During the first day of my course on the history of the American West, I give students a blank outline of North America. “Circle the American West,” I direct them, before asking a few brave souls to come repeat the process on a map that’s projected for the class to see. We end up with a series of multi-colored, overlapping loops — no two exactly the same.
“Which one is right?” they ask, somewhat bemused (and perhaps a bit frustrated) when I relate that historians, too, have differing answers based on their sources and definitions. Students get the point: Our goal is not to find the one right answer.
My Approach in the Classroom
Grounded in the scholarship of historical thinking and inclusive classroom practices, my teaching focuses on fostering students’ ability to ask rigorous historical questions, analyze sources and draw informed conclusions. These skills lay a critical foundation for their ability to develop as citizens and scholars; they also play a crucial role in preparing our pre-service social studies teachers for the challenges of teaching authentic history in the current environment.
Living as a citizen in a democratic community requires us to develop skills in civic discourse and cultivate intellectual curiosity to investigate and incorporate multiple viewpoints; these qualities are foundational to the practice of history. It’s exciting, and sometimes it’s a little scary. I strive to create a classroom with an inclusive and “safe-ish” learning environment, one in which each student feels welcomed and intellectually challenged.
Being challenged isn’t always a comfortable process; learning requires us to encounter and explore the unfamiliar. I teach courses on the history of empire in the American West and Pacific, and the histories we discuss in class are complex and contested. As we wrestle with both the painful and inspiring experiences in our nation’s past, I am continually amazed at my students’ ability to develop historical empathy and a willingness to understand the many different voices that shape history.
Teaching History in Complicated Times
I’ve also been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who share my passion for teaching historical thinking. In fact, I’m blessed to be following in the footsteps of several colleagues whose work has already been recognized by university awards. From spontaneous conversations about activities and documents that captured our students’ enthusiasm to the history department’s ongoing efforts to scaffold skills across our core classes, I’m continually thankful for the experience and inspiration shared by the history faculty.
The last several years have presented teachers at all levels with challenges we couldn’t have imagined facing. I’ve told my students that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me that — while I love studying history — I do not find this period particularly comfortable to live through! Working with student teachers has underscored how important it is to consider the dynamic and significant challenges our students will face as they begin their careers in this time of new social and political tensions. Having my teaching recognized through the Missouri State University Foundation Award in Teaching and the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching has been particularly meaningful in the face of these uncertainties. It reminds me that this work is both significant and valued.
“From spontaneous conversations about activities and documents that captured our students’ enthusiasm to the history department’s ongoing efforts to scaffold skills across our core classes, I’m continually thankful for the experience and inspiration shared by the history faculty.”
—Dr. Michelle Morgan
What I’m Looking Forward To
This fall, I’m teaching “History of the American West.” One of the things I love about this course is the opportunity to dig into a wide range of sources with students. Scholarship in the field has expanded to incorporate techniques and sources from many different disciplines — not only those that might seem closely related to history, but also those in the natural sciences — providing better understanding about the interactions between humans and the environment.
The ways people have claimed and interpreted space offer my students a particularly engaging way to think about how we understand the past. This fall, my students will take this concept a step further through a project on historical monuments. First, we’ll read and discuss Ari Kelman’s book A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek. This book recounts the contested history of the massacre and the critical roles different ways of investigating and knowing the past played in developing and interpreting the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Then, they’ll select an existing, contested memorial in the American West, analyze it and the circumstances under which it was created, and design a plan for the monument moving forward.
The history department and my students’ interests have enabled me to develop connections between my research and teaching that strengthen and challenge both elements. I’m currently working on a book project that analyzes the lives and work of city teachers in the American Pacific West between 1890 and 1930, a period in which public schools played a central role in defining these spaces as American.
Next spring, I’ll be teaching a graduate course on the history of American education and an undergraduate seminar on American empire. In both classes, I’m really looking forward to introducing students to sources I’ve found working on my book project, including essays written in the 1920s by high school and college students in territorial Hawai‘i. These essays, written by youth a century ago, living several thousand miles away, from cultures quite different from ours, demonstrate many of the same concerns about families, relationships and educational plans that I hear from students today. I’m excited to see what my students make of both the familiar and the strange in the past, and how they use it to better understand and engage with the present.
At the beginning of the fall semester, Missouri State’s enrollment grew by a record percentage: a 17.9% increase in first-time, new-in-college (FTNIC) students. The official census report will be available at the end of this month, and Dr. Rob Hornberger, associate vice president for enrollment management and services, says there’s reason to believe this growth will increase by then. In addition to the big FTNIC increase, Hornberger notes a new record in total graduate students and an increase in underrepresented students, plus growth in school credit hours and other categories.
“This success is the result of great work by many individuals and departments across campus who regularly serve students and are engaged in our strategic enrollment management efforts,” Hornberger says. “A few years ago, we began a process of becoming more strategic as we entered a challenging, new enrollment landscape. This led to a shift in our campus culture, recognizing enrollment management as a collective, campus wide effort; the development of a strategic enrollment management plan; and the implementation of several key strategies.
“We’ve continued this momentum over the past year with some game-changing initiatives, including the implementation of the MoState Access Award, which covers the remaining cost of tuition and fees for Missouri residents receiving the Federal Pell Grant. Our enrollment growth in FTNIC, graduate and dual-credit students provides us opportunities to continue and enhance our student success efforts and focus new recruitment strategies on additional segments of students.”