Historians are supposed to have the luxury of time to gain perspective and evaluate sources. Right now, however, we are living through a period in which our silence on current debates does not help our students to grapple with the seriousness of events happening around them. So where do we place ourselves in the discussion? Do we focus on the past, the present or the future? This week I’m encouraging students to look at inaugurations of the past for symbols of how dramatically different current conditions are in the United States today. A visit to the National Archives website for A Promise to Faithfully Execute the Office: Presidential Inaugurations offers students numerous examples of the way the inauguration as a ceremony has changed over time. Students can also read the original version of George Washington’s first inaugural address and consider transitions of power that took place during other times of national tumult, such as the Civil War. The striking visual differences between today’s inaugural events (with a tiny audience) and those past ceremonies held with millions of Americans bearing witness on the National Mall should strike students as symbolic of the problems our new president will inherit. Today’s students have the privilege of witnessing a woman being installed as vice president. As the child of immigrants and a woman of color, the success of Kamala Harris should be marked for the amazing significance it holds -- the culmination of centuries of activism by historically under-represented groups of Americans. Many of us are old enough to remember the 1984 presidential campaign and the novelty of Geraldine Ferraro as a vice presidential candidate. When hopeful voters supported the failed Mondale/Ferraro ticket in 1984 could they have imagined it would be thirty-seven years before a woman reached the vice presidency? We can’t celebrate Harris’s victory without remembering all of those women who broke ground before her. Smithsonian Magazine offers students an introduction to Ferraro’s campaign in this piece “The Woman who Paved the Way” (August 10, 2020) , which will help them to draw comparisons to Sarah Palin’s run for vice president in 2008 as well as Harris’s successful 2020 campaign. Finally, we need to encourage our students to look to the future with hope and a healthy dose of realism. Millions of American voters supported Donald Trump’s bid for reelection. The Biden/Harris administration faces the enormous task of reunifying the nation. Suggest that students consider other times in our history when newly-elected presidents have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. Several journalists and historians have written recently about what the rebuilding of the nation might require. The Boston Globe this week offered an interesting starting point for students to consider the historical challenges ahead, see “Unity without justice is dangerous, historians say. Just look at the Civil War” (January 16, 2021) No matter our personal political beliefs, the inauguration of a new president is the perfect time to ask students to assess how the past has affected the present, and in what ways it might continue to influence the future. How are you tackling these challenging historical questions? Please share.
... View more
What was it really like to travel as a Black American during the era of Jim Crow laws and segregation? Award-winning journalist Alvin Hall and social justice trainer Janée Woods Weber hit the road to find out on Driving the Green Book, a living history podcast from Macmillan Podcasts. Over the course of 12 days and 2,021 miles, the two drove from Detroit to New Orleans collecting personal stories from Black Americans who used the historic Negro Motorist Green Book travel guide to navigate trips safely and with dignity, patronize Black-owned businesses, and come together in the face of institutionalized racism. Driving the Green Book sheds light on what has (and hasn't) changed for Black travelers since segregation and honors the stories of those who lived through the era, supported and uplifted each other, and fought for equality.
Listeners can also gain a deeper appreciation of the historic, but often forgotten, locations that helped Black Americans to travel safely across the United States with Driving the Green Book's custom Apple Maps Guide. They can also enjoy a playlist on Apple Music highlighting the songs that came out of the era, many of which were written in response to the injustices faced by Black Americans all over the country. Educators can use the podcast and addiotional resources as supplemental tools in a variety of history courses to explain how the Negro Motorist Green Book was a seminal publication in the ongoing fight for racial and social justice.
... View more
From mask wearing and individual rights to Black Lives Matter and police reform, acquaintances, friends, and family have found an infinite supply of topics on which to disagree on social media over the last twelve months. As I write this blog, votes are still being counted in the state of Georgia and protesters have stormed the US Capitol building. The political stakes are high and partisan rhetoric and uncivilized debate have taken over Facebook, Twitter, and other popular online platforms. As an historian I’m particularly fascinated by the use of sources. Students in my January intensive course this week are choosing two article-length sources to use as supporting evidence in their short research projects. It is essential that they identify vetted, historically-accurate materials. In my introductory level courses the Works Cited page is submitted as a draft at the project’s start to make sure that students are on the right track with their research. And yet … every single day I read something on social media, often written by someone I know, that has origins in a problematic source … Case in point: a recent Facebook discussion about election fraud. “Friends” of mine were engaged in a spirited debate about accusations of voter fraud throughout history. The friends, all of whom are college-educated professionals, were using Wikipedia articles to substantiate their claims -- sharing, at various points, brief segments copied and pasted from the site as evidence. Sadly, there was not enough time in the day for me to verify whether the Wikipedia articles my friends were citing were factually accurate. It took all of my strength, however, not to interject a comment about their poor choice of sources. I do not allow my students to use non-academic sources such as Wikipedia or history.com as references for their history research. I know that some historians do, and that others use studies of the sites as opportunities for students to correct inaccuracies that are posted online. I tell my students that Wikipedia is a great source for information that -- right or wrong -- will not adversely affect the outcome of anything significant; what year did “Mission Impossible II” hit theaters or how tall is Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton? (2000 and 5’7½ respectively) Nowadays, however, I’m feeling a sense of personal responsibility as a historian to tell people they are citing unreliable sources. I’m trying really hard to not destroy personal relationships by footnoting “friends’” Facebook posts but the situation begs the question: is it impolite to correct friends’ and families’ historically inaccurate opinions online? Where do we as historians draw the line between being right and being polite?
