On Not Banning Laptops in the Classroom

This post has been percolating for a while as a series of op-ed pieces and studies announcing that handwriting is better for learning or that laptops or other devices are ineffective or that tech shouldn’t be used in the classroom continue to emerge.  I know I’ll get push back about this response, but I’ve needed to sit down and write this for a while now (and it’s easier to have these responses collected together so I can point to them later when these studies and think-pieces continue to emerge).   [Apologies for the listicle approach to this post.]

1) Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely, a) that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow), in some cases the devices are not ones the students use themselves and with which they are comfortable. And b) the studies are almost always focused on learning in large lecture classes or classes in which the assessment of success is performance on a standardized (typically multiple-choice) test, not in the ways that many, many classes operate, and not a measure that many of us use in our own classes. And c) they don’t actually attempt to integrate the devices into the classes in question, a point that Kevin Gannon makes in his excellent post on the subject.  [It’s possible I have missed one of these studies that actually addresses all of these things and builds in training for students (and faculty) in integrating devices, or maybe works with a population of students that has had access to a robust, integrated (not nominal) 1:1 laptop program for an extended period of time before the study.  If I have missed it, I’m sure someone will let me know.]

2) Banning laptops is going to be a big problem when increasingly you have students like those in my local middle school who are exclusively using laptops in all of their classes to great effect and success. More and more students in K-12 are going to be doing that and a ban will be telling at least some students who are used to taking notes that way (who are actually BETTER at taking notes that way), that they can’t use the tools for which they have developed a process.

3) Banning laptops is also going to be a problem because of the trend toward digitized sources:  more and more campus bookstores are offering readings and interactive activities in digital form, sometimes because it’s cheaper, but often because it’s easier for them to manage, and because some students want them in that form. Some texts are ONLY being offered in digital form going forward, and many of the ancillary materials publishers are offering only work in digital form. Plus, increasingly faculty (like me, but many others) are assigning readings that are only online or in JSTOR or other online collections. That’s both because of access, but also because of economic fairness. And then, I want them to have copies of the readings with them and it’s not economically or ecologically fair to ask them to print those copies out and bring them with them to class.  [In fact, having students collectively or individually annotate class readings with a tool such as Hypothes.is is a powerful way to improve classroom discussion that would be much more difficult without devices.]

4) Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that banning technology from our classrooms does not help with the general perception in the public that universities, faculty, and the education we offer is not relevant or adaptable to the modern age.  [There are obviously many other reasons we seem to be losing this argument about the value of traditional education that have nothing to do with the laptop ban discussion, but my point here is simply that blanket bans on technology do not help the larger perception of academics.  I won’t use the L-word, but you know that others do when they see op-eds from teachers about banning tech from classrooms.]

5) I’ve seen faculty suggest that laptop bans just results in students using smart phones more, even when there is a ban on that as well. So then someone suggests (usually jokingly, sometimes not) jamming cell phones. Jamming cell phones violates federal law, so, um, good luck with that.

6) On the point of incorporating these devices into our pedagogy: I want students to be able to integrate the wide array of other sources available to them with what they are learning in my class, and I often ask them to go out and find good sources to answer questions that emerge during class lecture, discussion, and group work.  In other words, I work to integrate those tools and their connections to that larger array of information into the class.  [Admittedly, it also means that sometimes students will say, “but this other source says something different.”  That’s a terrific learning opportunity for us to talk as a class about sources, interpretation, and authority.]

6a) We should be working with students to meaningfully incorporate these devices into their learning.  I have no doubt that adding devices that students use in a wide variety of non-scholarly ways outside of class without attempts to integrate them into classes or to teach students to use those devices in academic ways risks ineffective uses of them.  I have plenty of conversations with students about how to take notes already. Most of the time their problem isn’t which device (pencil, laptop, phone, quill) they use to take those notes, but how to take them and how to use them to learn based on their own experiences, learning styles, and discipline.

6b) Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support.  I suspect that some (though certainly not all) of the support for these bans stems from the fact that many faculty don’t feel confident in using technology broadly and in particular for academic purposes (for note-taking, for social media, for research and analysis, for blogging, etc.) themselves and so don’t feel confident in having their students use those tools in and out of class.    [One answer to that at UMW is our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, and our student-centered Digital Knowledge Center, as well as the week-long Digital Pedagogy Lab institute. But there are more and more options out there to get faculty members the development they need to become more comfortable with digitally enabled pedagogy.]

