Can AI ace exams?

Faculty across fields have been testing out the new ChatGPT website and sharing the surprisingly sophisticated results the site can generate using its machine-learning trained language model. Many are questioning whether this will be the end of take home exams, since students could very easily copy and paste answers from this freely-accessible site. I’m not an expert on technology, much less AI, and a lot of the explainers out there assume more tech knowledge than most faculty have. So, based on my reading (subject to editing and improvements), here are some basic Q&A’s for faculty wondering how this may change the game–as early as this year’s final exams.

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Teaching Southern History Through Myths

When I arrived in my teaching position and learned I’d need to teach a course called “Virginia and the Old South,” my heart sank. How was I going to turn that into something that sounded so old fashioned into an engaging course? But as it turned out, I came up with a spin on the class that has made it one of my favorite classes to teach, albeit under a new title: “Race and Myth in Southern History.”

We start out the class by discussing the difference between history and myth, and I give the students a handout with definitions and a list of the main components of a myth about the past (drawn from theorists but accessible for undergrads). From then on, each week tackles a different myth from European contact to Reconstruction.

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Flipping the US survey–online or off

Things I never thought could work as well as traditional teaching:

  1. teaching online
  2. using a flipped classroom model

Well, happily, I was wrong. The necessity of moving to online teaching during the pandemic has proved to me that, at least for a lecture-heavy course like the US History survey, both of these can work even better than the traditional class structure. Since many of us will continue teaching virtually or in some hybrid (some in-person time, some online) format, I’d like to share how I’ve made this course work.

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Teaching scholarly research skills

Many of my fellow history professor colleagues and I have discussed our struggles to convince students to search the university library instead of Google. I get it–Google is often my first stop when I’m trying to find an answer. But the Google habit is hard to break; even when we or our subject area librarians demonstrate how to search the library catalog, students still go back to Google. How do we change this? I posed the question and got a range of great answers on Twitter, which I’ve collated here.

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A lesson in ethics, slavery, & resistance

Several years ago, I designed a lesson as part of a faculty ethics workshop at Marymount University that has now become one of my favorite discussions of the semester in my early U.S. survey course. Whether you want to introduce some formal ethics language or not (and this lesson really just has a small amount), this activity is a great way to get students to connect past and present, think critically about the media, and reflect on the choices make people make in response to oppression.

Students learn about the northern personal liberty laws and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as a precursor to the activity. Then I share the story of Shadrach Minkins, an enslaved man from Norfolk who self-emancipated and made his way to Boston. I take the story up to the point where a professional slave hunter has gotten a warrant and Minkins has been taken to the local courthouse.

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Videos for teaching early US history

I’ve always integrated video clips into my lectures in the US survey–I like bringing other voices and historical visualizations into the classroom and the students enjoy it. For online teaching, some best practice guides suggest that video instruction should be in 6-8 minute segments, so these videos can be interspersed with your own lecture clips.

To start with, a few good sites with lots of options:
SmartHistory (uses art to do history)

American Battlefield Trust (videos and virtual experiences)

National Constitution Center

Mount Vernon

C-SPAN classroom (create a free account; tons of great virtual field trips)

Click through to see a full list of the videos I use

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Exhibiting Museum Studies Skills

This semester, I’m teaching a museum studies course as part of our public history minor. The course has students majoring in history, interior design, education, communications, and art. We spent the first several weeks talking about the history of museums, with a focus on natural history and historic house museums. To transition into the portion of the course on museum collections, I wanted students to grasp the challenges behind organizing, categorizing, and interpreting a collection. So, last Wednesday, we spent most of our 2 hr 45 min class creating a mini-exhibition from start to finish.

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Teaching Impeachment

Today in my upper level Colonial America & the American Revolution course, the students voted to pause our regular schedule and talk about impeachment for part of the class. I first answered questions they had about what was happening right now, then explained that we were going to look at the roots of impeachment in the Constitution.

I shared the relevant sections of the Constitution with the whole class and briefly discussed what they meant. I then split the class in half, with one group examining an excerpt from Federalist no. 65 and another an excerpt from the debates in the Constitutional Convention. They had to pick out the most important phrases and then summarize the document and their reactions for the other half of class.

I have created a 3-page pdf version of this material to download, which could be reduced to just one page printed to distribute in class if you share the constitutional clauses on the screen rather than printing them.

Historical Figure Presentations

This semester in my upper-level early national and Jacksonian US class (1790-1848), I tried out an alternative to a short paper: oral presentations on historical figures which focused in on one primary source by that figure. Students chose from a list of figures I provided that would mesh well with the reading for that week, and I gave a sample presentation early in the semester to model what I was looking for. To encourage students to take notes, I gave them notetaking worksheets and explained that they could bring these to the midterm and final. They would serve as cheat sheets for short answer questions asking them what selected pairs of figures would discuss. You can skip down to the prompt, or read about pluses and minuses first.

