The first woman elected vice president, Kamala Harris, is also the first person of Indian descent and the first African-American elected to the position. Her husband, Doug Emhoff, will be the first “second gentleman.” The fact that this historic moment meets us in the year of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment provides a rare opportunity to allow our students to look at the evolution of politics and gender roles over the period of exactly a century. One of the simplest but most memorable lessons a history professor taught me during my undergraduate years was not to assume that change in the face of a tumultuous event would be permanent. Case in point: white women and black Americans saw significant gains in wages during World War I. When the war ended, however, they found themselves relegated once again to low-paying service jobs. Change, therefore, is a gradual process. Women were able to vote in 1920 but it would be many more years until they were respected as a voting block. There is still no Equal Rights Amendment and the regulation of women’s bodies is a consistent topic of debate in national elections. In the shadow of the 2020 election, for this week’s short writing assignment, I’m asking students in my US Women’s History and Black History classes to identify the specific changes that they believe led us to this historic moment. Here is my assignment: Think about the concepts of historical cause and effect: identify three moments in our nation’s history that, in your opinion, had to happen for a bi-racial woman to be elected vice president of the United States. In other words, without these three moments/events the historic change brought by last week’s election could not have happened. For each moment/event that is identified, explain briefly how it contributed to Harris’s election. (200-300 words) I’m *hoping* that my students will have a difficult time narrowing down the influential factors to three. For this assignment, however, I do not intend for there to be right or wrong answers. Instead, I want them to think about the continuum of change and to see Harris’s election as a step in the process of development that has occurred as our comparatively young nation continues to mature. I look forward to sharing the students’ perspectives in a future blog. How are you working with students to understand the historical significance of this election year? Please share.
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Election day is a few days away and this year's election is one of the most contentious. With Covid-19 entering its second wave, voters are not only changing how they vote, but who they are voting for. In some states like Pennsylvania, the gap has become narrower and the proposed winner will presumably claim victory by razor thin margins. One poll from Reuters even indicated that in some states North Carolina and Florida, the difference between the two are neck-to-neck with North Carolina being 49% for Biden and 48% for Trump, and Florida with 49% for Biden and 47% for Trump¹.
With the election coming to a close, several prolific politicians like Elizabeth Warren have expressed interest in abolishing the electoral college². One argument for abolishing the system is that there is an inherent risk that the Electoral College will over-represent the views of a minority due to its structure³ .
Winning the popular vote but losing the electoral vote has happened before: four years ago in one of the biggest upsets in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million but lost the election⁴. This had happened again with Al Gore and Bush in the 2000 election with Al Gore winning the 540,000 vote lead in the popular vote but lost he still lost the election⁵.
For more information on why people are for or against the Electoral College, check out this great article from pew that gives a comprehensive breakdown: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/13/a-majority-of-americans-continue-to-favor-replacing-electoral-college-with-a-nationwide-popular-vote/
1.Lange, Jason. “Trump Pulls Statistically Even with Biden in Florida; Arizona Is a Dead Heat: Reuters/Ipsos.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 28 Oct. 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-battlegrounds-poll/trump-pulls-statistically-even-with-biden-in-florida-arizona-is-a-dead-heat-reuters-ipsos-idUSKBN27D30N.
2. Rummler, Orion. “Where Each 2020 Democrat Stands on Abolishing the Electoral College.” Axios, 7 Apr. 2019, www.axios.com/electoral-college-2020-presidential-election-candidates-94d89ca6-b402-4de3-ae8e-06139592408e.html.
3. West, Darrell M. “It's Time to Abolish the Electoral College.” Brookings, Brookings, 13 Mar. 2020, www.brookings.edu/policy2020/bigideas/its-time-to-abolish-the-electoral-college/
4. Abramson, Alana. “Hillary Clinton Officially Wins Popular Vote by Nearly 2.9 Million.” ABC News, ABC News Network, abcnews.go.com/Politics/hillary-clinton-officially-wins-popular-vote-29-million/story?id=44354341.
