Atlantic Worlds and the US History Survey: The AHA’s Bridging Cultures Project at the Library of Congress

Dana Schaffer, March 2014

The polar vortex that crippled much of the US in early January was no match for 24 intrepid historians participating in the AHA’s Bridging Cultures seminar, “US and Atlantic History, 1450–1850,” held January 5–10 in Washington, DC. Braving wind chills that went below zero and bundled in parkas and scarves, these professors from community colleges across the country (including the tropical climes of Hawaii) made the daily trek to the Library of Congress for five days of lectures, discussions, and research in the library’s vast collections.

James Akerman showing maps of the Atlantic world to the group in the Library of Congress Geography and Map Reading Room.The seminar was the second part of a three-year professional development project, “American History, Atlantic and Pacific,” designed to help community college professors incorporate the Atlantic and Pacific worlds into their US history survey courses. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges program, the seminar offered participants the opportunity to conduct research, share teaching strategies, and learn about some of the latest resources and scholarship in the field. Having spent the first year of the program applying the knowledge and research gained at the January 2013 Pacific Rim seminar at the Huntington Library, participants were eager to focus on Atlantic history.

Led by Atlantic historian Philip Morgan (Johns Hopkins Univ.), the seminar included a packed schedule of mornings filled with lectures and discussions and afternoons devoted to independent research. Speakers, including John McNeill (Georgetown Univ.), Marcy Norton (George Washington Univ.), Denver Brunsman (George Washington Univ.), and Laurent Dubois (Duke Univ.), presented on the history of the early modern era of the Atlantic world. Each noted how key agents—such as people, plants, pathogens, and products, to mention just a few—began to move regularly back and forth across this immense area and stimulated profound transformations in all spheres of life.

Other speakers, including Joshua L. Reid (Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston) and James Akerman (Newberry Library) tackled the use of technology and resources in the classroom. Reid demonstrated the ChronoZoom timeline tool, which students and teachers can use to create online “exhibits” and timelines to explore Atlantic history. Akerman highlighted the use of maps in the classroom to help students make connections between local and global issues. Akerman’s talk also included a visit to the Geography and Map Reading room at the Library of Congress, where curators showcased some of the library’s most fascinating cartography, including a hand-painted vellum map of the Atlantic world.

Following each morning’s discussions, seminar participants were eager to delve into independent research. Interests of the group varied—from the Spanish-American War to smuggling along the eastern seaboard of the colonial US, and from digital resources and modules on the Atlantic slave trade to the Chinese diaspora in the Caribbean. As the largest library in the world, with a collection of more than 158 million items, the Library of Congress can be daunting for researchers, especially those with only a few days to spend there. But thanks to the helpful staff in the library’s John W. Kluge Center, who partnered researchers with the appropriate subject specialists at the library, seminar participants were able to make efficient use of their daily afternoon research time. At the beginning of the week, Mark Dimunation, director of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the library, provided a dazzling overview of the library’s collections and offered tips on how to make the most out of a research trip.

After a week of stimulating presentations and fruitful research, participants spent the final day of the seminar reflecting on their experiences of the week and sharing ideas for incorporating new content and methodology into their own US history survey courses. Some participants exchanged creative and inspired classroom techniques—from using maps to contextualize students’ local vision in a global way, to a resume-writing activity in which students must apply for the “job” of conqueror. Others discussed how changing a course structure to focus on themes rather than chronology can offer new avenues for engaging students. A seminar participant from Kapi‘olani Community College, Kelli Nakamura, noted that the knowledge she gained from the Bridging Cultures program has helped her to address her Native Hawaiian–serving institution’s mission to include indigenous perspectives within the history discipline. “By revising my course content to address new thematic approaches and materials,” Nakamura remarked, “I hope to create new opportunities for learning, not just for myself but for my students who can be excited and challenged by these ideas.”

Discussions throughout the week revealed that the Bridging Cultures program had already begun to play a crucial role in the redevelopment of the professors’ curricula and teaching strategies, and, even further, in the connections they have made with their colleagues and students. As Timothy Draper, a participant from Waubonsee Community College, remarked, “Bridging Cultures has been a wonderful experience in various ways, particularly for those of us from smaller departments since it has allowed us to connect with Americanists from other community colleges. It has really broadened my perspective not only on transnational scholarship but also on curriculum development, methodology, and assessment.”

As the Bridging Cultures program enters its third and final year, the participants remain engaged with one another, exchanging resources and ideas through the AHA’s Community pages and developing new approaches to the US history survey course. Teams of participants are planning sessions for the 2015 AHA annual meeting in New York City, when they will share their work from the past three years. Look for updates in future issues of Perspectives to find out more about the Bridging Cultures program and its participants.

Dana Schaffer is the AHA’s associate director.