Guest Post: Writing Alongside Your Students

Return guest poster Mairin Odle is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. She is currently writing a book, Skin Deep: Tattoos, Scalps, and the Contested Language of Bodies in Early America.

A few years ago, I was designing a new course, one that would fulfill a writing distribution requirement at my university. I knew I wanted to find ways to engage the class with the creative aspects of writing, not just the mechanics; I wanted to show my students how ideas develop, how revisions matter, and how classrooms could be collaborative spaces where we collectively care about our work rather than churn out assignments. So on the first day of class, I promised them (perhaps rashly) that I would write a final essay alongside them. Continue reading

Assigning the Unessay in the U.S. Survey

For the past several semesters, I’ve offered students in my US History to 1877 survey the option of completing an “unessay” in place of a traditional research paper. Like almost all of my pedagogical innovations, the “unessay” was borrowed and adapted from someone else. Emily Suzanne Clark introduced me to the concept of the unessay in a January 2016 post at Religion in American History (a more detailed description of the assignment is available here). As Emily notes, she in turn borrowed and adapted the idea from Ryan Cordell, who borrowed and modified it from Michael Ullyot and Daniel Paul O’Donnell. The core aim of the assignment is to free students from the constraints of the traditional essay and to spur them to think, research, and write (or not write!) more creatively. Continue reading

Do Objects Lie? A New Video for Teaching About Material Evidence

Is material culture as inherently untrustworthy? I was once at a conference roundtable where one attendee claimed that “Material culture is so elitist, just rich people’s stuff in museums.” Fortunately, a historical archaeologist in the room begged to differ, arguing that archaeology offered a rich record of people who did not necessarily leave written sources behind. When I recently required my students to analyze both a material and a textual source, they concluded that material sources were inherently more difficult to work with than their written counterparts. “Once I describe the object, there’s nothing left to say about it,” one student complained.

I’ve been hearing variations of this argument my entire academic life. As a scholar who both studies and teaches with material culture, I find this reasoning both fascinating and frustrating. Why do so many people, from scholars to students, consider material culture somehow a lesser form of evidence than the written word? Continue reading

A Survey of Assumptions

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 5.36.17 PMWith spring well underway, many of us are experiencing the satisfaction of marking the last grade on the final blue book of the semester, with an eye toward the approaching summer months and the freedom to work on our own research projects.[1] This makes it a foolhardy moment to entice Junto readers into thinking about teaching the survey, but it also presents an opportunity to reflect on our students and how their backgrounds should shape our approach in the classroom. Continue reading

Teaching the Meaning of Liberty

Baltimore Sanitary Fair“We all declare for liberty,” Abraham Lincoln remarked in 1864, “but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” That word gets thrown around a lot when we talk about, and especially when we commemorate, the early American republic. Since I started my job two years ago, I’ve been teaching a course on “the meaning of liberty” from Revolution to Civil War. In this post I want to reflect on the process of designing, teaching, and redesigning that course—a process of thinking through American “liberty” with my twenty-first century British students in mind. Continue reading

Of Course Death Discriminates

The following post contains a discussion of a student death and trans lives. It may be upsetting to readers, so please practice self-care in deciding when and how to read it.

Puck

I’ve wept three times in front of my students this semester, and I am not a public weeper. Continue reading

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Presentism

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I’m trained as an early American historian, so I never anticipated that one day I’d teach a current-events course. And yet, in Fall 2017, I debuted a course called “Learning from the Past: Early America in the 21st Century.” New to my department, I had to market an early American studies course that would draw enrollments, and the best method I could think of was to convince students that the early American past had relevance to their lives. In graduate school, some of my professors argued that historians should not engage in presentism—that it would make our work seem dated to future generations of scholars. But our own political moment—I started teaching two weeks after far-right protests converged around Confederate monuments in Charlottesville—felt too urgent not to let our own moment into our discussions of the past. Instead of keeping the present in the subtext of my class, I brought it into the text. Continue reading

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