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We’ve just hit the mid-way point in fall semester so it’s a reasonable time to consider how my first all-remote semester has progressed. When the semester started I was definitely gloomy as I imagined the 3 ½ months ahead (see First Day of School Blues ). I was correct in my assumption that I would dearly miss my daily interaction with colleagues and students. Conveying information via email and learning management system is not the same as reading expressions and body language during face-to-face lessons. One positive experience I’ve had this semester has been an increase in students’ attendance at office hours. I’ve approached my office hours as a “by appointment only” practice this semester. My college uses a program called Starfish where students book an appointment with me during times that I have preestablished. The system notifies me when an appointment has been made and I send the student a link for our virtual meeting. I’m keeping an office hours log with the names of students I meet with, times and topics of conversation. Prior to this semester I never kept track of student visits to my office because they often seemed so casual. Now, however, I see the benefit of being able to review conversations and follow-up when necessary. I’m definitely concerned about the students’ ability to stay committed to online classes for the entire school year. Here at the semester’s half-way point I’m hearing from students who are debating whether they can or should continue with the fall term. Many are overwhelmed by the challenges of family members also needing the home WiFi and technology to attend school remotely. One of my students this week told me that the daily pressure of helping his children with their school work has completely drained him of the motivation he once had to finish his associate’s degree. I’m worried about the long-term impact the pandemic will have on those students who have been struggling with economic difficulties while trying to keep up with their school and family responsibilities. And, of course, I’m stressed about the election. As I write we are less than a week away from November 3rd. Many of my students are voting for the first time this year and these young men and women want to feel as though their votes will make a difference. The historian in me knows that voters are often disappointed and this election more than others in recent memory has the potential, especially for new voters, to yield a great deal of disappointment and frustration. I would hate to see that disappointment turn into apathy. Questions about the Electoral College, the importance of voter turnout, and the ramifications of the recent ascent of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court are weighing heavily on engaged students’ minds. Given the current pandemic, answering these questions with any certainty based on historical precedent is more difficult than ever before. I’m hopeful that we, as historians, can continue to encourage our students to engage politically and intellectually no matter the outcome on November 3rd. One more scattered thought before I close: if you haven’t already, please encourage your students and colleagues to submit an entry to Macmillan’s “Black History, Black Stories” contest. I offered my students five points "extra credit" on their lowest test score of the semester if they entered and it was amazing how inspired they suddenly were to think about their own relationship to black history! In this year of ups and downs, disappointments and frustrations, my motto regarding student engagement is “whatever it takes!”
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I like to joke with my students when they ask me a question to which I have no idea the answer: believe it or not, being a historian does not mean knowing all things about all aspects of history. Case in point: my admittedly-sketchy knowledge of the finer points of the US Constitution. Over the last several weeks I’ve found myself searching the web for reliable non-partisan sources to help students with questions they have about current events related to the transfer of power, the nomination of a candidate to the Supreme Court, and contested elections. Twenty-plus years ago, as a graduate student preparing for doctoral exams, I no doubt could have answered these questions with a lot more certainty than I can today. Nowadays, I leave the day-to-day teaching of the Constitution to my expert colleagues in political science. So this week I’m sharing some of the resources that I and my students have found particularly helpful in recent days. Side note: there are seemingly infinite resources online. I have sought to be as non-partisan as possible with these suggestions while acknowledging that every source has a bias of one sort or another. The National Constitution Center has a fabulous “Interactive Constitution” that allows students to read the document by segment, offers brief articles on common/shared arguments, and a section called “Matters of Debate” written by scholars on opposing sides of interpretations. For any student or teacher looking for a straightforward, accessible site for easy reference, the National Constitution Center is the place to start. The Constitution Annotated is a more scholarly but also useful site that calls itself “a comprehensive, government-sanctioned record of the