Teaching the Lesser-Known Aspects of History

August 7, 2019
Lesley Chapel, Adjunct Professor of History

One aspect of teaching that continues to strike me is how captivating students can find the lesser-known elements of historical events. For example, my students are intrigued to learn that approximately 400 women disguised themselves as men so they could fight in the Civil War for the Union and the Confederacy. Or, they are shocked to learn of the link between the Cold War and the government reaction to the Civil Rights Movement (I highly recommend reading Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights and Thomas Borstelmann’s The Cold War and the Color Line, as well as Penny Von Eschen’s Satchmo Blows Up the World, to learn about this connection).    

The main point is that students are fascinated by aspects of history they find to be unique or those they had previously never thought to consider. I have many students in my intro classes who are scared of history classes because they had a bad experience with history in high school. They did poorly because the information presented to them was not gripping; they could not make a connection with it. They enter my class wary, because they think history means rote memorization of figures’ names and battle dates. Such students think they hate studying history simply because of the way it was presented to them. When we as educators find ways to make historical topics engaging to our students, it makes the learning and the teaching experience much more pleasurable and fulfilling. I have found that painting a more vivid picture of the past helps students become more engaged in learning about history. For example, when teaching about slavery, describing the sights and sounds of working on the plantations is a way to keep students’ attention. Describing, for instance, the brutal reality of how enslaved women had to tie their babies to trees and hear their cries all day long while they worked in the cotton fields incorporates powerful sensory aspects of learning, as opposed to simply stating that slaves worked in the fields.

Often, teaching these lesser-known aspects of history is one of the best ways to spark students’ curiosity. So much of the study of history is about inquiry, so when students find an element about a certain historical event that strikes them, they are much more likely to ask questions about it. This is such a valuable skill to have when examining history, so finding ways to cultivate that is key. Thorough analysis of historical sources requires asking questions of those sources. Therefore, the more curiosity students have about history and historical events, the more likely they are to ask questions of the sources they are analyzing. This is true when examining both primary and secondary sources. Sometimes it can be easy to forget that we need to question secondary sources, too, but we do. We have to train our students to decipher the scholar’s main argument, how they came up with this argument, and why their work is significant to our understanding of history. Being curious about historical events and being able to ask questions of sources enhances students’ experience of historical study at the college level, when they are expected to write research papers. 

Lesley Chapel

Lesley Chapel earned her master’s degree in history from Oakland University in 2011. She has been teaching history at the college level since 2012. She is currently an adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University and Nevada State College, and she resides in Auburn Hills, Michigan. 

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