Extra Learning for Extra Credit

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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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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.