interpretations of the Constitution.” If, after the circus of the first Presidential Debate, you have students asking “what’s the point?” send them to the Commission on Presidential Debates web site, which is an amazing resource for transcripts and videos. Here students have the opportunity to judge for themselves how debates have changed in practice and process throughout the twentieth century. The “Debate History” tab will take students all the way back to the 1858 debates. Asking the students to compare our 2020 Presidential Debate(s) to one from years past is a fun way to engage them in a discussion of the media’s role in politics and to consider how candidates’ interactions with each other have changed dramatically over time. Finally, if students are curious about the history of voting/voting rights in the United States, there are many websites that provide basic timelines and some analysis. See, for example, the Carnegie Corporation’s Voting Rights: A Short History , which offers a brief illustrated timeline. The League of Women Voters ’ educational initiative may be of interest to students who want to learn how non-partisan organizations seek to encourage voter turnout. Students may also find useful voting resources by checking the web sites for their state’s Secretary of State’s Office. My home state of Massachusetts , for example, maintains a robust and informative site to help with all kinds of voting-related questions. These next several weeks will no doubt be politically contentious. As historians and teachers, the best we can do is offer our students resources to consider where our country has been historically and the critical thinking skills to decide the direction of our nation’s future.
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Want to learn more about the long battle for the women's right to vote? Join the discussion and hear what our author has to say about the suffragist who'd made it happen: https://www.historybookfestival.org/festival-2020-author-events/2020/10/15/suffrage
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If you haven’t already heard, this fall Macmillan Learning is offering a “Black History, Black Stories” essay and video contest for college students and faculty: “we are looking to African American history to understand what has happened, what might happen, and how it may orient us in finding a better path forward. We want you to share your story: how are YOU drawing inspiration from Black history, events, movements, or leaders?” See the above link for submission details including acceptable formats and contest dates. I’m encouraging my students to submit entries so I figure this week I will draft one of my own to share with them.
Shortly after I arrived at the Community College of Rhode Island in 2007 I watched a documentary film with my US History II students -- part of the PBS series “The Great Depression,” which focused on the Joe Louis fights of the 1930s. Author Maya Angelou was interviewed about growing up black in the 1920s and 1930s. I looked around my classroom as she spoke. My students were then -- and are even more so now -- a racially and ethnically diverse group. Many had never heard of Joe Louis and only a few had read anything by Maya Angelou. What caught their attention, however, was her description of the harsh inequities of the segregated American school system. Her amazement at seeing a “new book” for the first time stuck with the students and we discussed it at length after the film.
Weeks later we studied Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and again the inequality of the past in our country’s school systems was discussed. This time with a new twist: students began comparing their modern day educational experiences. The suburban-students wondered aloud what schools were like in inner cities and vice versa. What they all seemed to agree upon, in spite of their various economic backgrounds and political differences, was that education should be equal . Listening to my students was inspiring in the sense that this diverse group of people have come to the shared conclusion, here in the 21st century, that inequality in education harms all of society.
So when I think about what inspires me about black history I’m most encouraged by the changes in ideology that have taken place overtime. I remind my students regularly that it’s easier to change a law than it is to change the way people think. And so while I’m affected by the changes that have taken place, I’m motivated by the reality that so many white Americans are still stuck in their racist beliefs. The first presidential debate provides dramatic evidence that we have people in power in this country who refuse to denounce the white supremacy that has plagued us since the first colonists arrived in North America. As historians and teachers, therefore, we clearly have a long, long way to go. Nonetheless, I will continue to draw inspiration from the small victories in hopes that our nation’s future is brighter and more equitable as a result.
Ask your students to think about their personal inspiration and to share it with us at the Macmillan Community. And, share your views with them as well! Visit this link for details. Even if your students decide not to do a formal contest submission, sharing their perspectives with classmates can, in itself, be informative and inspirational. I can’t wait to read/see the winning entries!