7) Other critiques of laptop/device bans include: accessibility issues for studies with accommodations, the argument that bans are more about professors’ egos, the notion that bans demonstrate an inflexibility of approach, and the point that other distractions exist too.

8) Caveat: It’s the blanket ban with which I have such issues. I don’t have a problem with faculty asking students at certain points to close their laptops or put away their devices because the type of engagement at that moment is changing.

9) Caveat #2: When there are devices in the classroom, especially larger ones, a few students will use them in ways that will be distracting.  I’m not opposed to strategies or explicit conversations about reducing that problem.  It’s the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of blanket bans that are the issue here.

10) Finally, having conversations with students about how they use devices more generally and laptops in particular for academic success is important, as well as how best to take notes. I do it with students in my First-Year Seminar in detail, and in other classes in general. My school is working to develop these practices more generally and to support faculty as they incorporate technology into their classes.

Encouraging good learning practices among students (and faculty) is a terrific thing to do. I’m just not convinced that entirely banning one set of those practices and the tools used to engage in them is the way to get either group to develop those practices more generally.

 

[Thanks to Sue Fernsebner for pointing out the appropriateness of this discussion in the wake of the many pieces reflecting on Seymour Papert‘s life and work.]

Talking about Digital History and the SHA

At the Southern Historical Association Conference in November 2013, I was asked by Ian Binnington and David Herr, editors of the H-South discussion network and fellow historians of the South, to sit down and talk about digital history, digital tools, scholarship and teaching, and the role of scholarly organizations and conferences in a Digital Age.  I was honored to be asked (though I should note I was a last-minute replacement for another scholar who has a terrific book about which it would have been great to hear more), and Ian and I talked for about an hour.  David Herr did a great job splitting the footage into discrete clips. [I’ll be honest, though I’m pleased with the conversation, mostly what I see are my own verbal tics, include some painful verbal clutter.] Still, I think Ian and I work through some basic issues and opportunities that historians face these days.

Introduction

https://networks.h-net.org/node/512/discussions/34999/h-south-sha-and-youtube

Changing Modes of Research

Cataloging

Digital Tools

Dangers of Digital Humanities

Academia

Scholarship

Student Engagement

Changing Conferences

Why I Teach

Let’s get something clear from the start: I love teaching. I love teaching history. I love teaching students at a school that prioritizes teaching. I love walking in to a classroom with historical documents and scholarly readings and images and strategies for how I’m going to talk with students about the past (and often the present and the future).  I love that I walk out from that same classroom an hour or so later simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated, having learned as much as the students have in our give and take of learning about the past.  I love seeing what students can do if you push them out of their comfort zone while also providing them with support and opportunities to approach, both creatively and rigorously, the study of history.  I love my job.

My approach to teaching is grounded in the importance of historical inquiry, the multidisciplinary nature of the liberal arts, and five key related beliefs.  First, I believe that students are at the center of teaching.  I work to involve students in classes as participants, leaders, and fellow learners.  In exchange, I expect students to take responsibility for their education in and out of my classes.

Second, I believe that technology can play a key role in enhancing traditional pedagogical practices.  I integrate WordPress, Omeka, Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and web-based discussions, online research, multimedia content, digital history projects, electronic editing of papers, and image and video creation into my classes.  All of these aspects of technology are used to vary and improve communication, offer alternative forms of discussion or presentation, or broaden the academic experience in and out of the classroom, while holding on to scholarly and intellectual rigor.

Third, I believe in the importance of teaching students to be critical consumers of knowledge.  I have a responsibility to teach students to approach all primary and secondary content with a skeptical eye, not just historical sources or scholarly books and articles, though grappling with these remain essential to the discipline.  For example, in my courses on US History in Film, American Technology and Culture, Civil War and Memory, History of the Information Age, and Digital History, I work with students to analyze critically what have become the key popular sources of information about the past, namely movies and the Internet.  In all my classes I work with students to explore what it means to be skeptical about all sources of knowledge.

Fourth, I believe in the need to teach students to be rigorous yet creative and adaptable producers of knowledge.  This skill links closely with the previous notion.  Understanding how knowledge is produced makes one a better consumer, but being skeptical about one’s sources also makes one a better writer and speaker.  In my classes students are encouraged to express themselves in various ways: formal and informal, written and oral, online and in person. I teach a number of different skill sets related to exchanging and expressing information in my classes, from basic writing to oral presentations to working with groups to digital project design to the creation of infographics, images & documentaries, yet all stem from one’s ability to convey content, concepts and ideas in the best possible way.

