Thoughts from a History Classroom at Year's End

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As the semester and calendar year draw to an end it’s a good time to reflect on the obstacles faced this academic year thus far and our hopes for the spring semester. 


I’ll start with some not-so-fun observations: students are still struggling to reacclimate to in-person learning. In online educational forums there has been a lot of discussion about “learning loss.” For my community college students, the biggest disconnect has been deadlines, as in they don’t want them! During the pandemic pivot to all online learning our college faculty loosened deadlines and increased flexibility to account for student access to WiFi and other technology-related issues. Now that we are back on campus, I find myself having to explain to students why I need deadlines to help both them and me and stay on track throughout the semester. Recently I had to explain that it would be impossible for me – and a disservice to my students – to grade every assignment in the last week before final grades are due. I can’t remember ever having such a conversation in the pre-pandemic days. “Learning loss” in my experience has been less about content and more about the obligations of the student-teacher relationship: deadlines, expectations of regular attendance, and the encouragement of student note taking have required more of my attention than ever before. 


On a positive note, however, the students that showed up this fall were especially engaged. In my US History I sections, for example, I had many eager learners who forged connections between what we were discussing in class and what is happening in the nation as a whole. The topic of post-Civil War Reconstruction, for example, was never better received than this semester as students recognized that there is a direct connection between the forms of racism and segregation that grew in the wake of abolition and the systemic problems we face as a nation today. Driven by student interest this semester I spent twice as much time examining Reconstruction as I did the Civil War, which is usually the topic of greatest interest in this course. Students engaged in discussion about the shortcomings of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the reactionary politics of white southerners as black men assumed leadership positions in the early stages of Reconstruction. They imagined how our society might have been different without the terror campaigns of the KKK and the exponential growth of white citizens councils in the former Confederate States. And, they offered ideas about what federal authorities might have done differently to prevent the restoration of white supremacist state governments. As the semester was ending, I found myself researching additional Reconstruction-related materials to share with future classes … more to come in a future blog.


In the coming year I would love to hear more from the Macmillan Community about both the successes and challenges faced in our history classrooms. Are there topics that you would like to discuss with fellow faculty? Books that you’ve found particularly meaningful either to read with students or to use for course preparation? If so, 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.