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It’s week three of the anything-but-normal fall semester of 2020: a good time to think about what’s working and what is not. This week’s blog, then, is a mismatch of things I’ve been thinking about since the semester began. I receive what feels like dozens and dozens and dozens of emails every single day. Teaching asynchronous, fully-online classes and never seeing my students face-to-face except for virtual office hours means that I take a daily descent into a bottomless inbox. I get emails at all hours of the day and night, all week and weekend long. The first week of classes I studiously carved out two blocks of time per day when I specifically responded to emails. Something happened during week two. I threw that organized practice out the window when I started feeling overwhelmed by the volume that would greet me during those planned response times. Reality, however, is that I’m likely being less productive now because I’m responding when each email pings my box even if it is interrupting other work. To add to the stress of the string of messages, I am constantly doubting the written directions I’ve given. More than once a day my internal voice asks “Isn’t that in the syllabus?” as I address a student’s question. I’ve literally re-read my syllabus countless times to check myself before responding. It’s almost as if my brain is saying “if people are asking the question, the answer must not be there.” But then the answer IS there … and so I just feel frustrated. On the other hand, the writing assignments I have added for extra credit have been a fabulous addition to my Black History class. This past week students read “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery” ( The Atlantic 2018) . Although a small percentage of students in the class chose to complete the extra-credit assignment, those who did gave me a window through which I could learn about my students’ prior knowledge of Black History. Several wrote that the article forced them to consider the age at which they first learned about slavery in grade school. Some wondered if their schools waited too long to introduce difficult topics. Many reflected that their study of the institution had never before been directly linked to the history of racism in the United States. In their grade-school classes, some wrote, slavery and racism seemed completely disconnected. These observations have opened my eyes further to the beliefs that my students bring to my US history classes in general. As I move forward with this semester I’m hoping to do more assignments that help students see history as a process and not just lists of facts to memorize. The more I read their informal writings on historical events, the clearer it becomes that most students give very little thought to what they have been taught and why . Living in this era of so-called “fake news” makes it more important than ever that as historians we help students to question their sources -- even when those sources are academic. Now if I could only get them to read the syllabus...
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How are you drawing inspiration from historical black events, movements, and leaders?
2020 has been a time of extraordinary challenges for many people. It has also been a time of resurgent activism, nowhere more dramatically than with events associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement—events that took their inspiration from the long quest for equality for Black Americans and charismatic leaders like the late John Lewis.
In many respects, we are looking to African American history to understand what has happened, what might happen, and how it may orient us in finding a better path forward. We want you to share your story: how are YOU drawing inspiration from black history, events, movements, or leaders? Share your video or short written story for a chance to win up to $1000!*
All higher education students and faculty are eligible to share their stories for participation in the contest.
Visit our contest website for more details on how to enter. We look forward to hearing your story!
* Fall 2020 Macmillan Learning Black History, Black Stories Contest
No purchase is necessary. Open only to legal residents of the fifty (50) United States and the District of Columbia who, at the time of entry, are 18 years of age or older, are enrolled as a student at, or employed as an instructor at, a higher education institution within any of the fifty (50) United States or the District of Columbia. Must enter by 11:59 p.m. ET on December 14, 2020. Void where prohibited. For full Official Rules, visit https://go.macmillanlearning.com/black-stories-terms-and-conditions.html . Sponsored by Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group, LLC d/b/a Macmillan Learnin g.