Fifth, I believe in students being “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed” in their learning. A student walked into my office several years ago and said to me, “Dr. McClurken, I’m really struggling with all this online stuff,” referring to the projects I had assigned to the students in my American Technology and Culture course. She explained that digital projects were unfamiliar to her and that she was uncomfortable with her ability to do the assignment. She was surprised when my response to her discomfort was, “Good.” I went on to explain that I wanted her and her classmates to push the boundaries of what they understood about the conceptualization and presentation of historical information beyond papers and tests. Though she struggled a bit learning the tools we were using that semester, she later sent an email thanking me for introducing her to new methods of approaching history with the subject heading, “From Antipathy to Appreciation.” Note the last part of my initial phrase—“not paralyzed”—because it’s equally important.  I want students to move out of their comfort zones because that is where deep learning occurs, but I don’t want them to be so uncomfortable they can’t get anything done.  To keep them from paralysis we discuss potential resources to which they can turn (including their fellow students), we talk extensively about what constitutes successful work (even to the point in some classes of collectively constructing the rubrics with which I assess their papers and projects), and I tell them that they can always come to me if truly stumped.  The results of a semester’s worth of student discomfort is worth it to me, and more importantly to them, as I see their pride in the work that they’ve created and shared not only with me or with their class, but with the wider world.

This post is part of a Connected Courses assignment, and is a revised version of a piece I’ve written in various forms for various submissions.

Graduation: Reflecting on Arcs

UMW’s graduation was last weekend and with it came my department’s reception for graduating seniors and their families.  Now, I’ve been clear about my affection for graduation itself:

And, frankly, the department reception is even better.  It’s low key, everyone’s happy, even relaxed.  I really enjoy talking to the parents and students.  It’s a chance to brag about our great students to an audience who is thrilled to hear about it.

This year, though, I had three conversations that I’ve never had before.  First, I talked with two parents that I had met four years ago on the day they first brought their son to school.  We had a wonderful conversation about history, about the liberal arts, about their son’s academic interests, and about my own research (which overlapped with his own interests).  He wasn’t part of that initial conversation four years ago, but his younger sister was. Instead, his parents told him about the conversation and he contacted me about getting in to my First-Year Seminar on returning American veterans throughout history, which we were able to do.  Since then, he took another class of mine and just completed his senior thesis with me on the relationship between Grant and Meade during the Overland Campaign.  [Plus his sister ended up coming to UMW and taking my women’s history course last fall.]  So, the conversation I had at the senior reception with their parents brought us all back full circle.  We had the chance to talk on the first day they left their son at UMW and on the last day before his graduation.  There was an arc to that relationship that felt so right for all of us.  Frankly, I wish there were more of these stories of having four years to know students and their parents, to follow the arc of a student’s career in a way that doesn’t happen often enough.  I wonder if there are ways we might engineer more of these longer connections.

The second conversation was with parents who I’d never met before, but my mother had.  Earlier this semester, my mother, an elementary school teacher in Albemarle County, and I realized that I was teaching a student that she had taught in Kindergarten.  So, at the senior reception, I had the chance to meet this student’s parents and we had a wonderful conversation about the arc of that story as well.  As the student said when she first found out, “That’s amazing! My education begins and ends with McClurkens!”  It was a lovely reminder that we get students who are products of 13 years of contact with earlier teachers, of the many ways that those previous experiences affect them, and of the ways that parents remember those teachers too, sometimes more clearly than the students do.

The third conversation was with a student who was graduating just two years after he graduated high school.  I met him at a banquet for prospective students 6 months before he started at UMW and have been his adviser for two years.  Not surprisingly, a student who manages to finish a college degree in two years (with one of those semesters spent abroad) doesn’t need much advising, but it has been a pleasure to work with him and to meet his family.  Even in those two years he has grown immensely as a scholar and a person, something I was able to see as he was incredibly successful in a class with me this semester.  Meeting his family I could talk about that transformation and how glad I was to be some small part of his experience at UMW.

All three of these conversations at the receptions were good reminders that strong connections with students can (and maybe should) begin before they start here, of the role that parents can play in supporting their students, and of the many longer arcs of relationships that exist in our worlds that seem to be typically defined by the year or even semester.

 

 

 

Century America: A Course about the Past Done with Tools from the Present (but What’s Its Future?)

http://centuryamerica.org Century America Main Project Site

http://centuryamerica.org
Century America Main Project Site

This post is my contribution to UMW’s Digital Scholarship Institute discussions.

