The Teaching Historian: Introducing the March Issue of Perspectives

Most issues of Perspectives include at least one feature related to teaching and learning. The best of the genre, we think, honestly evaluate student learning outcomes, engage contemporary pedagogical thinking, and offer innovative tools for instruction—that one twist in an assignment that makes all the difference, say. 

At this point in the year, many instructors are planning syllabi for the summer or fall terms, thinking about what worked or didn’t work the last time around, or wondering how to structure a brand-new course. This issue of Perspectives is for them (and perhaps for undergraduates curious about how seriously their professors take teaching history).

Charles Upchurch (Florida State Univ.) contributes our cover story, “Class Divide,” about a common problem for teachers: students balking at important material for ideological reasons. During a lesson on the Communist Manifesto for a course on 19th-century Europe, a small group of apparently conservative students said they wouldn’t read the source. “Less Marx, more Adam Smith,” read one course evaluation.

Looking back, Upchurch writes that it would have been possible to teach the 800-plus pages of Wealth of Nations using a digitally based strategy that worked in other classes. Far from a concession, the lesson plan would permit students to turn a critical eye to Smith and question their own assumptions about his work. Teachers will want to read the full article for Upchurch’s explication of his strategy.

We’re proud to feature “Remembering Rondo,” by Rebecca S. Wingo and Amy C. Sullivan (both of Macalester Coll.), about a recent History Harvest collaboration between their students and members of the majority-black neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul, Minnesota. Cut in half by bulldozers in the 1950s, Rondo is one of the many communities decimated by the nation’s spate of postwar highway construction. Remaining and former residents never let the city forget the injustice brought in the name of progress.

After a recent apology to Rondo from the mayor of St. Paul, Wingo and Sullivan opened channels to the organization Rondo Avenue, Inc., to see if community members would be willing to participate in a History Harvest—an entire course devoted to creating a digital archive of the neighborhood. Students learned digital history skills and documentary studies methodology, but perhaps more importantly, the harvest model allowed them to grow sensitive to the ways historians should assist but not control the production and destiny of a community archive.

The third teaching piece in our March issue also delves into a familiar problem: how to teach the senior thesis seminar. Because writing a paper of 20 pages or more can be a daunting prospect, some students feel defeated before they start. In “Leading by Example,” Adam T. Rosenbaum (Colorado Mesa Univ.) recalls the seminar in which he completed every assignment his students did, a week in advance. Rosenbaum’s completed assignments, which students critiqued in class, gave them examples of what their assignments should look like. Hearing their professor admit to difficulties made them understand that all scholarship is difficult. And while the final papers weren’t uniformly brilliant (which no teacher expects, after all), they were probably better for Rosenbaum’s effort. In the full article, the author considers whether he would teach this way again.

The Association’s leadership contributes several pieces in the March issue. In a revealing column, “Diversity and Segregation,” AHA president Tyler Stovall writes about being a historian of color in a field (European history) too often seen as “white.” Stovall identifies a paradox in our community: our racial and ethnic diversity is increasing overall, but scholars of color can feel internal segregation within the profession.

Our current president-elect, Mary Beth Norton, writes up her observations of the poster sessions at the 2017 annual meeting, which took place in Denver in January. The session, she says, is a good place for interchange with an audience (which is more difficult in a traditional research panel). Posters can allow scholars to present works-in-progress that they would like more feedback on—say, in a project’s early stages. A wealth of pictures proves Norton’s point: the annual meeting poster session is gaining momentum as an important venue for our scholarship.

Finally, AHA executive director James Grossman reprises an essay first posted at the website WalletHub.com, “Is College Worth It?” “Worth” isn’t strictly about financial return on investment, writes Grossman. While prospective students should consider individual advantages to a college education, we as a society also have to consider what we’re willing to contribute to maintain higher education as a public good. In other words, the question of worth shouldn’t be limited to individual choices; the issue concerns all of us.

In our News section, Kritika Agarwal uncovers the backstory of #ImmigrationSyllabus in light of recent political turbulence. As challenges to sanctuary cities and campuses loom, immigration historians think it’s more important than ever to learn and teach contemporary scholarship on the subject. But more than that, academics have found themselves on the frontlines of changing policies that have an impact on them, their colleagues, and their students.

As usual there’s much more. As we all creep toward summer, the editors hope you find much to mull over and inspire you through the weeks after spring break.

Become a member of the AHA and get the print edition of Perspectives, and much more.

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