to make the process seamless in the future.

In his blog post, "Model Voice-Overs," Eric Nelson draws from his experience teaching online to share his perspective on transitioning the world history survey course from a face-to-face to an online Eric Nelsonenvironment. In particular, Eric discusses how he has used brief, focused podcasts to guide his students through their reading -- and how these podcasts can be embedded in the e-book in LaunchPad to bring together a combination of the text, commentary, and other activities to engage students.  For instructors moving online for the first time, check out Eric's advice for getting started with podcasts using the most important aspects of your current live lectures.

 

Read the full article here on the World History Association's blog.

Eric Nelson is a WHA Executive Council member and co-author of Ways of the World.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

As Black History Month comes to a close, I think it's important that we remember that learning about Black history shouldn't be confined to the month of February; it is imperative that we continue to learn and understand the contributions Black Americans have made in the United States.

Here is a list of great books and videos to learn more:

 

Read

  1. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet A. Jacobs
  2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
  3. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  4. Beloved, by Toni Morrison 
  5. Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
  6. The 1619 Project, by The New York Times
  7. Chocolate Me!, by Taye Diggs 
  8. Becoming, by Michelle Obama
  9. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  10. Chasing Space: An Astronaut's Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances by Leland Melvin
  11. I am Perfectly Designed, by Karamo Brown
  12. 28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World, by Charles R. Smith Jr.

 

  1. The Dangers of Whitewashing Black History | David Ikard | TEDxNashville
  2. Talks to celebrate Black History Month
  3. BlacKkKlansman
  4. Freedom Riders

   5. Quincy

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

January 25, 2020 is an important day for Chinese people: it’s the beginning of the Chinese New Year. But, what makes this new year more special than every other new year is that it’s the beginning of a new cycle. As we finish up the year of the pig, the 12th and last animal in the zodiac cycle, the start a new cycle with the very first animal in the Chinese zodiac--the year of the rat.

 

There are various stories on how the Chinese zodiac came to be. One of the most popular stories is about the race orchestrated by the Jade Emperor. In short, the Jade Emperor asked 13 animals to partake in a race and their placement in the race will determine the order of the zodiac¹. Because the rat was the first one to win the race, the first animal in the zodiac cycle begins with the rat. As for the 13th animal, there are various reasons why the cat is not part of the zodiac. The one I heard growing up was that the rat tricked the cat to cross a river to test the currents and it nearly drowned. That is also why cats and rats are enemies and it’s why cats hate water.

 

In contrast to the more lighthearted story of the Chinese zodiac, the story about Chinese New Year is darker. According to Britannica, there was a monster named Nian (meaning “year” in Chinese) that would attack and eat villagers every year². But, villagers fought back: people wore red because Nian was afraid of bright colors, and they lit fireworks because it was afraid of loud noises. This practice still occurs in China: to celebrate the new year, people still wear bright colors like red and gold and light firecrackers to ward off bad luck and evil.

 

Every Chinese family celebrates Chinese New Year in a different way, but there are some common practices:

  • Wearing red and gold/yellow clothing to usher the new year with good luck and auspiciousness
  • Having a giant banquet with family members with vegetarian/vegan options since many people opt out from eating animal products on this day.
  • Giving red envelopes with money inside. People avoid giving amounts that have the number “4” in it because the number is a homonym for the Chinese word “to die”.

 

For me, Chinese New Year is about representation. Despite growing up in a liberal city, I often felt neglected when it comes to learning more about my heritage and even more so when celebrating it. Chinese New Year was not a recognized holiday, taking a day off from school counted against me. When I was a student, I often asked my teachers to include a lesson plan on Asian American history and our contributions to society. More often than not, I got a quick lesson on the Transcontinental Railroad. But, we are more than just our hardships; Asian Americans have made large contributions to society and in American policy, most notably in the Supreme Court Case: United States v. Wong Kim Ark³

 

With the start of the new cycle and the new year, I can’t help but reflect on how much has changed in the last 12 years when the current cycle began. 12 years ago there were fields that were difficult, if not impossible for Asian Americans to break into. And yet, we continue to make strides to break through the bamboo ceiling. In cinema, Nora Lum known to many as Awkwafina, became the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for her role in The Farewell; Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Alphabet, the parent company of Google; and as of today, we currently have two presidential candidates who are of Asian descent: Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard. I am both confident and refreshed in knowing that our collective efforts in challenging the status quo is making a difference. I cannot wait to see what the new crop of Asian American trailblazers will do for the next generation of leaders.

 

Footnotes

  1. BBC. “Why a pig is the last animal in the Chinese Zodiac.” BBC.com. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/articles/zd9nd6f
  2. Tikkanen, Amy. “Chinese New Year.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tano
  3. Oyez. “United States v. Wong Kim Ark.” Oyez.org

https://www.oyez.org/cases/1850-1900/169us649

Suzanne McCormack

(Extra) Help Wanted

Posted by Suzanne McCormack Expert Jan 22, 2020

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

   

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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