Reflective Essay

Since a fluke in the college timetable meant that I wouldn't teach Western Civilization, the module for which I gathered web-based primary documents, until Fall Semester of 2000, I experimented with my American History Survey (History 102, The U.S. from the Civil War to the Present). I uploaded, or created links, to documents, web sites, and photographs that allowed my students to participate in the creation of an interpretation of American History. The document, sites and photographs I found, added to materials I asked them to find by themselves on the World Wide Web, seem to have added a new dimension to the class.

I knew when I started working on the NEH/AHA grant that I would have to change the way I taught my classes. I was trained by a superb lecturer, Professor Al Rieber, at the University of Pennsylvania, and I could not imagine, in the early days of my career, a better way to teach than the way he taught. Professor Rieber used sound, pictures and his own voice to bring alive for his classes the history of Europe. I tried to follow in his footsteps. However, everything I have read since then about the way students learn has persuaded me that students learn more, retain more, and understand more when they are directly and actively involved in the learning process. Participating in the NEH/AHA grant seemed to me the best way to develop the teaching methods I would need to help students take a larger part in their own education.

Each week of Semester II, 2000, I posted a set of documents on my web site. During class, I would show the students where the documents were posted, give them a little background about the writers, urge them to interpret the documents in the context of the historical period, and suggest that they might want to read the documents before the next class period. I would add that they could send me an e-mail if they had any questions. To my surprise and delight, several students began writing to me regularly with their comments on the reading. Sometimes it was just a note to let me know they thought an essay was "pretty dry," (Frederick Jackson Turner), or that they really liked looking at photographs (Jacob Riis and Ellis Island), but sometimes they wanted to say how shocked they were (Alabama's literacy test), or how much easier history was to understand when they seemed to meet the people personally (Churchill and Stalin). Once again, as I had found in other classes, it was the students who did not like to talk in class who would write to me. This has to be one of the best things about e-mail-we finally have a way to let the shy students express themselves without fear.

I have little patience with "lessons" that present a document, and then require the students to answer objective questions about the document. I do not believe that this helps the students to think and interpret. They might learn dates and other facts, but they do not learn to make connections. Far more valuable, in my opinion, is letting the students develop their own questions about the material. I asked them to formulate two or three questions based on each set of documents-questions they would then present to a small group. Each group would then choose a few of the questions to discuss, and one student from each group would inform the whole class about the conclusions, and sometimes further questions, that the group talked about. Each semester one of the subjects I assess is whether the students have understood the importance of industrialization to American Society at the end of the 19th Century. I want them to grasp the impact of the changes in American life on women, children, industrial workers, immigrants, and black people. This semester, a higher percentage of students were able to give detailed information in the first mid-term examination, on exactly what life was like for those groups in industrialized America. Much of the detail they used came from the documents posted on my website.

I believe that the work I have done through this grant has indeed improved History 102. I am less likely to lecture for a whole class period. Rather than using lecture notes, I usually build the class based on the documents the students or I have gathered, and spend a lot of time drawing the students out about what they have discovered in the material. Attendance is great, class response is growing and I am satisfied with the progress, though I know there's lots left to do.

Things to do:
When I asked to students to supply their own documents from the web about World War II, few of them bothered to do it, so it was impossible to initiate a discussion. Next time I will be more specific. For instance, I will ask them to find documents on the conflict over the opening of a second front, or U.S. responses to news of The Holocaust. I realize now that the assignment was 'un-doable.' There is too much information available, and the students are not experienced enough to evaluate a document for its usefulness in fostering discussion. So, I will be more specific. There were some documents that seemed to kill discussion rather than encourage it. All graduate students who study American History end up confronting Frederick Jackson Turner sooner or later, but I think he's too tough for undergraduates.

The most successful articles were either short, or included some visual material. Students seem to enjoy discussing information that rarely shows up in a textbook. Indeed, the liveliest discussions came about because students were incensed that they had never learned "this stuff" in high school. The Alabama Literacy Test and the Jim Crow Laws, in particular made the eventual struggle for Civil Rights more real to them. They had had only the most vague ideas of the conditions under which black people lived in this country up until the 1960s. I'm looking forward to testing this method of teaching in my Western Civilization Class in the Fall. The documents I chose for mounting on the AHA web site should help my students, and me, turn History 105 into a class where we interpret history together. Passive learning should become a thing of the past.

The syllabus for the class is available on my web site:
Working links to the documents are available at this address: