Returning to Student Mode to Prep a New Course

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One of the challenges of teaching at a community college is that faculty are sometimes called upon to teach outside of our areas of expertise. 


Case in point: my graduate studies focused on US social history and foreign policy. When I was hired in 2007 the United States was deeply engaged in the war in Afghanistan. Our large population of student-veterans sought to contextualize their understanding of experiences in the Middle East by signing up for a course I taught called “America’s Experience in Vietnam.” Over the years since, contemporary students' interests pivoted towards domestic politics, leading enrollment in the Vietnam course to decline and the number of students wanting to take Black History to increase exponentially. Being one of only two full-time Americanists at my college meant that I needed to put myself back into student mode. I read and studied as much as I could to prepare myself to offer one section of Black History to supplement the existing offerings by my colleague. And then, just like that, he retired and handed me the reins to the course. I now teach two sections of Black History every semester and can honestly say I learn something new with every iteration of the course.


Now in my sixteenth year at a community college I find myself facing a new preparation: Modern Latin America. Many, many years ago as a graduate student I studied Latin America as a field to supplement my work in US diplomatic history. As our community college’s population sees a steady increase in the number of students with familial origins in Latin American nations, the college seeks ways to respond to the needs of these students as they navigate their education. Many students are the first in their families to attend college and while they are native to the United States, their family histories lie in nations about which the students know very little. Hence, our efforts to diversify the curriculum now include a course in Modern Latin America. 


So, I’m headed back to student mode to review content that I studied in graduate school and while this task is somewhat daunting, it’s also quite invigorating. Learning (or re-learning) material for a new class is a great way to prevent oneself from falling into an intellectual rut. For those of us with heavy teaching loads it’s easy to find ourselves lecturing from memory. There are topics that I truly believe I could cover in my sleep … and this acknowledgement worries me. The last thing I want to do is bore my 8:30am students into a morning nap because of a lack of enthusiasm on my part. By volunteering to teach Modern Latin America I am not only forging a new connection with students whose heritage is not widely addressed in our current curriculum, but I’m forcing my brain out of its comfort zone. 


This experience, however, is not without some major trepidation. If I’m being completely honest, my greatest fear is proper pronunciation of terms and names. Many of my students will be native Spanish and Portuguese speakers. I cringe when I think of what my Boston accent will sound like mispronouncing terminology that is central to the course content. I will be relying heavily on friends in the Foreign Language Department to help me prepare for lectures and discussion. I intend to call upon the students’ good natures for mercy in this area as well – the first day of class will include an acknowledgement of my language-related short-comings in hopes that they will forgive my choppy pronunciations. I’m hopeful that the Spanish I studied in my earlier years as a student will start to come back to me the more familiar I become with material. Wish me luck! 

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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.