Reflections on Our 2019 ASEEES Pedagogy Roundtables

This article was originally published in the August 2020 edition of NewsNet.

Kathryn Julian, Westminster College, and Johanna Mellis, Ursinus College

So often big research conferences are dominated by long papers being read aloud, scholars meeting with publishers to promote their next book project, or listening to a keynote speaker for the complimentary wine hour. While these activities can be enriching and worthwhile, as people who went into academia to teach, we find ourselves sometimes frustrated that there is not more of an emphasis on pedagogy when it is such an important contribution to our societies. We started these teaching roundtables partially out of frustration that there is no real space where we can discuss the work that consumes the majority of our time: teaching.

To that end, we’ve long admired the pedagogy conversations and sharing of teaching ideas and materials among American historians on Twitter. Not only do many Americanists have a tradition of sharing resources on social media, but they also established an open-access and collaborative U.S. American history textbook, The American Yawp. The ability to swap ideas and even ask fieldspecific questions of colleagues in the midst of teaching a course is invaluable to those of us early in our careers, who often struggle to balance scholarship, teaching, and new jobs. In the last few years, a few ASEEES scholars began tweeting about pedagogy too. After “meeting” on Twitter, at ASEEES in 2018 we decided to develop an interdisciplinary teaching roundtable on “Engaging Approaches to Teaching” for the 2019 conference. Colleagues across disciplines responded enthusiastically to the idea, prompting us to develop a second roundtable. These roundtables provided a space within ASEEES to share teaching ideas in addition to scholarship.

Participants came from institutions ranging from small liberal arts colleges to research universities to community colleges to high schools. In every case, innovative teaching and engaging students proved central to our work as teacher-scholars. We all wanted to discuss the effectiveness of active teaching approaches and collaborating across disciplines while teaching ASEEES-related courses and topics. Active and engaging pedagogy typically involves more student-centered learning than other teaching strategies. Through our discussions, it became apparent that all of us try to meet students where they are in terms of prior knowledge and skills. We realized that one of our primary shared goals in the classroom is to challenge them in creative ways to build upon and apply their skills. 

A few questions informed our student-centric approach to pedagogy: How could we formulate projects that simultaneously challenged and engaged a diversity of students? How could we best create an inclusive classroom through the act of teaching, beyond our boilerplate course policies? How could we adapt our pedagogy to emerging technologies, and express the relevance of European and ASEEES-specific material to their lives in concrete ways? What follows is a brief overview of some of our teaching ideas from the roundtables related to these questions.

The idea of student-professor collaboration quickly emerged as a common theme for us. Some educators approach this kind of collaboration with concern, as they wonder what could happen when we give up some class authority to students. Yet each of us presented different approaches to collaborative teaching in the classroom, whether through personalized assignments or student-led discussions and projects. We have all found ways to invite students into the course subject, encourage them to share their existing knowledge, and apply their knowledge, rather than just memorize and regurgitate information. The teaching strategies that emerged in our discussions revolved around three main themes: experiential learning, an integrative approach that combined different disciplines and fields, and community-based learning.