... View more
This week I’m attempting what feels like the impossible: I’m transforming a fifteen-week survey course into a three-week winter session. Yikes. Many two and four-year schools offer short, intensive courses in a variety of fields and formats over the January break. In my case, I will be delivering “US History since 1877” fully online. Although I’ve taught six-week summer courses for many years, the three-week format is new to me and somewhat daunting. I spent a good part of this week deciding how best to assess students in such a short period of time. For better or worse, the students will have to take on a great deal of independent learning and I definitely worry about whether they know what they are getting themselves into: fifteen chapters of historical narrative will be covered in a period of eighteen class days. After several discussions with colleagues in a variety of disciplines, I decided to break the course into three units of six class-days. Each unit will contain roughly five chapters of material. I will assign a reading quiz for each chapter and a discussion for each unit, which will draw together the major themes of the unit’s chapters. Students will have a research project assigned on the first day and due on the last, a well as a final exam. I’m exhausted just thinking about it! I need to continuously remind myself that students take short, intensive courses for a number of reasons, most of which involve needing credits to complete their degree. At the same time, however, I do not want their need to get the course done quickly to take away from what I see as the value of a US history course. This challenge, I believe, may be the greatest to the process of condensing a full-semester course into the time frame of winter session. Unlike in typical-length semesters when I rely upon the College’s student evaluations for feedback, I’ve decided to survey the students myself at the end of the January term to find out what did and did not work for them. I’m very curious to learn whether students’ expectations of workload were realistic. And, I’d love to hear from anyone in the Macmillan Community who has taught a three-week intensive course -- history or any other subject. Advice? Suggestions? I’m all ears!
... View more
It’s safe to say that most of us are tired of COVID-19. We are hopeful that 2021 will see the introduction of a safe and effective vaccine so that the Pandemic of 2020 can be relegated to the archives along with cloth masks and journals documenting the many hours of quarantine we spent watching television! As a historian and teacher, however, I cannot let 2020 commence without one last suggestion as to how we can help our students contextualize our national experience this year by comparing current social and political conditions to a historical period of public health crisis. Last week students in my US Women’s History class read this fascinating article: “The Pioneering Health Officer Who Saved Portland from the Plague” ( Smithsonian Magazine) by Bess Lovejoy, which tells the story of Esther Pohl, an obstetrician tasked with navigating Portland, Oregon, through a 1907 outbreak of bubonic plague as the city’s health officer. Pohl’s work in Portland at the start of the twentieth century was groundbreaking. One of only a few female physicians in the city, Pohl sprung into action as the city’s health commissioner in response to her study of an earlier plague that had ravaged sections of Honolulu’s Chinatown, leading that city to intentionally burn buildings to stop the disease’s spread in 1899. San Francisco, she learned, confronted the same plague in 1900, quarantining 25,000 residents of Chinese-descent in a 15-block area. Pohl, Lovejoy writes, “designed an anti-plague strategy [for Portland] that combined her scientific and technical expertise with an understanding of the power of the press.” She invited the press to inspect and report on areas of Portland’s waterfront where garbage was attracting large numbers of rats, known as the primary carriers of the bubonic plague. Unlike in Hawaii and California where politicians had made unsubstantiated connections between Chinese communities and the spread of the plague, Pohl “avoided racist rhetoric and targeted [clean up of] the waterfront instead….” My students were particularly interested in Pohl’s personal call for community action: “everyone in the city, rich and poor, should consider it his duty to exterminate rats.” Esther Pohl’s story is a useful example of the kinds of challenges that educated women were tackling at the start of the twentieth century. Even though Pohl could not legally vote, she was committed professionally to using her knowledge and skills to aid her community and was subsequently recognized as an expert in a time of crisis. More importantly, considering the time in which we currently live, Lovejoy’s article acknowledges the long history of ethnic discrimination associated with public health crises in the United States and one female doctor’s ability to handle the crisis effectively without resorting to racism and ethnocentrism. My students, many of whom are the children of immigrants, were saddened by the fact that more than one hundred years after state governments’ xenophobic actions in Honolulu and San Francisco targeted people of Chinese heritage, politicians in 2020 have made similarly racist charges in relation to COVID-19. No doubt future history textbooks will document President Trump’s references to the “kung flu” and “Chinese virus” as an example of how slow our nation’s progress on race has truly been. Nonetheless, introducing our students to the work of Esther Pohl and other pioneers in public health is a great way to impress upon them that the experience of 2020 is not in itself unique. History presents us with examples of positive and negative responses by human beings to crisis, and offers our students opportunity for both intellectual growth and self reflection.
... View more
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.
... View more
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.
... View more
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!”
... View more
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.
... View more
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
... View more
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!
... View more
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...
... View more
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.
... View more