I should start by confessing that I originally proposed four different ideas to talk about for my week: a nascent digital project on a poisoning case in a mental institution with Pinkerton detectives, as well as my courses on Digital History, the History of the Information Age, and this course, Century America.  Mary Kayler wisely advised me to pick just one, and so I chose Century America as the best combination of unique approach and sufficient work done to have something to talk about.

So, what is Century America?  I’ll let Bill Spellman, Director of COPLAC, introduce it. [This is from the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

“Century America,” launched by the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, is a digital-humanities project in which undergraduates on nearly a dozen campuses will produce a website documenting daily life during World War I.

 

The project combines the virtual and the local—engaging students in exploring and mastering digital tools and resources while delving into the histories of their own campuses and communities. By semester’s end, the undergraduate researchers will produce a web-published product that will provide narrative and photographic overviews of campus and community life during World War I. The project will also document the impact of the global influenza epidemic of 1918-19 on those communities. This final product, accessible online, will make contributions to historical understanding locally and nationally.

 

Using distance technology, student researchers on the 11 campuses will collaborate with one another and be guided by academic mentors—Ellen Holmes Pearson, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and Jeffrey McClurken, chair and a professor of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington.

 

Students enrolled in the online seminar will blog about their progress, learn to create digital maps, integrate timelines into their work, and practice digital presentation. That approach to collaborative learning blends the traditional benefits of a liberal-arts classroom, high-impact undergraduate research, online teaching of digital skills, and the technical proficiency necessary for historians in the digital age.

 

The “Century America” program receives generous support from the Teagle Foundation of New York.

The ultimate goal is to have each student create a site about their own school and that school’s community’s experiences during the Great War and the Influenza epidemic that follows, but within a framework of a larger overarching site (built by the four UMW students who are part of the class).

As you can see from this introduction and from the syllabus (which will give you a good sense of the structure and the assignments), this is an unusual course.  Some have called this a “distance mentoring course,” but I like to think of it as a small, private, online course (especially to contrast it with the Massively Open Online Course).  It is being taught by faculty from two different schools, and with students from nine different public liberal arts colleges. [We began with 14 students from 11 schools, but two students had to drop out because of other commitments.]  It takes advantage of various distance-learning technologies/systems (Skype, Bluejeans, Cisco Movi-Jabber, and MCNC) to enable students in three time zones to have the same kind of powerful interactions with faculty and with each other that UMW and other liberal arts institutions pride themselves on.  Most online course are larger and/or asynchronous.  We meet together as a group in real time, 1-2 times each week, even as we are spread across the country.  I’m not aware of any other course that brings together students from so many different schools to create a digital project together, especially one that provides both support and autonomy to build those projects.

In terms of opportunities for the students, they have access to the expertise of two faculty members not at their institution, as well as many other resources from the various schools (including help from UMW’s DTLT), they have a chance to be part of a project that weaves together nine different local histories of schools and communities during the Great War with an overarching national narrative.  They have the chance to see those different community histories through the eyes of people who are deeply interested in those communities because they are a part of the modern version of that community.

The distance learning aspect represents the biggest change for me, having never taught online before.  In some ways it’s more challenging than face-to-face classes: the video-conferencing technology isn’t perfect and it’s not easy for multiple people to talk without some pauses.  It’s challenging in that it’s hard to read body language or to see people getting ready to talk or any number of cues that can be easily recognized by experienced teachers in the classroom.  It’s also more challenging because the casual conversations that we typically engage in as faculty before and after classes simply aren’t there.  So, getting to know the students as people is more difficult.  Still, Ellen Holmes Pearson and I have worked to engage with students on their blogs and via Twitter (the class hashtag in #HIST1914).

Dealing with students at different schools also has raised other issues, including differing student expectations, differing tech support levels,  and differing research environments.  We’ve tried to address those with clear guidelines, assignments aimed at building tech skills, support from the UMW students in the course (building on the concept of tech mentors), and lots of discussions about archival research, citation, copyright permissions, and many other topics that you can read about in the syllabus.

The finished drafts of the projects are due April 3 and they look like they are going to be phenomenal.  [See links off of here to check them out.] I believe that they will serve as a resource for some time to come for the public to use.

