Teaching U.S. History Online

When I began teaching online in my graduate history department in January of 2012, I became one of only three individuals to take up the challenge. At this point, I was encouraged to try this type of teaching because my dissertation required an extensive research agenda in Washington, D.C., and nearly ten U.S. cities. The ability to teach from anywhere along with increased schedule flexibility were the very reasons that the only other graduate student completing this form of instruction at the time suggested it.

My online teaching assignments certainly allowed me to conduct my research in full, but, even more importantly, they remarkably and unexpectedly shaped the way that I currently teach not only in the virtual environment, but also in traditional face-to-face settings. Part of this came as a result of my constant defense before members of the academic community that was I was doing was, in fact, teaching while re-interrogation of language, methods, assessment, and materials, supplied the rest.

For instance, in terms of the latter, I frequently use a fair amount of the primary source material and media content in online instruction that I do in a brick-and-mortar environment though for my online courses I must heavily weigh how and in what ways the content can be read and interpreted differently without my ongoing guidance and framing as well as without the valuable input and discussion from course mates. For instance, in a physical classroom, in the first week of the class, I typically like to include the clip “The Redskins’ Name – Catching Racism” from the Daily Show. It is a fun, but informative way of getting students to discuss and to critique enduring (racist) images of Native Americans. I then ask them to consider how opinions and situations of the past are still shaping the present. Given the video’s sports context, we almost always have passionately argued debates.

Though these activities sometimes end with a number of students deciding that “this is just the way it is,” “get over it,” or “these images do not disrespect or disparage,” I happily tell them that I hope that our continued activities over our next few meetings (but also the class more generally) will change their minds, but if not, I am happy that the seed of analytically interrogating both the past and the present was planted. Others may change their minds later, or, at least, learn to think through and rationally argue their positions on matters. While all of this is going on, students are able to pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues, and importantly they can read my excitement and realize that I value their ideas and them.

In the online environment the use of this video would not work the same way. Even with a solid text/video introduction, I find it highly likely that a number of students would see the clip and any opposing comments from students and from me (that are read in black and white and on a screen) as an attack on them and their beloved sports team. Importantly, as a professor (who is Black and a woman), I will likely be labeled overly sensitive and a dangerous liberal. Of course, this same thing happens in the classroom, but I am often able to respond in various instructive ways that teaches students the value of new material and new perspectives. In the online environment, I am well aware that a number of students may just shut down, drop the class, or send vulgar emails. Thus, I have discovered that I have to ease my online students away from traditional narratives of U.S. history a bit more slowly.

Yet, I have also found that the traditional narrative is precisely what a number of students want. Many are interested in taking the course so that they can “just do the work,” which they hope will be memorization and regurgitation tested through fill-in-the blank, true false, and multiple choice questions. Many are dismayed to find that my classes are much more than this. Others are unsure of how this learning experience will look and, even more, how it will compare to a physical classroom. Some of them hope that they will get the exact same experience in online history as they would in a face-to-face course without the burden of carrying books across campus, sitting in a seat, and possibly being called on to answer a question. They, too, are surprised to learn that a lot of this learning is student initiated.

Consequently, in addition to mediating peers’ thoughts and expectations of online teaching, I must do the same with my students. From the first days of class, I encourage students over video and in print (a dual approach, which I have found to be helpful and very welcomed by students though time-consuming) to recognize that our online course is a safe space to learn about, debate, and discuss complexities of U.S. history.   I tell them that the actions words that they read there should ensure them that they will be busy, but likely not in the ways that many originally thought. Thus, I inform them that there will be work and that there will be lots of it, but that, importantly, they have an instructor here to guide and to teach them, one who cares as much about the student and she does about the material.

I do not say this just once. In the online environment, I say it and show it in multiple ways so that students know that it is real.  Too often the thought is that with online teaching there is no instructor just a computer into which you plug information and then mysteriously grades (fairly or unfairly) appear. Instead, I am highly visible and responsive in my online classroom. Each week, I provide welcome videos and video drops-in, and I host virtual office hours. I also remain in email contact with students about content material, their discussion posts, responses on assessments, and their overall marks. It is a lot of work, but it is worth it.

With every passing semester as I have poured more content, but also more of myself into these courses, I have achieved higher levels of instructor and student satisfaction and received higher marks on midterm and end-of-the-course evaluations. It is my aim over the course of this semester, to share here on TUSH some of the lessons that I have learned while teaching U.S. History online and how I have successfully applied these in the physical classroom. As I continue to grapple with the pros and cons of a number of learning tools formulated for the online environment as well as potential materials to enrich these courses and my face-to-face ones, I hope that you will join me.





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