Last week’s planned return to campus after three and a half semesters of remote teaching/learning was foiled by Omicron. Instead of meeting in person with students, I found myself lecturing to a screen full of black rectangles. Our college will spend the first four weeks of spring semester completely remote. Most of my students, it seems, are fatigued from on-camera class meetings and so it was that I appealed to any last sympathies they might have for their professors. “Please, don’t make me lecture to a screen with black rectangles and face-less names,” I pleaded. “When we meet in person next month it will be much less awkward if we are familiar with each other’s faces.” My pathetic begging resulted in about half the students turning on their cameras. A (very) small victory. This afternoon I participated in a time management seminar for students run by our college tutoring center. While the number of students who attended was small, their willingness to participate in such a program during the second week of the semester reiterates the importance of recognizing that students generally start out the semester hoping for success. Attendees of today’s program, just by being present, were acknowledging the challenge of managing academic demands with family and work responsibilities. Likely they have struggled with balance in the past and are hoping that this semester things will be different. Their presence made me wonder how many of my students are, in fact, engaged in this juggling while their cameras are off during my lectures. In my head I know that there are many reasons students do not turn on their cameras. Perhaps they feel uncomfortable having strangers see into their homes/workspaces. Maybe they are still in their pajamas and sipping their first coffee of the day during my 1pm class. Or they are shy and unwilling to have their images broadcast via the internet into their classmates’ private spaces. Or maybe they are texting or gaming or doing anything but listening to my lecture. I’m trying hard right now to convince myself that it’s not all about me. I have been working with college students since 1994. Nonetheless, the hour before my first remote lesson of this spring semester I was an anxious mess. It was as if I had never taught a class before in my life. Although by this point in the current pandemic I have attended dozens of remote events, I found myself overcome by nerves before opening that first meeting. I played with the backgrounds, adjusted and readjusted my speaker and microphone, and changed my sweater twice. There is something about teaching through the lens of a webcam that is incredibly intimidating even for the most seasoned professional. The screen of black rectangles intensified this anxiety for me: were the students listening and taking notes? Or were they logged in to class but doing something more interesting instead? All of this angst surrounding teaching remotely has made me even more nostalgic for the return to traditional in-person learning. But then, I wonder, how much will have changed? What will the new normal look like? I’m desperate to hear from those of you who are back in the traditional classroom. What has changed? For better or for worse? Please share.
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I recently had the opportunity to view the film “Loving” (2016), a dramatization based on Loving v. Virginia (1967) in which the Supreme Court struck down state laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage. For those who have yet to see the film it is a fictionalized account reportedly inspired by “The Loving Story” (2012), an HBO documentary. In addition to the obvious significance of the case in the history of civil rights, viewing the feature film reinforced for me the many areas of US history that can be enhanced by class discussion of the Loving case. Watching the entire film in class is not always optimal timewise but there are some excellent online resources to introduce the case to the class in its place. Encyclopedia Virginia offers a summary of the key people and events, which can be assigned in conjunction maps and figures documenting the history of interracial marriage in the United States. Both the ACLU and vividmaps.com have accessible visual aids to help students understand the geographical component of the debate. While general histories of the case often portray its importance within the broader movement for civil rights, in-class or online discussions may branch out to include such diverse topics as the civil history of marriage in the colonies and the States, miscegenation laws, the 14th Amendment, and the post-Civil War rise of Jim Crow. Students may also wish to discuss connections between Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which guaranteed marriage equality. The Loving case offers an opportunity for students to talk historically about inter-racial relationships and the challenges faced by black and white families who sought to navigate friendships and marriages amidst brutally restrictive racial customs enforced by state laws. It also sheds light on the hypocrisy of a culture that long accepted sexual assault against black women (free and enslaved) by white men but believed that consenting adults should not have the legal right to create interracial unions. These conversations are no doubt difficult in the classroom but meaningful for students to fully understand the foundations and lasting-legacies of slavery and racism in our national history. I find the Loving case to be particularly relevant to students because, at heart, it is about the right of two people to create a family of their own choosing. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the human beings behind Supreme Court rulings, but it is these historical actors that many of our students will engage with most willingly. Encourage them to read interviews with Mildred and Richard Loving, and to watch some of the short video clips of news coverage of the case. In learning about this case many students will be able to see connections to their own family histories and to reflect on how their lives may have been different without the end of miscegenation laws that Loving v. Virginia brought about.
