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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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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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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This summer our college filled three online sections of a six-week intensive Black History course in a matter of weeks. The sheer volume of student requests for capacity overrides led us to add to the number of sections of the full-semester course we will offer in the fall. Here at the community college where I teach students are undoubtedly motivated to understand how we as a nation arrived at current debates about race and racism. Teaching the course has been both exciting and overwhelming because so much is happening in real time around topics about which I’m introducing to the students. News references to “Jim Crow” and “Black Wall Street,” for example, are leading students to wonder about other subjects that were never taught to them in general United States history classes. Keeping the students focused on covering fifteen textbook chapters in just six weeks with the world changing seemingly by the minute around them has been difficult. Try as I might to stick to the course syllabus, weekly discussion boards have inevitably strayed to conversations about current events. I decided early in the first session of summer classes that I needed to try to satisfy both aspects of student curiosity simultaneously -- history and current events. Midway through the first six-week session, therefore, I began sending an extra email to the class each week specifically about current events with links to articles and/or videos to help the students explore a topic that I had seen or read about in the news further. The first link I sent was a “60 Minutes” piece on the Greenwood (Tulsa) Massacre of 1921. My brief email reminded the students about upcoming assignments and then added the link at the end. The cynic in me assumed that my already busy students would ignore the link. Instead I received a handful of emails sharing perspectives about what they had watched. The positive reactions from students encouraged me to continue the practice for the rest of the six-week session. I discovered along the way that a local historical organization had compiled a list of ways that residents could celebrate “Juneteenth” in our state. Sharing that list revealed to my students that Black History physically surrounds them every day -- not only during the month of February. At the end of the course I sent the students a final email that included a list of articles that I believe will be meaningful to the group now that they have completed a Black History course. This list included articles about textbook biases and surveys of current beliefs about the history of slavery. While many of these articles were published prior to the most recent round of civil rights activism that began in May 2020, my hope is that my students now have the historical context through which to understand articles that they likely would not have read prior to studying Black History in a formal course setting. The task of keeping students focused on the past to complete the course goals was enhanced by encouraging them to think about the present. By sending students links to articles and videos I hope that I encouraged the students to look beyond the news sources they might typically read and open their minds to new perspectives. Several students thanked me for helping them sort through “too much” information coming through their social media feeds while others shared articles with me that provided a foundation for further discussion and gave me a window into the news sources that students are regularly reading. How are you balancing the challenge of teaching history and current events this summer? Please share.
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Juneteenth. An aphorism? A portmanteau? A celebration marking the end of slavery? It seems that in a time where the holiday is more widely celebrated nationally than ever before, many questions still remain for a majority of the country.
This is the first time I’ve ever received the day off from work to commemorate Juneteenth. Many are aware of the term, but are hard-pressed to describe it to others. A simple internet search lets you know that “Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.”  However, it does raise questions for many that feel puzzled about why they never learned about this event in their elementary schooling.
Interestingly, the June 19 event in Texas actually happened two and half years after Lincoln’s much-revered (and widely-taught) Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. As I understand it, these 250,000 enslaved people living in Texas simply did not know they were free, either as a result of poor communication in the era and/or, most likely, an unwillingness to inform them of their freedom on behalf of the slave owners.
With the heightened tensions around race and obscured or whitewashed history, it seems like a great opportunity for us to educate ourselves on why this holiday has long been celebrated by so few and overlooked by so many.
Some resources to read up on Juneteenth that I’ve stumbled upon:
What is Juneteenth?
Mental Floss: 12 Things You Might Not Know about Juneteenth
Article: Tulsa still haunted by memory of white supremacist massacre on eve of Trump visit
These are only a few of the resources I found, but I’d love to know what you use to research Juneteenth! Please share in the comment section below.
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We are a third of the way into June and most of us do not know if we will be on campus in the fall. My college is working with the state’s Board of Health and talking with nearby institutions to make the final decision. Teaching at a non-residential community college is complicated by the fact that every single student commutes to campus. While there is no need to evaluate dorm conditions, our administrators have to factor in the reality that students are going to and from home and work everyday, which puts them (and the college’s faculty and staff) into indirect contact with a lot of people. I certainly do not envy the administrators making these difficult decisions this summer. As I have been anxiously awaiting answers about the fall semester I’ve been asked by people who do not teach: does it really matter if college classes are on-campus or online? And the short answer is YES! I do not know of a single college professor who intended to spend her career working with students from behind the screen of a laptop in her pajamas. I truly missed being in the classroom with my students this past spring. I’m eternally grateful to those students who emailed me during the second half of the semester just to say hello or to tell me what movies they had watched over the weekend. They, like me, clearly missed the personal connections that happen in the classroom. What I have learned in the last few months is that even the predictability of the academic semester is not guaranteed. I never expected to not return to campus from Spring Break, let alone be faced with the probability of teaching all of my classes online for the fall semester. At this point I cannot allow myself to contemplate Spring 2021. How do we as faculty prepare for such uncertainty? Right now I’m reviewing the second half of the spring semester to figure out what worked. Specifically, I’m emailing students from those classes that pivoted from on-campus to fully online to ask for feedback. I’m particularly interested to hear whether the materials I linked to our learning management system were useful and accessible (films, documents, web sites, etc). I’m also wondering if those students who had intended to be on campus want more one-on-one or small group interaction with their professors in the fall semester should the classes be fully online. Wifi access was a significant challenge for my students so we did not do any synchronous discussions during the spring semester. I’m curious to know if students missed in-class discussions as much as I did. I would love to hear from members of the Macmillan Community about preparations for the uncertainty of fall semester. Are you hopeful? Frustrated? Please share.
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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 environment. 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.
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Listen to our podcast from the new co-authors of The American Promise, Sarah Igo and François Furstenberg. In this episode, Sarah and François address questions from the history teaching community on becoming textbook authors, teaching American history, and the complications of education today.
To learn more about The American Promise or to request an exam copy, please visit our catalog.
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