I think that the course has the potential to serve as a model for one way that liberal arts institutions can engage in online learning without giving up the core values at the heart of what we do.  However, I’d like some help in thinking through:

  • How can we replicate this process with other classes?  [In other words, can we scale production of these classes, even if we want to continue to keep them small?]
  • How can we replicate this process without the resources of hire-behinds and/or a technical infrastructure for videoconferencing?
  • Who this approach should be aimed at? [Both in terms of students and in terms of faculty who might be able to participate.]
  • What lessons can be learned from this for hybrid or face-to-face courses?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Century America: A Course about the Past Done with Tools from the Present (but What’s Its Future?)

http://centuryamerica.org Century America Main Project Site

http://centuryamerica.org
Century America Main Project Site

This post is my contribution to UMW’s Digital Scholarship Initiative discussions.

I should start by confessing that I originally proposed four different ideas to talk about for my week: a nascent digital project on a poisoning case in a mental institution with Pinkerton detectives, as well as my courses on Digital History, the History of the Information Age, and this course, Century America.  Mary Kayler wisely advised me to pick just one, and so I chose Century America as the best combination of unique approach and sufficient work done to have something to talk about.

So, what is Century America?  I’ll let Bill Spellman, Director of COPLAC, introduce it. [This is from the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

“Century America,” launched by the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, is a digital-humanities project in which undergraduates on nearly a dozen campuses will produce a website documenting daily life during World War I.

 

The project combines the virtual and the local—engaging students in exploring and mastering digital tools and resources while delving into the histories of their own campuses and communities. By semester’s end, the undergraduate researchers will produce a web-published product that will provide narrative and photographic overviews of campus and community life during World War I. The project will also document the impact of the global influenza epidemic of 1918-19 on those communities. This final product, accessible online, will make contributions to historical understanding locally and nationally.

 

Using distance technology, student researchers on the 11 campuses will collaborate with one another and be guided by academic mentors—Ellen Holmes Pearson, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and Jeffrey McClurken, chair and a professor of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington.

 

Students enrolled in the online seminar will blog about their progress, learn to create digital maps, integrate timelines into their work, and practice digital presentation. That approach to collaborative learning blends the traditional benefits of a liberal-arts classroom, high-impact undergraduate research, online teaching of digital skills, and the technical proficiency necessary for historians in the digital age.

 

The “Century America” program receives generous support from the Teagle Foundation of New York.

The ultimate goal is to have each student create a site about their own school and that school’s community’s experiences during the Great War and the Influenza epidemic that follows, but within a framework of a larger overarching site (built by the four UMW students who are part of the class).

As you can see from this introduction and from the syllabus (which will give you a good sense of the structure and the assignments), this is an unusual course.  Some have called this a “distance mentoring course,” but I like to think of it as a small, private, online course (especially to contrast it with the Massively Open Online Course).  It is being taught by faculty from two different schools, and with students from nine different public liberal arts colleges. [We began with 14 students from 11 schools, but two students had to drop out because of other commitments.]  It takes advantage of various distance-learning technologies/systems (Skype, Bluejeans, Cisco Movi-Jabber, and MCNC) to enable students in three time zones to have the same kind of powerful interactions with faculty and with each other that UMW and other liberal arts institutions pride themselves on.  Most online course are larger and/or asynchronous.  We meet together as a group in real time, 1-2 times each week, even as we are spread across the country.  I’m not aware of any other course that brings together students from so many different schools to create a digital project together, especially one that provides both support and autonomy to build those projects.

In terms of opportunities for the students, they have access to the expertise of two faculty members not at their institution, as well as many other resources from the various schools (including help from UMW’s DTLT), they have a chance to be part of a project that weaves together nine different local histories of schools and communities during the Great War with an overarching national narrative.  They have the chance to see those different community histories through the eyes of people who are deeply interested in those communities because they are a part of the modern version of that community.

The distance learning aspect represents the biggest change for me, having never taught online before.  In some ways it’s more challenging than face-to-face classes: the video-conferencing technology isn’t perfect and it’s not easy for multiple people to talk without some pauses.  It’s challenging in that it’s hard to read body language or to see people getting ready to talk or any number of cues that can be easily recognized by experienced teachers in the classroom.  It’s also more challenging because the casual conversations that we typically engage in as faculty before and after classes simply aren’t there.  So, getting to know the students as people is more difficult.  Still, Ellen Holmes Pearson and I have worked to engage with students on their blogs and via Twitter (the class hashtag in #HIST1914).

