One of the things I've noticed in these conversations is how much my teaching has changed in the past few years. More and more, I've turned to under-represented voices, under-appreciated narratives, and under-the-radar discussions about the meaning of history education to first-generation college students. The reason? I'm no longer a graduate student teaching small classes at a private university. Instead, I'm an assistant professor of history at a large, comprehensive community college in the country's fourth-largest city. At my campus, we have 20,000 students, 70 percent of whom are black, Latino, Asian-American, or "other" (to use the college's official classifications). We have a large population of international students, a large LGBTQ student population, and huge numbers of students who are the first in their families to attend college. A diverse student body facilitates an intellectual dynamism that allows for rewarding conversations about race, ethnicity, geopolitics, poverty, gender, religion, sexuality, and a variety of other topics. Yet our students bring challenges that most graduate students simply never face when teaching their first college courses.
When I taught at a private university, I often introduced a New York-centric topic with the question, "How many of you have visited New York City?" Generally, about 80 percent of the students would raise their hands, and a discussion of various neighborhoods, travel experiences, and cultural sites would ensue. To put it bluntly, these were children of privilege who were both well-traveled and keenly unaware that most 19-year olds in the country have never visited Manhattan. At my current campus, I've learned not to ask the NYC question, which tends to make students retreat from the discussion. But I've also learned that my students bring insights to the classroom that make teaching US history not just rewarding, but transformative. One of my students came up to me after a discussion of the 1960s and informed me that her grandmother organized with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Students have often linked our discussions about immigration with their own journeys to the US (and, often, the continuing fight for a pathway to citizenship and fair treatment). And countless students have spoken about their experiences with racial, religious, or sexual discrimination, enlivening course content and connecting their own lives to issues in history.
As we re-launch Teaching American History (thanks to the leadership of Ben Wright), one of the things I hope to add is a focus on teaching a diverse student population. US history courses are not "one-size-fits-all;" they require sensitivity, compassion, quick responses, and constant re-assessment. I hope to share my challenges with readers and to hear from others how they are responding to these issues in the classroom. I'm looking forward to these conversations and happy to be part of them!