It’s week three of the anything-but-normal fall semester of 2020: a good time to think about what’s working and what is not. This week’s blog, then, is a mismatch of things I’ve been thinking about since the semester began.
I receive what feels like dozens and dozens and dozens of emails every single day. Teaching asynchronous, fully-online classes and never seeing my students face-to-face except for virtual office hours means that I take a daily descent into a bottomless inbox. I get emails at all hours of the day and night, all week and weekend long.
The first week of classes I studiously carved out two blocks of time per day when I specifically responded to emails. Something happened during week two. I threw that organized practice out the window when I started feeling overwhelmed by the volume that would greet me during those planned response times. Reality, however, is that I’m likely being less productive now because I’m responding when each email pings my box even if it is interrupting other work.
To add to the stress of the string of messages, I am constantly doubting the written directions I’ve given. More than once a day my internal voice asks “Isn’t that in the syllabus?” as I address a student’s question. I’ve literally re-read my syllabus countless times to check myself before responding. It’s almost as if my brain is saying “if people are asking the question, the answer must not be there.” But then the answer IS there … and so I just feel frustrated.
On the other hand, the writing assignments I have added for extra credit have been a fabulous addition to my Black History class. This past week students read “What Kids are Really Learning About Slavery” (The Atlantic 2018). Although a small percentage of students in the class chose to complete the extra-credit assignment, those who did gave me a window through which I could learn about my students’ prior knowledge of Black History. Several wrote that the article forced them to consider the age at which they first learned about slavery in grade school. Some wondered if their schools waited too long to introduce difficult topics. Many reflected that their study of the institution had never before been directly linked to the history of racism in the United States. In their grade-school classes, some wrote, slavery and racism seemed completely disconnected. These observations have opened my eyes further to the beliefs that my students bring to my US history classes in general.
As I move forward with this semester I’m hoping to do more assignments that help students see history as a process and not just lists of facts to memorize. The more I read their informal writings on historical events, the clearer it becomes that most students give very little thought to what they have been taught and why. Living in this era of so-called “fake news” makes it more important than ever that as historians we help students to question their sources -- even when those sources are academic.
Now if I could only get them to read the syllabus...