Teaching Graduate Students: The Public Value of Their Work

kids sitting on a ledgeby John Giggie, Department of History

In this faculty blog on graduate teaching, I would like to share a few observations on possible ways to help graduate students in American history think about the public value of their work. My hope is that as students broaden their identities as public intellectuals they will deepen their commitment to their craft and discipline. My ideas are based most recently on my experience working with graduate students to co-design and co-teach a new high school history course.

Specifically, I am piloting a class in African American history at Central High School in Tuscaloosa that attempts to root key themes and events in the local community. It is a year-long course that meets daily and the first of its kind to be offered in public schools in the state of Alabama. The class is off to a strong start. There is also media interest in the classes, with a local print media article and a local television report.

A key ambition is to make the class student-focused and project-driven, with stress on using social media and digital technology to create public dimensions to the students’ learning and achievement.

Another essential goal is to center history graduate students as co-creators and co-teachers of the course as a way to introduce them to the design and implementation phases of course construction and to empower them to become teachers in their own right.

Over the summer, my graduate students and I sketched major objectives and thematic units, built lesson plans, and imagined projects the high schoolers would undertake during the year — podcasts, digital memorials to victims of slavery and lynching, lesson plans written by high schoolers and then taught by them to middle schoolers, oral histories of civil rights veterans, and a conference on local history.

Because the course is intended to be situated in the community, we also sought to partner with local leaders and institutions like Stillman College, the Chamber of Commerce, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among others. Currently, we are teaching the course, which has 18 juniors and seniors in it.

Although I have only completed ten weeks of actually running the class with my students, I am already learning several lessons about ways to teach graduate students in history. These lessons revolve around the idea of asking them to take their work into public settings and share it with others. They are also targeted at expanding the graduate students’ sense of the public importance of their work and their own responsibility to the community in which they live.

  • Ask graduate students to imagine and design a semester or year-long course for young people. The task forces them to master key themes and tensions in the field and communicate it clearly and simply. (This idea could be limited to simply teaching about a single topic in American history to young people, and focus on unit planning and not daily lesson planning.)
  • Require graduate students to develop and teach lesson plans incorporating social media. Here, the summative exercise might be to craft a class tweet on the key idea of the day or a develop photo essay based on a long period of research to be shared on the class Instagram page). The key point here is to have students think about history from the perspective of contemporary consumers of social media. That is, they must imagine communicating with people who increasingly rely on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat for knowledge about the world.
  • Push graduate students to teach a single class or give a talk at a local public school. The experience promises to enhance their understanding of the importance of their own professional studies to the improved health of community education and citizenship.
  • Encourage graduate students to share their learning with a local community leader or institution that works in a related field. A student studying the Civil War might speak to a local Civil War Roundtable, for example; one examining segregation might connect with the local NAACP chapter. Such communication strengthens students’ appreciation for the role of history in contemporary society and links them to professionals outside the walls of the academy.

John Giggie is an associate professor in the Department of History and the director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South.