Dealing with students at different schools also has raised other issues, including differing student expectations, differing tech support levels,  and differing research environments.  We’ve tried to address those with clear guidelines, assignments aimed at building tech skills, support from the UMW students in the course (building on the concept of tech mentors), and lots of discussions about archival research, citation, copyright permissions, and many other topics that you can read about in the syllabus.

The finished drafts of the projects are due April 3 and they look like they are going to be phenomenal.  [See links off of here to check them out.] I believe that they will serve as a resource for some time to come for the public to use.

I think that the course has the potential to serve as a model for one way that liberal arts institutions can engage in online learning without giving up the core values at the heart of what we do.  However, I’d like some help in thinking through:

  • How can we replicate this process with other classes?  [In other words, can we scale production of these classes, even if we want to continue to keep them small?]
  • How can we replicate this process without the resources of hire-behinds and/or a technical infrastructure for videoconferencing?
  • Who this approach should be aimed at? [Both in terms of students and in terms of faculty who might be able to participate.]
  • What lessons can be learned from this for hybrid or face-to-face courses?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

My Contribution to the James Farmer Lecture Hall Dedication

I was honored to be asked to be part of the dedication of the large lecture room in Monroe Hall at UMW in honor of Civil Rights icon James Farmer, who taught in that room for nearly 15 years.  Here is the text of my remarks with some of the clips I shared with the audience.

—————————————————————
James Farmer Lecture Hall Dedication, November 15, 2013


Thank you all for coming. It is indeed an honor for me to be here today, to be part of this ceremony. And it’s certainly appropriate for me, as chair of UMW’s department of History and American Studies, the department that James Farmer taught in for many years, to say a few words here today.

But I have another perspective on Dr. Farmer as well. Twenty years ago this fall, I was starting my senior year at Mary Washington College, and, once a week, for nearly three hours, I had the privilege of sitting in this very room, listening to James Farmer tell nearly 100 of us about the Civil Rights movement and about his role in it as part of his Introduction to Civil Rights course. As a history major I had heard about the movement in several of my classes, but there was something fundamentally different in hearing those stories come to life from someone who had been there, someone who had physically and emotionally suffered for the cause in which he believed.

As a history major who had every plan of going on to graduate school to become a professor, a scholar, an historian, a teacher there was something deeply powerful about hearing from a living legend who was simultaneously, clearly human as well. He was self-deprecating and open about his personal struggles: discussing, for example, how he dealt with his jealousy of “Martin’s” fame (that first-name reference itself a casual, not ostentatious, but constant reminder to us of his ties to the other leaders of the movement) or his wondering whether he made the right decision to stay in jail with other protesters arrested in Plaquemine, Louisiana instead of paying the fees and being at the 1963 March on Washington.

Even if I hadn’t already been aware of the unique experience that I and my classmates were going through, it would have been brought home to me when I got my paper back with his comments on it. My paper was on Lyndon Johnson’s varied stances on Civil Rights over the years. I won’t bore you with the details now, but I was proud of the nuanced story that I had written, working in many primary sources, but especially using LBJ’s autobiography, written after he had stepped down as president. [In retrospect, given what I know now of primary sources and about Lyndon Johnson, I bought into LBJ’s retellings of his own story more than I should have.] When I got the paper back, Dr. Farmer had simply written, “Interesting. This is not the version President Johnson told me when I was in the Oval Office.” Now, I’d had professors tell me that I needed to think more critically about my sources before, but none of them could cite actual interactions with the people in question to make me do so.

For this and so many other reasons, my time in James Farmer’s class, my time in this very room with him, was transformative, so much so, that when I had the chance to come back to teach at Mary Washington I jumped at the opportunity to find ways to remember and honor him, for his service to the Civil Rights Movement and for his service to nearly a generation of students at this school. I’m not alone in that. Tim O’Donnell taught a First-Year Seminar on James Farmer, as do an interdisciplinary group of faculty led by Craig Vasey; my colleague Jess Rigelhaupt taught an oral history class in which the students interviewed many of Farmer’s colleagues during his time at MWC.

But I’ve been asked to show you a bit of work that students in my digital history courses have done to honor James Farmer. Now, in talking with my students who were working on these projects, I told them about my own experiences in Farmer’s class and about his many gifts as an orator. They decided that they wanted to make it possible for others to not just read Dr. Farmer’s words but to be able to hear him as well. The 2008 iteration of my digital history course found and digitized Farmer’s 1994 appearance before the Federal Election Commission. There are many excerpts of that testimony with him talking about his first exposure to racism in 1923, him discussing his views on affirmative action, him revealing the ways in which Gandhi’s non-violent approach was an inspiration to him. But I want to share this clip of a poem that Farmer himself wrote.

