Teaching Innovations

Thinking Historically in the Classroom: Donald Teruo Hata and Nadine Ishitani Hata

Donald Teruo Hata and Nadine Ishitani Hata, October 1995

Students at El Camino Community College and California State University at Dominguez Hills reflect the multifaceted mosaic of contemporary American society. Both campuses are situated between the inner city and the outer suburbs of Los Angeles. Typical undergraduates are not fresh out of high school with ample leisure time. Some are middle-aged adults seeking to retrain or enhance their ability to compete, others are migrants from other regions of the country who know little about local history, and yet others are newly arrived immigrants from the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific Rim region. Frequently they are the first in their families to attend college; most work long hours at other jobs. There are no conventional majorities or minorities in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and income. But diversity, unfortunately, is not synonymous with interactive harmony. As we observe how students select their seats in our classrooms, we are reminded that an explicitly segregated society persists, a half century after Brown v. Board of Education. Our students share a common need to be acculturated to each other and to appreciate and respect diversity as a source of collective and complementary strength for an evolving American culture.

To enable our students to assume responsible citizen roles on and off campus, we want them to seek out and value a multicultural history that is essential to enhancing the quality of our public and private lives, including what we eat and how we spend our leisure time. We want our students to think about history as having direct linkages to the present and to learn that there are shared experiences that bind this nation of immigrants. As part of the process, we encourage our American history students to exercise individual initiative, to work cooperatively with classmates, to appreciate the promise and problems of a multicultural history, and to hone the skills required to research, write, and document term papers. While struggling together to complete their assignments, our students learn to develop a rapport with each other, and in the process, practice and perfect the protocols required for close professional relationships between men and women of diverse backgrounds. Thinking historically is to seek to understand if and how current conditions of global and local proportions are rooted in the distant and recent past, and to what extent those themes that pervade the past and the present may influence the course of our personal lives. The Los Angeles metropolitan region is beset by high unemployment (including the loss of defense-related jobs), and the massive destruction caused by race riots and major earthquakes. Students in search of a career and a place to buy a home would do well to think historically about all of the above.

The "scavenger hunt" is our students' nickname for the formal research paper we have used in a variety of undergraduate history courses, especially in the required U.S. history survey. The paper is worth at least a quarter or a third of the final course grade. It provides students with the opportunity to move beyond the role of criticizing the conventional approach to U.S. history as fatally flawed by omissions and distortions of subjects such as women and people of color. By asking students to think about ethnic foods and by requiring notes on pronunciation (e.g., chitterlings is pronounced "chit-lins"), topics not often encountered in history texts, we nudge our students to think historically about how the continuing evolution in the language and foods of mainstream America is rooted in the popular culture created by ordinary people—and particularly immigrant newcomers. The goal is to write a well organized and convincingly documented interpretation in the format of a term paper (guided by Kate Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations). Students must integrate and describe all the names and terms we provide; the terms (usually 50 to 70 in number) often focus on Los Angeles but can just as easily emphasize other geographic areas or topics. While they change each semester, every list includes multicultural items. For example:

AIDS. AME Church. Tom Bradley. Chinatown. Chitterlings. Dodger Stadium. Dominguez Air Show (1910). Dunbar Hotel. East L.A. Walkouts (1968). Falafels. Freeways. Gabrielino Indians. Golden State Insurance. Hanukkah. Historiography. James Wong Howe. Henry Huntington. Rodney King and Reginald Denny. Korea town. Kwanza. La Brea Tar Pits. Los Angeles Times, La Opinion, Sentinel, and Rafu Shimpo. Little Tokyo. Los Pobladores (1781). Lumpia. Biddy Mason. Julia Morgan. Mulholland and Water Wars. Nan, Tortillas, and Pita. Nativism. Okies. Richter Scale. Rocky Mountain Oysters. Rosie the Riveter. Smog. Sushi. Rudolph Valentino. Watts. Paul Williams. Zoot Suits.

To minimize the shock when the paper requirement is introduced on the first day of the class, we immediately ask for volunteers to identify some of the more familiar terms. We offer assistance and suggestions during class lectures and discussions, but students are individually responsible for determining which themes are to pervade their research. "Diversity in the Golden State" is a typical title, and tables of contents invariably include topical headings such as natives and nativism, emigrants and immigrants, food and culture, and oppression and opportunity. The narrative is restricted to 12 double-spaced pages; there are no limits on endnotes, glossaries, or other appropriate appendixes. The bibliography must be annotated to indicate how each source provided useful information. In addition to our lectures on sources, library visits are scheduled and materials are brought to class at appropriate times during the semester.

There is no grading curve, which allows students the luxury of helping each other. However, we require that such assistance be included in the bibliography as "interviews." With few exceptions, students start the semester by sitting with their friends, which perpetuates self selected ethnic cliques. Within a few weeks, however, they begin to alter their seating arrangement as class discussions reveal classmates whose very different life experiences and library research provide information for the scavenger hunt.

Librarians and faculty are informed that students will seek them out and subsequently cite them as sources. A follow-up memo during the semester usually ensures continued cooperation and solicits new ideas and an expanding network of campus support for future scavenger hunts. We tell students that our colleagues have been instructed not to give away specific answers, but to steer them in the direction of appropriate sources.

Family members and coworkers are also enlisted by many students. The mother of an African American student was initially irate because "chitterlings" had been included on the list. "Is that all your professor thinks we eat?" she fumed. But when she later learned that two of her son's classmates—a Korean and a Scot—had each listed historic family recipes for making intestines taste delicious, she too began to understand the multicultural sensitivity goals of the assignment. She still refused to serve chitterlings in her home because they evoked painful memories of poverty, but she became a wonderful source of eyewitness accounts of daily life in the explicitly racist society of the America of her childhood.

The assignment increases respect and understanding among the students themselves and with others with whom they live, work, and study. Our streetwise students quickly form study groups to divide the research. As they swap "facts" gleaned from family conversations as well as the library, and try to find connections between them, their perspectives on the past are enhanced by an expanded cultural literacy based on familial, racial, ethnic, age, gender, and other differences that reflect the cumulative national identity of Americans on the eve of the 21st century.

Identifying each item is merely the first phase of the assignment. Phase two requires sifting and sorting facts and seeking pervasive themes and causal connections. We monitor the students' progress through classroom discussions and periodic conferences. Homogeneous cliques are encouraged to cooperate with others to exchange insights and data. Groups negotiate specific quid pro quos at first, then grow increasingly supportive. By the second half of the course, students are usually working as a committee of the whole, feverishly completing their assignments. By the time the papers are due, at the last meeting in the 15-week semester, the typical multicultural diversity of our students emerges as a collective and cumulative strength rather than a divisive weakness.

Ideally, the assignment creates a scenario wherein students in undergraduate courses learn to practice—albeit in abbreviated form and often in spite of themselves—the historiographical and methodological skills usually reserved for graduate students. While not all papers are superior either in format or content, the search and analysis process provides students with a real sense of the historian's craft as they connect the scavenger hunt names and terms into a shared saga of struggle and survival that reflects our multicultural past and present.

—Donald Teruo Hata is professor of history at California State University at Dominguez Hills and recipient of the 1990 systemwide CSU Trustees' Outstanding Professor Award. He has also served as vice president of the California Historical Society.

—Nadine Ishitani Hata is vice president of academic affairs and professor of history at El Camino Community College. She has been a member of AHA's Teaching Division, chair of the California State Historical Resources Commission, and vice chair of the California State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.