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My youngest son starts his junior year of high school this week. There is a pile of brand new books ready for his year ahead on the floor of my home office. More than once I have found myself flipping through his English and history texts: no doubt I am more excited about what he will learn in the year ahead than he is. His indifference reminds me how important it is that we as teachers find ways to reinvigorate our students at the start of a new school year and ignite their desire to learn. I’m finding this challenge more daunting than ever as we start the fall semester of 2020. All of my courses are online and asynchronous, which means there will never be a moment in which all of the students in one course are simultaneously learning in the same class room. I’m personally struggling with the knowledge that this semester’s “teaching” will not feel like any previous experience. Monday was my “first day of school” and it went something like this: first thing in the morning I checked that my learning management system was working properly and responded to dozens of emails. Throughout the day I replied to more emails and then began reading the short introductory assignments that students are posting throughout the week. Later this week I will hold virtual office hours … hopeful that someone will pop up on my screen to say hello or ask a question. I will record lectures for next week’s classes and prepare/post visual aids. All in the solitude of my at-home workspace. Admittedly, I had a really hard time getting excited about my first day of school, which made me wonder how my students are feeling. My high school-age son returns to his campus this week and will have social interactions with fellow students and teachers. I’m so jealous! For those of us who are completely online and asynchronous there is a strange void that exists and a feeling of intense isolation that is not typical for teachers. I’m wondering how I personally will overcome the physical divide between the students and myself: we are connected this semester by the content rather than the shared space of a classroom. Now, more than ever, I’d love to hear from Macmillan Community faculty who, like me, are fully online for the first time in their teaching careers. How are you crossing the divide to ensure that you still connect personally with your students? How will you conduct office hours? What kinds of changes have you made to your syllabi to adjust a formerly in-person class to asynchronous?
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I won't sugarcoat it: 2020 has been brutal in many different ways. I remember when the pandemic was really in full swing, there were so many public figures comparing COVID to 9/11. They meant to imply that this would be a defining moment for the new generation. They signaled that this would be so impactful that nobody could forget the experience; that it would be etched in our collective memory. Then, I remember hearing about Ahmaud Arbery and seeing that footage for the first time and just being shattered and thinking the same thing: I may not remember the date, but I'll always remember how crushing that footage was to watch. The problem is: then came George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Problem is: then I started thinking about Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland and the many other names that I was struggling to recall. All of these senseless killings happened within my lifetime and those events have already gotten fuzzy. Where was I when I first heard? Who told me? Perhaps most important of all: how much sadness can one heart hold?
I don't have answers to all the above questions. I know and understand those that cannot continue to watch these crippling images of black bodies being destroyed on a devastating news cycle loop, yet I don't want to forget either. We must not forget! I came across "Voices from The Black Lives Matter Protests (A Short Film)" Running 8 minutes and 45 seconds, this video montage composed of audio and visual snapshots in the 14 days after George Floyd's murder put together by Vanity Fair crystallized both my memories of those days, as well as pivotal voices of the movement. For me, the toughest part of all may be the closing screens with the many names that the video is meant to honor. I don't even know all of them, or maybe there were some I forgot. We must remember. This helps me to remember, no matter how painful.
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I'm not a fan of being asked by students for "extra credit" assignments. Finally, however, this semester, I've found a reason to adopt a form of the practice in hopes that my students will gain some extra knowledge along the way to their coveted extra points. A continuously evolving result of the rise in civil rights activism prompted by the death of George Floyd in May has been new attention by the media and public on the history of black Americans. Most recently, as our nation marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, mainstream publications highlighted the participation of black women in the suffrage movement. As a historian it has been heartening for me to see non-academic friends post articles about the work of Ida Wells on social media, among other courageous black women who were previously relegated to footnotes. As we approach what is likely to be a uniquely different fall semester, I want to encourage my students to take note of new spaces where they are seeing black history acknowledged. It’s not February, after all -- “Black History Month” -- and the sad reality is that prior to the tumultuous summer of 2020 most Americans did not know anything about Juneteenth or the Greenwood (Tulsa) Massacre of 1921. As a historian I want to see this new public fascination with black history find its way permanently into our K-12 curriculum so that