 “When I Stand Tall”

In the mid-1980s television station WNVT came and recorded 13 of James Farmer’s class lectures. In 2012, working with our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, students digitized those lectures, transcribed them, and made them available for anyone to see.

I want to share two clips here. The first clip is actually a trailer made for the site by the students in the class to draw people in to watching the full lectures.

In the second clip Farmer talks about what he saw as the successes of the Freedom Summer.

Please check out these two sites for more videos of Dr. Farmer’s FEC testimony and class lectures.

So you can see that through the work of UMW students everyone can hear James Farmer’s words, can hear him tell his stories, can come to understand why we honor James Farmer today with a room in which people will regularly gather to hear from faculty, from guest speakers, from politicians debating the issues of the day, and from students presenting on their own research, perhaps on the Civil Rights Movement.

It is indeed right and appropriate that today we honor James Farmer in this way, in this room in which he touched so many Mary Washington students’ lives.

It is indeed right and appropriate that we designate, that we consecrate this place where the Civil Rights movement came to life through the resonant voice, the wry humor, the deep intelligence, and the raw emotion of a man who had lived through the movement, had changed the movement, and had been changed by it

It is indeed right and appropriate that we celebrate and recognize the life and teaching of James Leonard Farmer, Civil Rights leader, hero, and educator.

Thank you.

My Contribution to the James Farmer Lecture Hall Dedication

I was honored to be asked to be part of the dedication of the large lecture room in Monroe Hall at UMW in honor of Civil Rights icon James Farmer, who taught in that room for nearly 15 years.  Here is the text of my remarks with some of the clips I shared with the audience.

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James Farmer Lecture Hall Dedication, November 15, 2013


Thank you all for coming. It is indeed an honor for me to be here today, to be part of this ceremony. And it’s certainly appropriate for me, as chair of UMW’s department of History and American Studies, the department that James Farmer taught in for many years, to say a few words here today.

But I have another perspective on Dr. Farmer as well. Twenty years ago this fall, I was starting my senior year at Mary Washington College, and, once a week, for nearly three hours, I had the privilege of sitting in this very room, listening to James Farmer tell nearly 100 of us about the Civil Rights movement and about his role in it as part of his Introduction to Civil Rights course. As a history major I had heard about the movement in several of my classes, but there was something fundamentally different in hearing those stories come to life from someone who had been there, someone who had physically and emotionally suffered for the cause in which he believed.

As a history major who had every plan of going on to graduate school to become a professor, a scholar, an historian, a teacher there was something deeply powerful about hearing from a living legend who was simultaneously, clearly human as well. He was self-deprecating and open about his personal struggles: discussing, for example, how he dealt with his jealousy of “Martin’s” fame (that first-name reference itself a casual, not ostentatious, but constant reminder to us of his ties to the other leaders of the movement) or his wondering whether he made the right decision to stay in jail with other protesters arrested in Plaquemine, Louisiana instead of paying the fees and being at the 1963 March on Washington.

Even if I hadn’t already been aware of the unique experience that I and my classmates were going through, it would have been brought home to me when I got my paper back with his comments on it. My paper was on Lyndon Johnson’s varied stances on Civil Rights over the years. I won’t bore you with the details now, but I was proud of the nuanced story that I had written, working in many primary sources, but especially using LBJ’s autobiography, written after he had stepped down as president. [In retrospect, given what I know now of primary sources and about Lyndon Johnson, I bought into LBJ’s retellings of his own story more than I should have.] When I got the paper back, Dr. Farmer had simply written, “Interesting. This is not the version President Johnson told me when I was in the Oval Office.” Now, I’d had professors tell me that I needed to think more critically about my sources before, but none of them could cite actual interactions with the people in question to make me do so.

For this and so many other reasons, my time in James Farmer’s class, my time in this very room with him, was transformative, so much so, that when I had the chance to come back to teach at Mary Washington I jumped at the opportunity to find ways to remember and honor him, for his service to the Civil Rights Movement and for his service to nearly a generation of students at this school. I’m not alone in that. Tim O’Donnell taught a First-Year Seminar on James Farmer, as do an interdisciplinary group of faculty led by Craig Vasey; my colleague Jess Rigelhaupt taught an oral history class in which the students interviewed many of Farmer’s colleagues during his time at MWC.