Some big advantages of this kind of project:
-it’s student-centered learning–not just a buzzword, but something the students specifically said they liked
-gives students a stake in the work–some of them got really excited about the people they researched
-encourages independent research and analysis of primary sources
-builds public speaking skills
-less grading–I filled out a rubric as they spoke and just made a few additional notes before giving a grade
-created a very successful set of exam questions which drew out thoughtful and creative replies

Some challenges:
-getting students to use books and scholarly articles; perhaps setting a required number would help
-students often found great images of historical documents online, but if the transcription wasn’t posted with the images, they didn’t do good research to find it (esp. if it was only available in a book)
-they generally copied the format of my sample talk
-the biggest miss was on the supplemental images, objects or documents–they would show images, often from later eras, as illustrations but failed to analyze them

Assignment Prompt

For this assignment, you will choose one historical figure from the list of options for your chosen date and find one primary source document by or about that person. You will then craft an oral presentation that connects the person and source to that week’s theme.

Your presentation must include:

  • Brief background on the life and significance of the historical figure
  • One primary source document, a copy of which you can post digitally or hand out paper copies
  • Two supplementary images, objects, or documents
  • Analysis of your source and supplementary items in connection to the theme and reading for that week
  • Visuals of some sort, via handouts or digital presentation
  • Bibliography of web and scholarly sources

The presentation can take any form you would like: a powerpoint with a talk; an historical reenactment; a short film or media presentation. You may work individually or in pairs. Individual presentations should last 7-10 minutes, while those crafted by a pair should be 15 minutes.

A list of websites and databases which will be useful for locating primary sources is available on Canvas. Cite all sources. Your biography should draw from reputable scholarly sources; do not rely on websites.

You will also take notes on each presentation on a worksheet, which you will be able to bring with you to the midterm and final.


I scored the presentations based on the following:

  • Presentation
  • Enthusiasm
  • Visual Aids
  • Organization
  • Primary Sources and Supplements
  • Knowledge of Content

Figures as options, by week:

4: Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr
5: Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Judith Sargent Murray, Phyllis Wheatley
6: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Tecumseh
8: Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs, William Lloyd Garrison
10: Joseph Smith, Charles Finney, John Jacob Astor, Robert Fulton
11: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Margaret Eaton, John Ross (cherokee chief)
13: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Peabody, Emily Dickinson

Teaching Resources for Tough Times

I’ve spent a good deal of time this summer thinking about how to structure my US history to 1877 survey course–composed almost entirely of non-majors–to address the pressing issues of the moment.  Here are a few things I’m planning to do:

  • start out on the first day with an explanation of why they should care about history, specifically early American history (jump to my list below)
  • also on the first day, set out some ground rules on how to respectfully participate in class discussions (jump to that list)
  • have students read both the Declaration of Independence and John Dickinson’s speech against it, then assign them to opposite sides to debate for and against declaring independence.  I’m hoping this will overturn some teleological thinking about the Revolution as inevitable, push them to hear some opinions they’re not accustomed to, and make them think critically about why and when people revolt against their governments.
  • read and discuss Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to understand the history of non-violent protest (inspired by discussion at the SHEAR panel “Teaching in the Age of Trump”).  Especially teaching just outside DC, where there are quite frequent protests, this will provide helpful context.


The relevance of history

History helps us understand:

  • How did we get here?
  • Where did we come from?
  • Has something like this happened before? How did people handle it?
  • How does radical—or even small—change happen? How do new movements form?

Early American history helps us understand:

  • How did the United States end up being so big and diverse?
  • Where did notions of race and racism come from?
  • Why do Native Americans live on reservations (like Standing Rock)?
  • Why were women excluded from politics?
  • What made colonists decide it was worth fighting a war against their mother country? What were they fighting for?
  • These “founding fathers”…what exactly did they envision for the country?
  • Why is Andrew Jackson in the news this past year?
  • How did we end up with a two party political system?
  • Why is the American relationship with Mexico so messy?
  • What was the Civil War really about? Why does it seem like we’re still fighting it?
  • What do American values like freedom and equality mean?

Ground Rules for Class Discussions
(Source: University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching)

  • Listen respectfully, without interrupting.
  • Listen actively and with an ear to understanding others’ views. (Don’t just think about what you are going to say while someone else is talking.)
  • Criticize ideas, not individuals.
  • Commit to learning, not debating. Comment in order to share information, not to persuade.
  • Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language.
  • Allow everyone the chance to speak.
  • Avoid assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.
  • Be courteous. Don’t interrupt or engage in private conversations while others are speaking. Use attentive, courteous body language.
  • Support your statements. Use evidence and provide a rationale for your points.
  • Share responsibility for including all voices in the discussion.  If you have much to say, try to hold back a bit; if you are hesitant to speak, look for opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
  • Recognize that we are all still learning. Be willing to change your perspective, and make space for others to do the same.