Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges: Globalizing the US Survey, Supporting Those Who Teach It
Dana L. Schaffer and Sarah Fenton, September 2016
The US history survey is a required course for community college students in many states. Often their first, sometimes only, exposure to history and the humanities more broadly, the survey can also be an indispensable component of citizenship: a place for students to discover what it has meant to be an American historically and how democratic institutions have developed over time. With these imperatives in view, the American Historical Association developed American History, Atlantic and Pacific, a four-year professional development program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities initiative Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges. The program sought to reach the broadest possible group of community-college learners—nearly one-fourth of whom are new immigrants or raised in first-generation immigrant households—with a globalized curriculum capable of illuminating the nation’s place in the world and their own place in the nation.
Drawing on a generation of innovative scholarship that has reshaped our understanding of the nation’s origins within a broad geographical and chronological framework, American History, Atlantic and Pacific brought together pairs of faculty from 12 community colleges—the country’s fastest-growing sector of higher education, including some of its busiest instructors. To solicit applications, the AHA publicized the program in its online and print publications, on social media, via direct e-mail messages to all 1,597 history faculty at community and two-year colleges listed in the AHA database, and on posts in key H-Net listservs, including H-Teach and H-Announce. Once the selection process was complete, participants met in a series of workshops that sought not only to reframe and reinvigorate their work in the classroom, but also to strengthen their ties with one another and allow them the time and resources to conduct their own research. The workshops took place at two libraries—the Huntington and the Library of Congress—whose collections represent considerable strengths in the Pacific Rim and the Atlantic world. Participants were allotted ample time to immerse themselves in each library's collections, share what they’d found, and discuss how they might teach it. Because the program spanned four years, faculty were able to apply what they learned to their regionally and institutionally varied classrooms before reconvening to reflect on their experiences and share strategies for improvement.
The first institute, led in 2013 by William Deverell (Univ. of Southern California and Huntington Library), situated American history within the context of the Pacific Ocean—especially the peoples of the eastern Pacific Rim and basin—as a way of understanding three centuries of global connections between North America and Pacific Rim cultures. Reflecting on the impact of that first institute, Deverell said that participants shared best practices and “revised or entirely reconceptualized” their syllabi. He noted, “participants headed into the astonishing archives at the Huntington, sometimes knowing just what they were looking for, and at other times returning to the seminar astounded at what they’d found.”
Faculty spent the year trying to deepen their students’ awareness of global interconnectedness, using materials they’d gathered from the Huntington archives and institute workshops. Participant Sarah Grunder (Suffolk County Community Coll., SUNY) said that she now shows her students a Google Earth image of the Pacific Ocean on the first day of class (“something we were introduced to during our visit at the Huntington”) and employs “lecture material and assignments throughout the semester . . . that acknowledge and use the Pacific.” The broader changes Grunder made to her syllabi ensured that she not only met her own high standards, but also that her students were well prepared for assessments developed outside her classroom. “One area that we’ve repeatedly been ordered to assess and improve on is the students’ understanding of the role of the US in the world,” Grunder said. “The BC [Bridging Cultures] seminar fit right into this, and I’ve been able to use it not only in really concrete ways in the classroom, but also to satisfy accreditation officials [and] assessment officials . . . that we are addressing . . . areas where our students do not appear to be performing as well as the state would like.” Another participant reported that students were “interested in making broader historical connections than our traditional textbooks have allowed.”
American History, Atlantic and Pacific held its second major event in January 2014 at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Led by historian Philip Morgan (Johns Hopkins Univ.), the second institute explored the more established field of Atlantic World history. Participants examined four centuries of intercultural contact, political and economic development, and the emergence of a society on the precipice of the Civil War. The sessions addressed the ways in which faculty might bring the insights of Atlantic history scholarship into community college classrooms, where limited institutional resources and students’ time can constrain efforts to overhaul syllabi and assign new texts.
The third and fourth years of the project culminated in a series of presentations at two AHA annual meetings and several smaller regional conferences—all of them free to attend—organized by faculty members, and hosted by local universities (Univ. of Texas at Austin; Florida A&M Univ.; California State Univ., Long Beach; and California State Univ., East Bay). Participants shared their work with one another, with key administrators at their respective institutions, and with a diverse audience of students, faculty, and independent scholars.
During their presentations at the AHA’s annual meetings, Bridging Cultures participants discussed the courses they had transformed and how students had responded. They shared strategies for addressing differences in student demographics as well as solutions to the challenges of incorporating original research and innovative scholarship into conventional programs of study. Their presentations showed that conversations among faculty at different institutions can help revitalize history curricula from the bottom up and revealed a widespread demand among faculty members for more opportunities to collaborate across institutional boundaries.
Participants also made clear that the Bridging Cultures program had the strongest institutional impact when they received support from administrators. Many reported using their experiences to revise majors or programs of study—sometimes incorporating curricular changes into the master course outlines for their entire departments—and to create professional development opportunities for their colleagues. Participating in the program also prepared institutions to apply for additional grants. This infusion of new research, resources, and methodological approaches will have far-reaching effects. As one participant put it, “Many of our faculty members earned master’s degrees and doctorates decades before the Atlantic framework, much less the Pacific” transformed the curriculum. “We’ve done several sessions for faculty—both full and part time—at our institution to discuss the way we incorporate these themes into our teaching.”
The institutes and the themes of Pacific and Atlantic worlds led participant Tracy Lai (Seattle Central Coll.) to “recalibrate” her teaching entirely: “I ask different questions of myself and my students. We look for global patterns and connections that shaped and continue to shape the United States.” In September 2014, prompted by what she describes as “possibilities” Bridging Cultures opened to her, Lai became part of the US Women and Cuba Collaboration’s education delegation “to learn more about Cuba and its role in the Caribbean/Atlantic world.” Another participant concluded, “This program was the single biggest influence in my teaching and research over the past three years.”
In fact, participants found multiple ways to incorporate their experience in the Bridging Cultures program into their research, teaching, and publications. One used it as a model for a new ethnic studies course. Several participants used their experience to advance their own research and publishing agendas in ways that will bring the program to an even wider audience. Over the course of the program’s four years, participants revised their course syllabi and submitted a range of class assignments, discussion questions, bibliographies, course plans, and reflections to the Bridging Cultures, Atlantic and Pacific website (historians.org/bridgingcultures). Project directors worked with the AHA’s website and blog staff to design resource pages, schedule participant blog posts, and curate materials and resources now available on the permanent site. These resources may be used in classrooms across the country, extending the reach of the program beyond its 12 participating campuses.
Morgan, one of the project’s two faculty leaders, revealed well after the project’s conclusion that he will still “sometimes hear from one or more of the 24 community college professors updating me on their progress. It was a privilege and honor to get to know them.” It was also a privilege for the AHA to coordinate a project that included such diverse and committed faculty, working together to improve the content and methods of their teaching. We will continue to update the website devoted to maintaining their materials and reflections, and will keep in touch with participating faculty and administrators to assess the long-term impact of American History, Atlantic and Pacific on students, their teachers, and institutions.
Resources for the US Survey Course
Participants in the Bridging Cultures program worked to create or revise US history courses with lessons, units, and other work that enhances teaching on the United States in the world. Visit historians.org/bc-resources to find a variety of documents produced by these two-year faculty for their redesigned US history courses.
Dana Schaffer is deputy director and Sarah Fenton is contributing editor at the AHA.
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