Ideas for my 5-week Summer Start Course

I’ve mentioned this on Twitter a couple of times lately, but I am scheduled to teach a section of U.S. History since 1877 during Purdue’s 5-week Summer Start program. Although the program is now open to all students, it was originally created three years ago to help borderline students gain full admission. During the 5-week program, students take two 7 credit hours that consists of two regular academic courses plus a 1 hour transition to college class where they meet with a success coach, learn study skills, and get help adjusting to college level work. Last summer I had the chance to serves as a Teaching Assistant for my advisor so I know first hand that It’s a really great program.

This summer, now that I have my PhD in hand, I get to teach my own Summer Start class. Because I taught online during the past academic year, it will be my in-person (not counting TAing) class since Spring 2017. I am really looking forward to getting back into the classroom. There’s just something about the energy and excitement of the classroom that I haven’t been able to replicate online. I’ve missed it.

Preparing for the class has been fun, but, as you might expect, a bit challenging. I already know that I can’t cover everything, but deciding what to leave out is tough. Usually I try to cover roughly a decade per week in my full-semester course, giving me time to mix up my lecture topics by talking about politics, culture, race, foreign relations, etc. on different days. The class meets 5-days a week for day for 90 minutes, so I can still do that to an extent but either in less depth or by skipping some time periods. My advisor already suggested starting at 1900 and thinking of each week as a period rather than a decade. Something like Progressive American and World War I for the first week, the 1920s and Great Depression for the second, World War II for the third, and then diving postwar American into a 1950s and 1960s week and a modern American week for everything after that. It’s not perfect, but it allows me to highlight major events and themes that shaped the United States.

Still, I’m trying to find ways to break up the time and give students something more than straight lecture. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I was told to expect between 45 and 55 students, and absolutely no more than 60. So it’ll be a fairly large section, which in some ways limits what I can do. Last summer we incorporated discussions on Fridays about the readings (since there was two of us, we broke them into groups) and also showed period-specific films to give students something to analyze. We augmented the discussion with an online forum as well so students had a chance to get used to Blackboard and think through questions ahead of time.

We used Margaret O’Mara’s Pivotal Tuesdays: Four Elections That Shaped the Twentieth Century as our course text last summer, which worked pretty well. Because the book focuses on four elections (1912, 1932, 1968, & 1992), it made it easy to talk about one each Friday, and leave one Friday ‘off’ for the midterm or Final. I’m planning to use the same book and structure the discussion in a similar (both an online forum and small groups in class). I also want to show films that serve as a historical text for the students to analyze too. Last summer we showed a pretty wide range from the 1918 silent film Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley to the 1964 Cold War thriller Fail Safe. Each movie gave us a chance to talk about how popular culture portrayed issue of that era. I’d certainly show Fail Safe again, but I’m not sure I’d do another silent film. I’m already fairly certain I am going to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), given my research on Oklahoma and the Okie image. I like the idea of using The Wizard of Oz (1939) for the earlier period because it helps explain Populism and some of Progressivism, but there might be something better from that era. I’d love to hear people’s suggestions for films that roughly fit in with the weekly breakdown.

So far I am more or less recycling most of the elements of the class my advisor and I taught last summer, but I want to add something new. I explained a little bit of what I want to do on Twitter. Basically, it’s a sort of campus history scavenger hunt activity. One of the themes I always try to emphasize in my survey is that history is personal and that it happens all-around you. In the past I have assigned a book on the history of swimming pools to challenge students to think about how their history reflects complex changes in U.S. history and themes like race, class, gender, sexuality, public works, technology, and so on. Instead of using that book, I want these assignment to force students to go out and explore campus and local community with an eye toward history. My hope is that the assignment with accomplish two things. First, since these are all newly admitted first years, it will encourage them to explore and become more familiar with the campus. Second, it will help them see that there is a lot of history at Purdue and in the surrounding area.

I’m still trying to decide exactly how to structure the assignment. I kind of want to leave it open-ended, and simply have each student take a photo of something historical each week and write a paragraph about the item that explains what it is, a little bit of its history, and connects it to something they’ve learned in class. The connecting it to class requirement will be the most challenging, but I’m often surprised by the connections students make on their own.

I already have a few ideas of things they might photograph. We’ve got a handful of old buildings and New Deal projects, several statues, and some plaques strewn across campus. These include people like our namesake John Purdue, Neil Armstrong, John Wooden, and Amelia Earhart. There is also a Louis Sullivan jewel box bank a couple of block from campus and other areas of campus that have markers, such as Freedom Square outside of our Armory and the Memorial Union. I don’t expect too many students to venture out to the Tippecanoe Battlefield or across the Wabash River to Lafayette.

The trick will be getting students to search for history beyond some of these obvious items. I am thinking of giving a bonus point for the most creative or unique items each week because I am worried that I might get 45 submissions of the same thing. I may also require that their weekly photo roughly correspond with the time frame we are covering that week. Hopefully, this will ensure that they are thinking historically and can make a class connection. I’ve never done an assignment quite like this before, but I think the Summer Start program offers the perfect opportunity and that it helps aid the adjustment to college mission. I’m hoping that by learning about the campus will help them connect with Purdue and feel more welcome here.

There you have it — the basic overview of what I plan to do in my 5-week Summer Start course and a few of the assignments I’m planning to try out. I’ll post the syllabus on my Teaching page when I have it down. Until then, if you have suggestions of films to show or how to improve my campus history activity, I would love to hear them! 

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