A Vision for History at Community Colleges

Professors in Seattle find success in teaching information literacy and basic research skills -- as a means to engage students in a discipline many of them are disinclined to like.
January 27, 2009

SEATTLE -- History as a discipline is most popular as an undergraduate field of study at liberal arts colleges or research universities -- institutions that attract well-prepared students. Professors at community colleges in the Seattle area are trying to find ways to attract more students, in part by accepting that many of those they want to educate view the field as boring, thinking of it as “just memorizing names and dates.”

To reach the students, these professors are working on a two-pronged strategy. First, they are preparing exercises that link students’ lives to the study of history. Second, they are focusing on basic information literacy and research skills, which their students tend to lack. The combination appears to be working, even as these professors teach not to the idealized seminar room of the stereotypical history scholar, but in classes of 35 students or more -- many of whom have full-time jobs.

The professors described their approaches here at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Brian Casserly of North Seattle Community College uses assignments in a U.S. survey history course to teach the basics of conducting research and writing a research paper -- something most students don’t know how to do.

“We have this image of students as being savvy about finding information,” he said. “But I find a very shallow understanding of how to evaluate information,” with students aware of little except Google and Wikipedia. To get beyond that, he uses as a central assignment a paper in which students must link an important event in American history to the life of one of their family members.

An example he offers in the assignment shows how a student's grandparent might link to topics appropriate for a history paper in several ways. This grandparent might have attended college on the GI Bill (which could then be the key event) or settled in the suburbs (suggesting a report on the rise of Levittowns).

As they are working on the larger paper, students receive lessons and homework designed to teach research skills. For example, to wean them off Google as a sole research source, they have a library tour and orientation, and then the assignment of finding an article on civil rights in a scholarly journal in the library and producing short pieces of writing that demonstrate the ability to appropriately paraphrase an argument and cite sources. Similarly, students are given a topic on which they must prepare an annotated bibliography.

Because many students will interview a parent or grandparent for the larger assignment, they have class sessions on how to do an oral history interview, including the process of obtaining permission from the subject.

The various small assignments are all designed to teach skills that are foreign to the students and that would normally discourage them from studying history or viewing it as anything by memorizing, Casserly said. But his experience is that, if guided, the students do in fact learn these skills. “It’s about using a systematic process,” he said. When the students turn in the final papers, “the research skills have improved dramatically” and they are actually finding the process interesting, he said. (This session stood out among others at the AAC&U meeting in that the professors brought students along, and they vouched for the techniques being talked about, indicating that they never previously found history relevant, but how these assignments helped them understand how the Vietnam War might have affected their parents, or exactly why President Obama’s election was so historically significant and meaningful to African Americans who were alive in the civil rights era.)

The fact that some new community college students don't have a sense of the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement reflects a reality -- poor knowledge of history -- that the professor here said must be addressed head-on, in part with diagnostic tests. While new community college students are routinely given placement tests in mathematics and writing, these professors argued for their use in history, to help identify early on what students know and where their gaps are.

There are many gaps, but Maureen Nutting, a professor of history at North Seattle, said that professors can adjust if they know what they need to cover. For a course on American history, for example, she asks students at the beginning of the course to define and provide context for terms such as "Reconstruction" and "Jacksonian democracy." One of her colleagues, Scott Rausch, asks students in a world history course similar questions and produced this analysis of correct and incorrect answers, along with the teaching implications. He knows going in that he'll have a majority of students who know what a caste system is, but that the odds aren't in favor of any student understanding polis or Pax Romana.

"Our courses aren't easy," said Nutting, but they start without being over student's heads.

Amy Kinsel, professor of history at Shoreline Community College, said she has had success teaching immigration history. About a quarter of students are immigrants, and many others have close family members who immigrated to the United States. Students are wondering, "Where do I fit in?" and immigration history -- which she teaches from colonial times to the present -- provides answers. The major research paper for the course is on the immigrant group of the student's choice and Kinsel noted that students do not necessarily pick their own.

The paper must cover issues of race, ethnicity, class, religion, and national identity -- as well as assimilation, acculturation, group identity, political power or lack thereof, work or economic roles, gender roles, educational experiences, and interactions with other groups.

Tim McMannon, professor of history at Highline Community College, said that he tries to combine critical thinking and research skills with "an emphasis on the content" in his courses.

One of the assignments he typically gives is a book review, in which students must critique a monograph about history. "So many of my students don't read books," he said. As a result, he said that students start of complaining about the assignment, especially when he rejects books that aren't real monographs. But he shares examples of book reviews, and that helps the students gain confidence.

At the same time, he said it was important not to only assign books. He typically assigns students to review a museum exhibit. "For many of them, they are unexposed, or they were in third grade when they last went and didn't learn anything." The review must include both description and judgments on such matters as the scholarly value of the presentation. (To frame the assignment, he usually specifies that it be an exhibit that pertains in some way to the history of the Pacific Northwest.)

Students need "literacy with material culture," he said.

One thing all the professors stressed was the importance of using every possible tool to teach. McMannon said that on the multiple choice tests he gives, he doesn't want students to end the process after receiving their grades. So he offers "second choice points" for students who can identify the page in the various books where they should have learned the answer to whatever question they missed.


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