the first time a student learns about the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow is not in my college classroom. One of my goals, however, is also to help students to recognize that understanding black history means more than knowing the ideological differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Our students need to acknowledge with the help of history the level to which racism and stereotyping have infiltrated all aspects of American society. We each have to start somewhere so my simple plan for this fall is to share an article -- weekly or bi-weekly -- that will encourage deeper reflection by my students and not just memorization of famous names and speeches. The article I’ve chosen to share to start the semester is “The Penn Museum Moves Collection of Enslaved People’s Skulls into Storage” ( Smithsonian , 4 August 2020). To those unfamiliar with the work of physician Samuel George Morton I invite you to read the article (and the various sources linked within) to learn about the Museum’s display of skulls, including at least 50 that critics argue were used by Morton and others “as pseudo-scientific evidence of a racial hierarchy and justification for slavery.” Students at the Ivy League school were instrumental in pushing for removal of the skulls from the Museum’s display. My plan is to create an extra-credit generating discussion board that will provide space for students to respond to the articles, share perspectives, and ask questions. I will encourage them to reflect on how the subject matter enlightens their personal understanding of black history as well as the way that the particular topic informs us how racism came to be so deeply ingrained in the American psyche. It is my hope that this first article, for example, will encourage students to begin thinking about scientific racism several weeks before we reach the subject matter in the textbook and simultaneously expand on whichever topic we are covering during a particular week in a no-stakes environment of extra-credit discussion. Extra credit: yay or nay? New assignments to help your students engage in the world around them while learning new course content? Please share.
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The Voting Rights Act was passed 55 years ago today. A movement that outlawed widespread voting discrimination, particularly for people of color, yet we all must consider the conundrum: have we really moved that far ahead of where we were 55 years prior?!
I'm curious what everyone in the community is doing as a way of not only encouraging their students to make sure that they are registered but also their family members, friends, kids of voting age, etc. Please share it below!
I think we can all agree that exercising this right to vote has never been more important. The fight for racial equality is from over and we must all do our part.
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Like most of you, no doubt, I’m bracing for a (hopefully) healthy dose of uncertainty during this coming fall semester. As faculty at a community college with a large number of nursing, health science, dental hygiene and engineering students, most of us who teach in the humanities and social sciences have given up our on-campus classroom space so that those professors who need to be face-to-face with students can do so safely. For the first time in my twenty-plus year teaching career, all of my classes will be completely online. I will admit to feeling overwhelmed by this reality in spite of the fact that I have taught online for more than ten years. I was an early adopter to the practice -- flexibility for working students and the creation of classroom space where students who are uncomfortable participating in person can find and share their voices are just two of the many positives of online learning. That being said, I never intended to move to a completely online teaching load and I’m feeling really sad about it. First and foremost, I will miss my students’ energy in the classroom. It’s reasonable to assume that the majority of us who teach -- at any level -- do so because we truly enjoy being with learners. We enjoy the process of guiding people through new information, and we take pride in the accomplishments of our students -- especially those who we have witnessed work extremely hard amidst difficult circumstances. I’m going to miss my daily interactions with fellow faculty. Email and virtual meetings, while productive, are not the same as being in a room with people who share our vision for the students we teach and want to work together to solve problems. I’m going to miss working quietly at my desk while my wonderfully smart and funny office-mate holds her student visiting hours. Meeting her sociology students and encouraging them to take a history course as a supplement to whatever field they are studying has brought many vibrant and energetic young people into my history classroom. I will miss being shushed in the library. And I’ll miss the staff members who keep our college running smoothly day to day and will continue to do so even when the majority of students and faculty are not on campus, especially the administrative assistants who keep me organized and always seem to have a snack in their desks on the days that my energy is lagging. As I prepare now for the semester to begin in three weeks, therefore, I’m looking for ways to not pass on this sense of sadness to my students. There already exists a barrier between students and faculty in online courses because of the method of delivery. How do we overcome that barrier and create the same kinds of connections we have had in the past with on-campus students? Will students attend my virtual office hours? Are there other ways to build bridges and community with online students that have worked in your virtual classroom? Please share.
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