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Every year around this point in the semester -- past midterms, almost at Thanksgiving Break, and starting to think about final exams -- I find myself needing some additional inspiration to push through the last weeks of fall courses. I can feel my motivation lagging and the early sunsets only add to my lethargy. I’m taking some time for reflection this week in hopes of reinvigorating my mental focus so I can finish the semester with the same (or close to ) enthusiasm I had the first week of September. The first step in my reinvigoration process has been to take some time to think ahead to next semester. Half of my course load is different in the spring so I looked back through some of the notes I kept from last spring to remind myself of particular changes I want to make to those courses. Giving my brain a future project to think about, even briefly, gave me a momentary break from the weight of the current semester. I like to make at least one significant curriculum change each time I offer a course. Reviewing my notes from last time around reminded me of ideas I had for spring 2022 and gave me an opportunity to feel excited about their implementation. Next I spent just a handful of minutes today browsing the current registration numbers for my spring courses. Registration just opened this past Monday and already my US Women’s History class is full. To know that there are so many students interested in the subject matter made me more excited to think about topics I will be teaching in the spring and how to better connect them to my students’ lives. Finally, as a last bit of motivation, this morning I pulled one of my all-time favorite books down from the shelf. Many years ago as a graduate teaching assistant at Boston College I was assigned to a Western Civilization II course. As a US history major I remember dreading the shift in focus to European history for so many precious hours of the week. The professor assigned Pat Barker’s brilliant Regeneration (1991) for the students to discuss as part of their World War I materials. While I cannot remember anything about leading those discussion sections, I have reread Regeneration every single year since that fall semester in 1999. The book itself is now in its thirtieth year of publication. Each time I read Barker’s fictional account of a British asylum for soldiers during the war I am reminded of how the book initially led me to read more about World War I when the course finished, and then many years later inspired me to start researching asylums in the United States around the same period of time. As I reread the book now I’m hopeful that some new inspiration and motivation will grow from the familiar story. How do you handle late-semester fatigue? Suggestions welcome.
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I’m getting my COVID booster today and am feeling very hopeful. If enough people in my neck of the woods follow through with vaccinations and boosters maybe, just maybe, I will be able to return to campus in the spring. Student reluctance to register for on-campus offerings has meant a third semester of all online teaching. I’m starting to optimistically think about what I might take back to the brick and mortar classroom space with me from this three semester-long remote experience. A colleague noted this week that she plans to continue using her online discussion board even when she is teaching in-person. Students who are reluctant to speak up in a traditional classroom space often submit eloquent, thoughtful discussion posts in online classes. My colleague is wise to take advantage of this reality and I plan to as well. I’ve also thought about using a chat-style system during my in-person lecture so that students who might be shy about raising their hand will still get their questions answered in class. Perhaps an open “chat” during my live lectures will allow me to engage more students in classroom meetings than I have in the past. While my attention span is too short to allow a scrolling chat to interrupt me during lecture, I can foresee looking at the chat in the last couple minutes of class to catch any questions that need to be addressed. I’m planning to continue to use the journal-based research assignment that I first wrote about in a blog this past spring (see “Summer Project: Assignment Reboot” ) in which I break down a traditional research project into sections and grade each separately. I designed this project because I felt my students were fatigued from online learning and not fully engaged in their semester-long projects. Forcing them to submit the project in sections has enabled me to keep tabs on their progress while providing feedback along the way, and has significantly reduced the problem of procrastination on the students’ end. I also find that the grading process for me is quicker (shorter chunks of work submitted at a time) and that I’m writing more comments. And finally, I’m planning to continue to take advantage of the abundance of human resources that are available virtually as a result of the pandemic. I encourage fellow faculty to follow the social media feeds of historical and cultural organizations that relate to the topics you are teaching in class. On November 1st, for example, my students will be attending a virtual artist talk by Nikole Hannah Jones titled “Examining Slavery’s Modern Legacy,” hosted by Massachusetts College of Art & Design ( register here ). Later in November they will be assigned to view (live or via the post-event recording) a talk by Gayle Jessup White hosted by the National Archives. “Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family’s Lasting Legacy” will be moderated virtually by historian Annette Gordon Reed ( register here ). I have no doubt you’ll be amazed by the access your students can have to fabulous speakers and resources with just a little time web surfing. If there is something that you’ve brought back into the traditional classroom with you from your experience with pandemic-era online learning, please share!
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On Oct 21st, 2003, scientists first discovered the dwarf planet Eris. When first found, there was some discussion that it was larger than Pluto which then led to questions about Pluto's categorization as a planet. The debate within the scientific community ultimately led the International Astronomical Union to "downgrade" Pluto to a dwarf planet in 2006.
The dwarf planet Eris seems to be aptly named as it was inspired by the Greek goddess of discord.
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Listen to an interview with co-authors Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson of Exploring American Histories, 4th Edition .
Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson discuss their own histories with teaching.
Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson discuss challenges they have had in the past when teaching history that influenced their authorial vision.
Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson discuss why they believe history is so important for students who are not history majors to take - especially in today’s polarized climate.
Nancy Hewitt discusses some ways that they have kept their text relevant to current events.
Nancy Hewitt on applications of different learning styles.
Nancy Hewitt's tips for instructors to engage their students with the text.
Steven Lawson on advice for new history instructors.
Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson on the goals for Exploring American Histories, 4th Edition
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Listen to an interview with co-authors Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson of Exploring American Histories, 4th Edition as they discuss the goals for their book.
Macmillan Learning · A talk with Co-Authors Nancy Hewitt and Steven Lawson: Episode 8
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Listen to an interview with co-authors Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson of Exploring American Histories, 4th Edition as they give advice for new history instructors who have just started teaching.
Macmillan Learning · A talk with Co-Authors Nancy Hewitt and Steven Lawson: Episode 7
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Listen to an interview with co-authors Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson of Exploring American Histories, 4th Edition as they discuss tips for instructors on how to engage their students with the text or complete assignments.
Macmillan Learning · A talk with Co-Authors Nancy Hewitt and Steven Lawson: Episode 6
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Listen to an interview with co-authors Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson of Exploring American Histories, 4th Edition as they discuss students’ different learning styles.
Macmillan Learning · A Talk with Co-Authors Nancy Hewitt & Steven Lawson: Episode 5
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