But I’ve been asked to show you a bit of work that students in my digital history courses have done to honor James Farmer. Now, in talking with my students who were working on these projects, I told them about my own experiences in Farmer’s class and about his many gifts as an orator. They decided that they wanted to make it possible for others to not just read Dr. Farmer’s words but to be able to hear him as well. The 2008 iteration of my digital history course found and digitized Farmer’s 1994 appearance before the Federal Election Commission. There are many excerpts of that testimony with him talking about his first exposure to racism in 1923, him discussing his views on affirmative action, him revealing the ways in which Gandhi’s non-violent approach was an inspiration to him. But I want to share this clip of a poem that Farmer himself wrote.


 "When I Stand Tall"

In the mid-1980s television station WNVT came and recorded 13 of James Farmer’s class lectures. In 2012, working with our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, students digitized those lectures, transcribed them, and made them available for anyone to see.

I want to share two clips here. The first clip is actually a trailer made for the site by the students in the class to draw people in to watching the full lectures.

In the second clip Farmer talks about what he saw as the successes of the Freedom Summer.



Please check out these two sites for more videos of Dr. Farmer's FEC testimony and class lectures.

So you can see that through the work of UMW students everyone can hear James Farmer’s words, can hear him tell his stories, can come to understand why we honor James Farmer today with a room in which people will regularly gather to hear from faculty, from guest speakers, from politicians debating the issues of the day, and from students presenting on their own research, perhaps on the Civil Rights Movement.

It is indeed right and appropriate that today we honor James Farmer in this way, in this room in which he touched so many Mary Washington students’ lives.

It is indeed right and appropriate that we designate, that we consecrate this place where the Civil Rights movement came to life through the resonant voice, the wry humor, the deep intelligence, and the raw emotion of a man who had lived through the movement, had changed the movement, and had been changed by it

It is indeed right and appropriate that we celebrate and recognize the life and teaching of James Leonard Farmer, Civil Rights leader, hero, and educator.

Thank you.




Sharing my teaching and learning

I’ve been fortunate lately to have a number of things come out recently featuring my teaching and research.

1) In October my US History in Film class was recorded by C-SPAN’s American History TV as we discussed the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind.  It was a wide-ranging discussion of the movie as a flawed secondary source about the Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction eras in the South, as well as its role as a primary source for the 1930s perspectives on that past.  

I did an introduction and conclusion, but the bulk of the class was the students delving deeply into the interpretations, implications, and lessons of the film.  They did a terrific job.

[I've gotten a number of nice responses from people who watched it, but the best was from an 87-year old Holocaust survivor who wrote me that GWTW had been her first exposure to American History.  She then told me that she was inspired to learn about the actual historical background of the time.]

You can watch the whole class here.

2) A couple weeks later, I did a talk for the Fredericksburg Area Museum on the Coming of the Battle of Fredericksburg as part of the celebration   C-SPAN came to that as well and you can see that talk here.

3) A few weeks after that, I was the moderator for a great series of talks about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg by George Rable, Susannah Ural, and Frank O’Reilly.  They put up with my unorthodox introductions and gave great talks which can be found here.

4) Finally, UMW did a nice profile of me and my teaching for the main page of the website.  It’s overly generous, but I appreciate it just the same.

Sharing my teaching and learning

I've been fortunate lately to have a number of things come out recently featuring my teaching and research.

1) In October my US History in Film class was recorded by C-SPAN's American History TV as we discussed the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind.  It was a wide-ranging discussion of the movie as a flawed secondary source about the Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction eras in the South, as well as its role as a primary source for the 1930s perspectives on that past.  

I did an introduction and conclusion, but the bulk of the class was the students delving deeply into the interpretations, implications, and lessons of the film.  They did a terrific job.

[I've gotten a number of nice responses from people who watched it, but the best was from an 87-year old Holocaust survivor who wrote me that GWTW had been her first exposure to American History.  She then told me that she was inspired to learn about the actual historical background of the time.]

You can watch the whole class here.


2) A couple weeks later, I did a talk for the Fredericksburg Area Museum on the Coming of the Battle of Fredericksburg as part of the celebration   C-SPAN came to that as well and you can see that talk here.

3) A few weeks after that, I was the moderator for a great series of talks about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg by George Rable, Susannah Ural, and Frank O'Reilly.  They put up with my unorthodox introductions and gave great talks which can be found here.

4) Finally, UMW did a nice profile of me and my teaching for the main page of the website.  It's overly generous, but I appreciate it just the same.