The above quote comes from a student email I received a few weeks after completing my first term with Gilder Lehrman’s Saturday Academy. The young man who sent me the email was an enthusiastic 7th grader who was always open to learning more about slave narratives and antebellum history. The class that he was a member of was comprised of students from 7th through 12th grade drawn from Newark area regional, magnet, and parochial high schools and middle schools. While the group was mostly Latino and African American, their age range and educational backgrounds made for a diverse classroom. The lessons learned with that first class remained important even after the program began admitting only high school aged students, and continue to shape my scholarship as I write my dissertation and teach my own courses.
I wish I could write that I strode into the classroom and conducted an inspiring class on day one of that first term. The truth is that I almost immediately drew laughter from the students by dropping an eraser. I’d taught classes of my own before but with this group I had to confront the fact that my students had very disparate experience with social studies and American History. I had to convince them that reading was a necessary part of the course as they rolled their eyes at the strange 19th century narrative excerpts I handed them. I have a feeling I fell back on lessons learned by countless teachers sent to one-room schoolhouses in past centuries. I sat younger students in between older students so that talking would be kept at a minimum and they could help each other. I planned three lessons in one: basic stories for the younger kids with more complex analytical work for the older kids and plenty of discussion to engage those that had abilities somewhere in the middle.
After the first few touch and go classes, I was able to share more about what it is historians do. Teaching my students basic historical method was empowering for them. Suddenly, I felt very grounded in my work as a historian. I remembered what it was like as a young black woman to learn that enslaved people were not “unknowable” but, rather, that they possessed voices that speak loudly in the archive if one is willing to seriously inquire of them. Watching some of my students come to this same realization and feel empowered enough to seek out the stories they wanted to know about remains the most rewarding part of working throughout my tenure at the program.
I’ve learned many lessons about teaching inside and outside of traditional college classrooms. While a teaching assistant and instructor at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TiP), the gifted high school students in my classes pushed me to explore new ways of teaching critical analysis and close reading. As a result I always include primary documents along with secondary materials to allow my students to develop their analytical skills and give them a chance to critique the narratives they encounter in textbooks and lectures. Working with inmates at Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility challenged my lecturing skills. There I learned to deliver compelling narrative as a means of making U.S. History legible for an audience with varied academic experience. There teaching was accomplished with a lectern, a blackboard, and limited xeroxed handouts. Suddenly, when faced with a room full of young male inmates, oratory presence and an ability to tell a compelling story made all the difference. Inmates became students as they engaged the material and, towards the end of class, began to interact with primary documents. All of the lessons I’ve learned outside of the college classroom come to bare on my university level course offerings.
The college students who I've taught while at Michigan State University belong to an information saturated, visually stimulated, media savvy generation. Trying to reach college aged students with the media of the 19th century, often print media, is a difficult task. As a result, I spend considerable time teaching my students to read—that is, to engage primary sources and analyze them. Critical analysis is key. I present students with a narrative in my lecture and then present them with a source to read. I begin with visual material: photos, drawings, cartoons, and contemporary artists’ works that engage the past. We then move on to print media and apply the same practices used to read visual and aural material to read text. In this way students get to engage the course material in three ways: by absorbing the lecture, reading and analyzing primary sources, and connecting their analysis to the narrative of the course.
Finally, I give students a chance to present their own ideas formally both in writing assignments and classroom presentations. While the final component is often dictated by a given class size, some of the most fruitful coursework students have completed for me has involved engaging their classmates. In my historical methods class at Michigan State, I asked students to engage with slave narratives as a part of their research assignments. Then I had students present their final research to the class. Many of the students in my course section were history education majors who wanted to find ways to translate what they learned about American slavery at the college level into lessons in their future elementary through high school aged classrooms. Perhaps one of the class's best discussions about the intersection of contemporary race relations, the politics of education, and the history of American slavery happened while a student presented on her plans to bring slave narratives to a first grade history lesson. This not only reinforced much of the historical lessons the class had learned but also forced students to debate the contemporary relevance of course material in a productive way. In my U.S. Women’s History course that I taught at Rutgers University, students were asked to research the history of the women in their own families and their family’s American History. Through this exercise students learned about New Jersey’s long-standing free black community in the 19th century, the lives of Italian immigrants, and the experience of late 20th century Egyptian immigrants, among other diverse yet American stories. It is important to me to foster a dialogue between students and the narrative that I present to them. It creates an atmosphere of collaboration and opens up the many dissonances of American History for discussion.
Both my teaching experience and teaching interests are broad. While I’ve taught traditional United States survey courses and Women’s History courses in my area of expertise, I am always willing to design courses that serve the unique student body of a given institution or organization. For example, when students became interested in Environmental History at the Gilder Lehrman’s Saturday Academy, I happily designed and taught a course that engaged contemporary issues of environmental justice with a significant historical component. I am prepared to offer both general surveys in American History, African American History, and Women’s History as well as thematic and topical courses in each of these fields. For example, I’ve long wanted to teach a course on comparative slave resistance and rebellion in the Atlantic World. I would enjoy offering a course on women and the American South. Given that my work deals heavily with agriculture, I also have an interest in teaching an environmental history of the American South.
I answered the young man who wrote the email that begins this statement and encouraged him not to wait for historians to correct the absence of slaves in his textbook but to talk to his class using what he learned on his own. My most important pedagogical goal is to make history intelligible to my students and to give them the skills that they need to share their knowledge of the past with others. A few weeks after receiving his first note a second email arrived from my student. This time he asked for help with a school presentation on something he thought was important: slave narratives.