February Provisions Session – Teaching Historical Perspectives

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here

The first provisions session of 2015 kicked off with presentations on “Teaching Historical Perspectives”. An audience of 36 were in attendance to hear presentations from Dr. Carolyn Stefanco, President of the College, Dr. Scott Lemieux, Assistant Professor of Political Science, and Dr. Robert Shane, Assistant Professor of Art History.

Dr. Stefanco was the first to present, and she focused her presentation on her experiences as a History professor both in the United States and in Croatia. Dr. Stefanco explained that she started out as an adjunct professor in New York and Colorado, before then moving on to Wheaton College, MA to take her first tenure-track position. Dr. Stefanco then moved to Cal Poly State University, where a major part of her role comprised of teaching students who were required to take her course as a pre-requisite. In spite of that fact, Dr. Stefanco noted that, although she may have not reached every individual, it was clear that for many of the class, History was something with which they found importance and meaning. A primary objective of Dr. Stefanco’s class was to emphasise the importance of first-hand/primary sources in order to pay recognition to those who played a significant role in history, but were either unacknowledged or cast in a negative light. Such acknowledgement helped to provide a voice for many of Dr. Stefanco’s students, many of whom were from marginalized groups themselves. Activities and assignments were designed to highlight the importance surrounding the analysis of historical sources. Not only did these tasks help the students to learn more about the past, it, as well, enabled them to become historians themselves through their diligent exploration and analysis. Dr. Stefanco later moved to Zagreb, Croatia to join the largest and oldest university in Southeastern Europe. Although the plan was to solely teach an undergraduate course in American Women’s History and Culture, while carrying out her research, Dr. Stefanco was immediately needed to teach a doctoral level class in comparative literature. Seeing as the University was one of very few PHD granting institutions, the class drew in a whole host of middle-aged students from throughout Eastern Europe. Dr. Stefanco soon discovered that her students were desperately lacking in their ability to analyze, interpret, or offer opinions about the work in question. It was soon revealed that, due to their erstwhile educational experiences under communism, independent thoughts had always been suppressed. Dr. Stefanco stated that, what they learned in class was of secondary importance to finding and retaining their own personal voices.

Next up to present was Dr. Lemieux. He began his presentation by describing how contemporary political matters can help to understand and shine light on in-class topics and concepts. As an example, Dr. Lemieux cites using the issues of gun control, same-sex marriage, and abortion to help his students to comprehend and show how, in constitutionalism, people with fundamental disagreements share the same environment. However, because these issues are so hotly contested and often divide opinion, Dr. Lemieux believes that they can sometimes work against him, and culminate in taking away from the initial point. This manner of problem is not experienced by using an established historical evil, such as slavery, because fortunately, as Dr. Lemieux pointed out, there is not a debate over whether or not it was anything but evil. His students read passages from two very different historical accounts over the presence/absence of a caste system. Dr. Lemieux gets his students to place themselves in the mind of those at the constitutional debate in 1787, and by doing so, it allows them to gain an insight into the decision making process behind the events that took place at that time. Dr. Lemieux stated that, whereas some students realize that people had to operate with the best information they had at that time, others remained (unrealistically) confident that they would have handled proceedings a lot better. Dr. Lemieux concluded by saying that by using these examples of historical events, his students proved to understand their material better.

Last, but not least was Dr. Shane, whose inspiration for his presentation was in the form of a project, designed for his History of Modern Art class, called the “Scholar’s Debate.” He, however, started by explaining the meaning of Art History. Dr. Shane stated that Art Historians are responsible for analyzing the appearance of artefacts, and thus drawing conclusions about what it reveals about the period and society from which it came. An example that Dr. Shane gave was the Emancipation Memorial from 1876. Although now, from a 21st century perspective, it appears controversial for the wrong reasons, Dr. Shane explains that, at the time, it was a very progressive monument, and one of the first to depict African-Americans as human. Dr. Shane also explained that within Art History, there a lot of different framework and models that Art Historians can identity with and subscribe to.

Dr. Shane proceeded by describing how the Scholar’s Debate project is carried out. He described his process of scaffolding students in his 200 level Art History course as they read peer-reviewed journal articles in the field for the first time and begin to develop their own historical perspective. Dr. Shane provides the students with visual organisers to support them in “reading for argument,” “revising for thesis,” and exchanging constructive feedback with peers. Through this process, students are able to both understand the author’s position and develop their own voice. For more detailed explanation of this process, listen from minutes 27- 37 on our podcast.

After each of the presentations had concluded, the floor was opened up for questions and discussions. These were a few points and observations that arose:

  • Both universal historical and contemporary events can be helpful resources to ameliorate teaching.
  • Classes must be interactive; students need to find their voice and participate rather than just read slides and memorise information.
  • In group projects, it is important to have markers along the way to make sure that each member is pulling their own weight.
  • History is an important component of each program, and is not limited to specific subjects.
  • Too much emphasis is being placed on quantitative data; both qualitative and quantitative methods must be considered to achieve the full picture.

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here

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