Owing to the variety of institutions where I have worked, I’ve been challenged to find ways to spark students who are majors and not, traditionally-aged, working parents, and even retirees. I strive to challenge, motivate, and mentor my students as they obtain the tools they need to be successful in my courses and in their post-collegiate lives. I also hope to leave non-majors with an appreciation for the subject, rather than merely seeing their course as an obstacle between them and their degree. This is particularly important in service courses, which not only introduce students to the craft of history, but are often a way to bring students into the major.
In one of my courses, I used an observation written by Lord De-La-Warre about the “starving time” in colonial Virginia, and then students encountered it again in two secondary sources–one of which was a study of the ethnic intersections and economic pressures that contributed to Bacon’s Rebellion. Students were not only fascinated by the subject matter, they could see how one primary source might be interpreted for radically different purposes by a historian. I also like to bring in materials from multiple sources; sometimes from podcasts, interviews, and scholarly blogs. Students learn the importance of exploring multiple approaches to history, and get a glimpse of the craft of history as the product of an ongoing scholarly conversation.
I often bring interdisciplinary and global approaches to teaching into my courses. When introducing the Transatlantic slave trade I like to use photographs of reliefs made by artists from the powerful Kingdom of Benin, depicting its relationship with Portugal at the dawn of the Transatlantic slave trade. I combine these images with letters written by King Nzinga Mbemba of Kongo in protest of the decimation of his people, the Transatlantic slave database, and some images from slave markets in the Americas. The students benefit from my guidance in sources that they might not find on their own, and see investigative skills and rounded research modeled for them. They see a more complete picture of how the Transatlantic slave trade developed, and also gain exposure to material culture, quantitative methods, and the ways that technology can facilitate history.
I have both formal training and experience teaching writing-intensive designated courses. In all of my survey courses, I assign primary source analysis papers. Students are tasked with finding primary sources of relevance to the course, but also their own majors. For example, a pre-med or nursing student might find interest in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, to Benjamin Rush, praising Rush’s initiatives on public health. A Geography major might using maps to learn more about early modern cartography. An aspiring teacher might choose a document highlighting Horace Mann’s advocacy of public education. These assignments help the students see the relevance of history in their own lives, but also teach them how to engage with primary sources. They learn how to move beyond from summary‐style writing to analytical writing, as well as to think about motives behind the documents. I also strive to have lower-stakes written assignments to give students a chance to improve from feedback, as there is usually a range of writing ability. The students who need remedial support in their writing are encouraged to focus on improving in 3-5 key areas in a term that are likely to yield the most rewarding results. Learning to write well can be a tedious and frustrating process for students, and I have found that giving them specific things to focus on reduces the chance of them becoming overwhelmed and shutting down.
In addition to having students write papers, I like to incorporate project-based learning in my classes. One assignment I use in my survey courses has students work in small groups, using accessible technology like WordPress, to produce a small website on a topic related to the course. For example, a group of students who are interested in the history of technology might create a website on the role of technology during the U.S. Civil War that uses developments in medicine, military hardware, and other initiatives to explore whether the Civil War can be considered a “modern war.” This assignment teaches digital literacy skills along with technology skills that can be attractive to potential employers, and for those who are interested in public history, a start to their exhibit or digital history portfolios. For students who are aspiring social studies teachers, they have a chance to learn about how to apply technology in their own classrooms. The technology also eases some of the pressure on students who may be balancing considerable work and family demands on top of school. While they are held accountable for their work, they can do some of the collaborating remotely. Students then deliver a group presentation of their web project at the end of the course, giving them practice in presenting their ideas to others.
I have successfully taught students to approach controversial subjects in a thoughtful way. For example, many of my New England‐born students are reluctant to confront the fact that New Englanders were not all abolitionists. Presenting them with primary sources on the New York Draft Riots, or thoughtful, well‐researched studies, like Joanne Pope Melish’s Disowning Slavery, encourages the students to consider the evidence, rather than approaching the topic viscerally. They come to understand that they do not always have to agree with ideas examine them, and that true learning frequently involves a little disequilibrium. A recent student in a New England History seminar I taught told me that he “learned more about New England history in this class” than he “learned in 25 years of living here.”
I also aspire to creativity in my assignments. I have taught a seminar on the History of New England, a course that was supposed to include a research component. The course had no pre‐requisites, and so I could not assume that students had the traditional course work in historical methods. Because the course was online, my students’ best resources were frequently from local history. I assigned a public history project that required the students to visit local colonial cemeteries and to use the headstones as primary sources, along with some other resources I provided, to learn more about their local history. One student came upon the African Burying Ground Memorial Park project, and told me that he never realized there were slaves in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and that for the first time, he felt that he was “living with history.” Another student reported that she had a “date” after that project to do some further exploring with her town librarian. The assignment was not only a successful navigation of pedagogical challenges, but also fostered a lasting enthusiasm for the subject matter, and made it relevant to students who were not necessarily majors.