Marcy Sachs and Jeanne Petit
Marcy Sacks and Jeanne Petit

The Project

This project was part of the Midwest Hybrid Learning Consortium funded by the Teagle Foundation. It began during the late spring of 2015 with conversations between Marcy Sacks, history professor at Albion College, and Jeanne Petit, history professor at Hope College. We are both historians of the United States and came together because we are each interested in fostering greater student engagement with the subject through collaboration and the inclusion of digital tools. We began this project with three goals in mind:

  • First, we wanted students to ask questions about the ways historical approaches can help us understand contemporary issues.
  • Second, we wanted students to move beyond the typical research paper and learn to communicate historical arguments to a public audience.
  • Finally, we wanted to experiment with ways for students across campuses to develop a common project.

Background to the Project

After a series of email exchanges, we met face-to-face in the fall of 2015 and agreed on the parameters of our project. We each identified the specific class in which we would develop this project (for Marcy, this was History 243: African American History from 1865 to the Present; for Jeanne, the course was History 256: Recent America: From World War II to 9-11), and we chose to use the contemporary issue of Black Lives Matter as the framing theme for the students’ historic explorations. The idea was to have our students examine moments in U.S. history that helped to explain this movement or provided historic context for it. We decided that we would create a joint website with the product of the students’ work and proposed to have the two groups meet via Skype and/or in person to facilitate the collaborative effort.

During the first week of the semester, both instructors introduced the project to our respective classes and assigned a common set of readings on the Black Lives Matter movement drawn from current-day periodicals as well as writings (and tweets) of Black Lives Matter activists. Students brainstormed ways to approach this issue from a historical perspective and they listed out patterns and themes they noticed from the readings. Jeanne and Marcy then compared notes by phone and email exchanges and began to generate a list of common topics that emerged in both classes.

Kalamazoo2After the initial work in each of our classes, the students met each other at a pizza place in Kalamazoo, which is located about halfway between each campus. At this meeting, students taught each other about the ways the material they were learning in their classes could be linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. They also discussed the different thematic approaches to a historical analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement. At this point, we narrowed the project to four themes: Violence and Policing; Law and Politics; Culture; and Organized Movements.

During the rest of the semester, the students in both classes proposed individual research projects that would fit under the themes they had articulated for the website. Teaching assistants worked with each student to convert their research into a webpage. By the end of the semester, the students published their web pages under their specific themes.

As we reflect on this project, we have identified a number of challenges and benefits that came from our collaborative work.

Challenges to Project

  • Class size: we unexpectedly had dramatically different class sizes — twenty-five in the Albion class versus eight in Hope’s. This made even the planning for collaboration hard to do as we tried to imagine how to create small groups of students with such an imbalance.
  • Level of the classes: Marcy’s class was comprised principally of first-year students, most of whom were not history majors or who had taken any other college-level history, whereas Jeanne’s class was primarily upper-level students with more experience in history research.
  • The size and level of Marcy’s class and general scheduling challenges made collaboration more difficult than anticipated. Even online meetings seemed hard to arrange with so many students. In addition, because of Marcy’s class size and academic level of the students, she had less time than expected for in-class discussions of the project.
  • As a result of these various circumstances, Marcy wound up shifting the assignment from a requirement to an optional one. This led to far fewer students participating and uncertainty until the end about how many would produce material for the website.

Benefits of the Project

  • The meeting in Kalamazoo was one of the most positive aspects of this project. Kalamazoo3Our students worked in teams with members of each class in the small groups to teach each other about the historic issues that they had learned in their respective classes and how that might relate to the Black Lives Matter collaboration. What was remarkable was watching these mixed groups — students who were strangers until that day, who came from very diverse backgrounds and levels of experience — genuinely provide insight to one another. The conversations flowed without faculty guidance (we would pop into the groups to listen, but we did not direct the discussions); they took control over their own teaching and When the pizza came, the students remained in their mixed groups (rather than reverting to their own class groups) and continued to share both personal and academic stories with each other.
  • Marcy’s class brought a deeper perspective on African American history as well as the perspective of African American students to Jeanne’s all-white class, while Jeanne’s class helped provide much more knowledge of recent history to the project.
  • The disparate level of experience was also beneficial– students who had more research experience modeled historical thinking to the students who had less background in history. This provided a friendly, peer-led environment for less experienced students to deepen their own thinking and analysis become more confident in their own abilities to do research.
  • Working on a group website pushed students to see their research as part of a larger conversation. They realized that their pages were not just being read by their professors, and this made them consider a broader public as well as their responsibility to their peers.
  • The students felt empowered by the experience of seeing the webpage: students seemed to take the work more seriously than other assignments because they knew it would be public. For example, one of Marcy’s students who did not need the extra credit nevertheless produced a page for the site because he was eager to see his work in a public venue.
  • Kalamazoo1The three teaching assistants–Miriam Roth from Hope College and Cory Wheeler and Andrew Mattson from Albion College–provided essential support to the project. They also personally benefited from the experience of guiding their fellow students in learning the material and making the web pages. Miriam and Cory attended the meeting in Kalamazoo and worked with the students in delineating themes for the website. Corey also came to class once a week and offered study/tutor sessions every week for Marcy’s students. He developed confidence and self esteem by serving in this capacity, and he demonstrably influenced some of the students who saw him as a role model. Miriam researched templates and chose the design for the website, and then she and Andrew coordinated the structure of the website and worked individually students on creating their individual pages. Each of them improved their web design and peer mentoring skills. Since each hopes to enter the teaching profession, this work benefitted them both.

Lessons learned

  • Ideally, we would have had more than one joint meeting. Unfortunately, that was just too unwieldy with the size of Marcy’s class and the scheduling challenges. But students clearly derived great benefit from working with one another and would have surely found value in continuing their conversations.
  • With more time and clearer planning, we would coordinate our syllabi so that students in each class were at the same point of their individual projects at the same time. This would have allowed for them to review each other’s work and more fully collaborate on the website creation and population. Peer review would have deepened the value of the collaboration. We had hoped to include this, but the various obstacles made that untenable this time around.
  • We did not have a specific assessment plan in place before we began; having one would have helped us more effectively shape our collaboration.