Continuing (My) Education at the Community College Humanities Association's National Conference

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Last week I attended the national conference of the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA). Hosted by the Community College of Baltimore County and sponsored in part by Macmillan, the event included more than one hundred panels with faculty representing community colleges nationwide. If you teach at a community college and are not familiar with CCHA, I encourage you check it out. Nearly any discipline taught at a community college that can connect itself in a meaningful way to the humanities is welcome. As a result, the national conference offers an opportunity for an historian like myself to explore a multitude of interdisciplinary perspectives. I was inspired by much of what I heard and saw so this week I want to share just a tiny sample.

   Dr. Sheri Parks (University of Maryland) opened the conference by chronicling efforts by humanities scholars in Baltimore to document public reaction to the uprising in that city following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray. Emphasizing the importance of listening to the voices of the people, Dr. Parks shared the process that the program Baltimore Stories (funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities) has undertaken to document the experiences of Baltimore’s citizens. Keynote speaker and Baltimore resident D. Watkins followed with anecdotes from his own neighborhood to project the message that individual actions can lead to significant social change. To the audience of community college faculty this message truly resonated. Amidst the day-to-day struggles of teaching an often under-prepared student population, faculty welcomed the reminder that education has an enormous impact on individuals, neighborhoods, and communities. Watkins’s own successful career as a writer and activist are shining examples of what can happen when an otherwise disinterested student is turned on to reading and critical inquiry.

   Professors Carolyn Perry (Collin County Community College/TX) and Guillermo Gibens (Community College of Baltimore County) shared the often-overlooked roles of LGBTQ and Latin American characters respectively in American films from the first half of the twentieth century. Their panel, “Forgotten Hollywood,” showcased the fascinating ways that Hollywood films can act as primary sources by providing windows into how previous generations of Americans have depicted everything from relationships to minority groups to foreign cultures. As someone who has never taken a film class, I was inspired to find ways to incorporate this genre into my US history classes.

    Finally, Mark Lamoureaux, a poet and English professor at Housatonic Community College (CT), presented “Watching the Detectives: Using Genre Fiction to Teach Composition.” My favorite part of Professor Lamoureaux’s presentation was his discussion of how he employs the card game Whist to enliven students’ understanding of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in Rue Morgue” by asking them to consider questions such as “what kind of thinking does the game encourage?” and “what kind of observations are helpful in playing the game?” By playing the game in class, students are asked to reflect on why Poe might have chosen to have characters play the game in the story. I love the way in which this lesson asked students to think critically about an author’s motives while also introducing them to an unfamiliar piece of cultural history.  

    It’s been my habit in the past to attend conferences organized by/for historians (like myself) and to therefore continue thinking like an historian about the field of history. The work of each of these humanities scholars, however, reminds me how important it is for us as teachers to continue to learn -- to expose ourselves to other fields of inquiry and pedagogical practices for the sake of enhancing the experience and knowledge of our students.

    Is there something that you’ve read, seen, or heard recently -- an article, podcast, film or lecture -- that inspired you to learn something new? Please share!


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.