It is no surprise that many of us discussed the value of, and students’ enthusiasm for, project-based assignments, considering the numerous studies demonstrating how non-traditional projects increase student learning and skill building. We will highlight just a few of the final projects that produced a lot of class (and audience) enthusiasm. As Rachel Rothstein of The Weber School explained it best, the customizable aspect of projects enables students at all levels to succeed and dive more deeply into the material on their own. Students greeted her Imagined Autobiographical Journal project—where she gives each student the identity of a Jewish person and they conduct research and create evidence-based historical journal entries—with great energy and creativity. Some of them even started signing their emails to her using their project name. In a similar vein, Johanna Mellis tasked students in her Nationalism and Memory in European History course to work in groups to develop proposals for a commemorative project about a minoritized community in European history. In addition to building teamwork through the group dynamics, they tangibly experienced the process and power of shaping historical narratives, as well as thinking through how to engage the public through history. Some of the most memorable ideas included detailed plans for a school commemorating the forced evacuations of British children during WWII, and a goddess-like statue of Greece’s first feminist, Kalliroi Parren. Although she taught the course in 2018, History majors at Ursinus College still rave about the commemoration project today (to her Chair’s delight!). Sarah Zarrow at Western Washington University noted the challenges of teaching Jewish history to students who lack experience with Jews and Jewish history, and their related concerns with talking about the topic. By assigning students to write an op-ed, she has them make connections between Jewish history and the present. They moreover learn to express their ideas to broader audiences using less clunky language than what they might attempt to use in a traditional paper, which undoubtedly makes for easier reading. Johanna Bockman assigns an even more research-oriented final assignment for her Post-Soviet Life Around the World course. Students complete a Fulbright application by selecting a country from the former Soviet Bloc, conducting research on it, and developing concrete projects to pursue in their proposals.

Experiential projects task students to explore new ways to think about politics, language, or history. Projects like Rachel’s or Sarah’s challenge students to think of the subject matter as a lived experience – to empathize with the people they’re studying, to draw on research to craft their own stories, and express their ideas in creative ways that others will find engaging. When students personalize the subject matter, it moves subjects like the Holocaust beyond Hitler and Anne Frank, and pushes them to reflect critically on their own time period. The four aforementioned assignments require students to conduct research on a specific country and topic and apply skills and knowledge learned throughout the course in a nontraditional format aimed to convince audiences beyond the classroom of their validity. Importantly, a student’s ability to succeed in these kinds of assignments is not predicated on their prior experience with traditional academic writing, which tends to favor majors and students with more privileged educational backgrounds. Importantly, projects illustrate to students the value of conducting and using evidence-based research in a variety of ways. By writing a grant proposal, op-ed, or crafting a commemoration plan, students recognize the practical application of their work beyond the term paper and the academic classroom. These kinds of non-traditional projects build skills that students can easily transfer to other jobs and tasks. Working on these assignments therefore creates more student buy-in than a traditional research paper. This is especially the case since most of our students do not pursue academic careers.

Integrative learning, or making connections across curricula and disciplines, likewise creates a learning environment where students feel more encouraged to contribute their own knowledge and experiences. Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon detailed how she makes connections to her own research and weaves Soviet and Russian history into her U.S. survey courses. Her students at San Jacinto College-Central in Houston, Texas, rarely encounter global issues, much less Soviet history, before entering her classroom. She exposes them to a range of perspectives through film, music, and non-U.S.-centric sources. This approach enables her students to learn about the United States during the Cold War from an outside perspective. At a community college, where instructors are often over-burdened and classes large, drawing the students in with different media or surprise connections— how was the U.S. Civil Rights Movement connected to the Soviet Union?—is critical to involving students and showing them different approaches to learning. Situating U.S. history within global issues forces students away from the comfort of regurgitating facts they learned from an often American-oriented high school curriculum. History becomes more dynamic and contingent. Kimberly’s integration of various world perspectives into her teaching demonstrates that even in challenging settings it is possible to create a collaborative, discussion-based classroom.

Tony Lin, who teaches Russian and Slavic studies at Boston College, demonstrated other innovative ways of pushing students to learn outside of their comfort zones. An accomplished pianist, Tony integrates music into his language teaching. In order to get students to feel, grasp, and express the contours of the culture they study, he insists that students sing aloud in class. Tony admitted that some students often feel awkward about singing in class. Few forget, however, the subject material or singing with their peers. They simultaneously and physically made the connection between different disciplines, in this case between music and linguistics. In another example, Tony tasks students with developing a campus tour in the language of study. These kinds of activities ensure that students engage with, and also produce, authentic materials that are connected to their human experience and thus speak to them as the post-millennial generation.

