Revisiting & Revamping Fall Semester

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The fall semester ended in a flurry of research projects and final exams. Now that the new year has begun I’m reevaluating my fall courses and contemplating changes for the upcoming semester. My teaching load is 5-5 with three course preparations each semester. The only constant in my schedule is that each semester I teach one section of Black History. I reevaluate this course every August and January to assess what did/did not work in the previous semester. For this first blog of the New Year I thought I would share some of my thought process with the Macmillan Community. As always, suggestions welcome!

   During the summer of 2017 there was a marked increase in national debate on the future of Confederate monuments (see my blog from Summer 2017 A Monumental Debate). For fall semester, therefore, I decided to incorporate weekly discussions of articles from the collection Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (edited by James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton) with the idea that students would have the opportunity to talk about the current debate over Confederate monuments while also considering how the institution of slavery has been memorialized in the United States. I was able to locate several short videos from local television news coverage to provide students with examples of how communities around the country were grappling with the issue. Students were very open to discussing the topic of memorials as both a current event and an important component of understanding how Americans reflect upon our national history.  

    Also on the list of “positives” or “keeps” for this past semester was our class discussion of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. We used this novel as the focal point of a series of discussions that began with the ideologies and activism of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ida B. Wells and transitioned into a brief study of the Harlem Renaissance. Students were fascinated by Johnson’s fictionalization of a man “passing,” but also shared personal experiences and observations about whether this concept still holds weight in the twenty-first century.

    On the last day of classes I asked the students for feedback to help me plan for the spring semester. Without hesitation students told me that they wished we had more time in class to focus on the civil rights movement of the post-World War II era. My semester-long plan for the fall had centered around an independent study on a twentieth-century civil rights topic of their choice, which culminated in a final research project. Although the students seemed genuinely excited to focus on a topic of personal interest related to civil rights, the specific requirements of the assignment kept us from the kind of detailed discussion of the 1950s and 1960s that I usually undertake with the students in class. In other words, my assignment required a lot of outside reading that took away from the time they had to focus on meeting-specific content.

    For the spring semester, therefore, I’m scaling back the independent research project and adding to our syllabus Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s A Brief His... edited by David Howard-Pitney. I chose this text in large part because 3 of 15 students in the class chose to study Malcolm X for their independent projects, and 2 chose King. As much as I want to engage students in a greater understanding of the lesser-known men and women who built the civil rights movement, they remain fascinated by these two enormous figures. I welcome the opportunity to use Howard-Pitney’s work to ground their interest in primary sources.

    As I plan for the end of January I would love to hear from other faculty about the kinds of reflection they undertake when a semester ends. Are you making incremental changes or tossing out the syllabus to start fresh? Please share. Happy New Year!


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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.