UNC students often expect to write academic papers that no one but a professor or teaching assistant will read. Yet increasingly, instructors in the History department are designing assignments that ask undergraduates to use the skills they learned in class to reach a much broader audience beyond the walls of the university.
Mary Elizabeth Walters, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant for Professor Joe Glatthaar’s course “War and American Society, 1903 to Present” this semester, helped each student create an oral history of a veteran and write a feature article based on their interview. Because soldier experience in war is a central theme of the course, the oral histories fit naturally into the curriculum and allow students to hear a broader range of perspectives.
Many students in the class do not have family members in the military, so the instructors directed them to local veterans’ organizations. “I had a slight ulterior motive [in sending the students] to the various veterans’ organizations,” Walters admitted. “A lot of them have older vets who have very large mobility issues, and they don’t get out much, and they don’t get to tell their story much, and it means the world to them when they get a young person who is genuinely interested.”
Walters also encouraged the students in her recitation sections to contribute their oral histories to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. She even offered to collect and submit the materials herself. She hopes that contributing to a national historical project, which archives and publishes veterans’ personal accounts, will make the students even more invested in the assignment.
Ph.D. candidate Robert Colby, who trained in digital history methods at UNC, took a similar approach in a class he recently taught as a visiting instructor at Elon. To help his students understand how the policies of Reconstruction played out on the ground in the South, Colby asked students to transcribe documents from the National Museum of African American History and Culture that had been scanned for the online Freedmen’s Bureau Records Transcription Project. “I think they really benefited from the sense that someone was actually going to use [the transcription], that it’s not some sort of busywork. I really emphasized heavily that, for genealogists, [the Freedmen’s Bureau Records are] a rich and untapped tool,” Colby said.
UNC instructors also ask undergraduate students to research and write histories intended for the campus public. In fall 2017, students in Professor James Leloudis’ undergraduate seminar “Slavery and the University” studied records in the University Archives to help the Chancellor’s Task Force on UNC-Chapel Hill History. To complete their final project, the students worked in groups to write papers on three important themes that they identified in their research: slavery and UNC’s finances; the daily lives of enslaved people at UNC; and enslaved people’s work to build UNC’s campus.
“We tried to emphasize writing this paper in a way that isn’t like your typical course paper. We tried to emphasize being concise, saying what you want to convey in as few words as possible, and using simple, non-academic language while still carrying the full complexity of the subject matter,” explained Brian Fennessey, a Ph.D. candidate who was the research assistant for the course. Asking students to explain complex ideas to a general audience reinforced the goal of the papers—to serve as a starting point for the Chancellor’s Task Force as it develops a comprehensive approach to teaching campus history. In fact, Caroline Newhall, a Ph.D. candidate who works as a research assistant for the Task Force, drew on the students’ work in her recent article about enslaved people’s roles in the construction of Old East.
Like Colby, Fennessey found that students were motivated by the fact that their work would make a public contribution. “I was very pleasantly surprised by how quickly the students became interested and really invested in what we were doing. They really made the projects their own and took clear joy in presenting the information to Chancellor Folt,” Fennessey said.
When Chancellor Folt visited the class, Leloudis and Fennessey encouraged the students to share with her the documents that they found most significant. They chose a document that revealed that the University dedicated two dollars of students’ nineteen-dollar tuition to pay professors to use their slaves for tasks like building fires or carrying messages between buildings. “Seeing that every student contributed to slavery through their student fees, I think, was something powerful that the students connected with, and they were clearly invested in showing that to Chancellor Folt,” Fennessey explained.