A final way to foster experiential learning is to engage with local communities. For public-facing scholars, communityengaged learning informs curricula design and student engagement. Kathryn Julian explained that she wants students to understand that the histories we study are not confined to the classroom, the textbook, or the college campus, but are also embedded in communities close to home. Kathryn highlighted an instance from a History of Russia survey course. As an alternate assignment, students joined Kathryn at a Russian Orthodox Church in East Tennessee. They participated in a long Vespers service, where they witnessed firsthand the icon-focused rituals they had read about in primary sources and Russian literature. During the Q&A afterwards, the priest’s discussion veered into pro-Putin nationalism. In a class debriefing, students enthusiastically discussed nationalism, religion, and what culture means to a diaspora community. While engaging with the local community can often result in the unexpected, these interactions allow us and our students to recognize history as something authentic, active, and immediate. 

Engaging our students, creating inclusive learning environments, and relaying the relevance of our subject matter - whether medieval Russian literature or postSoviet politics – all demand that we remain adaptable and constantly seek improvement. We experienced this firsthand in separate instances in 2018-2019. In spring 2019, Kathryn taught history at a small college in rural Appalachia where the student body was fairly diverse, but the faculty was overwhelmingly white. One of her Black students respectfully challenged the relevancy of the European history courses she taught. He had gone through the public-school system learning a sanitized, whiteoriented version of history from women who looked like her. Kathryn thought she had been doing good work to decolonize her syllabi, to look at colonialism and include marginalized voices, for example by broadening her Holocaust course to include North Africa. But this student was right—as was the Black student who independently suggested a similar thing to Johanna Mellis in fall 2018. After Johanna’s Nationalism and Memory in European History course ended, the student asked why they had not discussed the experiences of Black Europeans, who surely existed. Their questions were excellent and much-needed. What were the connections of this history to their lived experiences? We realized there was just as much that we could learn from our students as they could from us. With the rise of superb work on related topics in the last decade and more, such as our region’s contribution to Western colonialism and the Black experience in Russia and USSR by Lenny Ureña Valerio, Zoltán Ginelli, Jennifer Wilson, Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, and others, we really do not have any excuse for not listening to our students’ well-founded suggestions. The classroom needs to be a collaborative space that invites students to contribute to the body of knowledge, draw connections to their own experiences, and personalize the history we are learning. The two students demonstrated their level of comfort with us as white female professors, and pointed to a level of inclusivity and student-professor collaboration we had tried to imbue in the class. As the two brave students indicated however, our work was not, and is not, done. 

As we approach the specific uncertainties of the fall 2020 semester—the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on our teaching environments, the ever-more disastrous job market, the antiracist protests and nationwide calls to dismantle the white-supremacist narratives of American history and our own academic institutions—these questions are all the more urgent. This reflection on the roundtables is not a comprehensive set of proposals about how to address these incredibly complicated issues in our teaching. Rather, we offer them as suggestions for how we can collaborate as teacher-scholars and create a learning environment receptive to students’ needs and changing circumstances, as well as to innovative methods and ideas. While we do not claim to be experts on antiracist pedagogy, we are continuing to contribute to conversations on how to make our classrooms and curricula more antiracist and equitable, as noted above. We willingly admit that our pedagogy and curricula are works in progress. This is why opportunities like our ASEEES pedagogy roundtables— where we can test new ideas, receive criticism, and learn from other teacher-scholars—are so critical.

Kathryn Julian is an Assistant Professor of History at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and received her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2017. She is completing a book on Catholic religious orders and sacred space in East Germany. Her current research and teaching focuses on memory cultures, public and digital humanities, and truth and reconciliation. @kjulian_history

Johanna Mellis is an Assistant Professor of World history at Ursinus College, where she teaches courses on world/global history, oral history and memory, sport history, the Cold War, and colonialism. Her book manuscript-in-progress explores local-global cultural experiences and interactions during the Cold War through the lens of Hungarian athletes, Socialist sport leaders, and the International Olympic Committee. She is also a co-host of the End of Sport podcast. @JohannaMellis.