Professor Makes History Come Alive

Professor Erin Karl teaching historyIn her years of teaching, Redlands Community College professor Erin Karl discovered many students who enroll in a college history class are only there because they have to be. 

That means that a large portion of her job isn’t just about teaching dates and names, but also trying to inspire lackluster students into appreciating and respecting history when they aren’t initially inclined to.

“I break down the subject and teach them that part of learning and connecting with the past is sometimes as simple as re-learning how to learn history,” Karl said. “A common approach to history classes is memorization. Students are given a list of names, dates, key terms. They are told to memorize them, test on them, and then move on to the next list and do it all over again. They are often not taught the why of history. They’re not taught the emotions in order to connect to it. This loses a lot of students and this is the expectation they often walk in with when they enter my classroom – that it’s just going to be more of the same.”

Instead, in an attempt to challenge her students to give history another chance, Karl uses primary sources as the backbone of the learning process. Embedding these sources into her classroom conversations helps her spend less time telling them why something is important, and more time showing them by allowing the past to speak for itself.

That new way of teaching earned Karl, a professor of history in the Department of Social Sciences, Business and Safety, Redlands’ Innovation in Teaching Award. The award was established in 2018 to recognize effective and original teaching practices implemented by Redlands faculty. 

“I show my students that studying history is important and worth everyone’s time, dedication, and understanding,” Karl said.

When Karl was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, she took a History of the Civil War class where she had the opportunity to look through archives of documents, letters and maps from that time. She had never had that opportunity before and didn’t even realize it was something a student could do until that day. 

“I remember how it felt being able to handle those documents, to put on the gloves in order to touch them and read them. The pen and ink that was written by someone 100+ years ago. It changed everything for me,” she said. “I realized that history was so much more than just the summaries we read in textbooks. It is tangible.”

When she started teaching history, Karl knew she wanted to provide that same type of opportunity for personal connection to her students that she had originally experienced in that class.

“A student’s preconceived notions of what a history class can and can’t be is a difficult mindset to change,” Karl said. “They have experienced years of the same (often unsuccessful) pedagogical approach and they do not realize that there is a different way they can learn the information.”

At the beginning of each semester, Karl asks students why they were taking the class. The answers ranged from “I’m only here because I have to be” and “My adviser told me I didn’t have a choice” to “I’ve always found history boring” or “I don’t know why I’m here because history has nothing to do with [insert major here].”  

Though these types of responses are certainly not everyone’s answers, they were common enough and often set an apathetic tone at the beginning of a semester. 

So Karl created a class in which primary sources made history come alive for students in a way they had never experienced before.

“This is one of the very first conversations I have with my students every semester. I have them read an article that discusses the differences between primary and secondary sources and then I ask them to give me specific examples from the textbook to make sure they have really made the connection and understand the differences,” she said. “Once a solid understanding of what a primary source is and isn’t is set at the start of the semester, students go on to work with one or more primary sources to supplement every era we study.”

A typical class will study 20 to 30 primary sources in any given semester which includes everything from articles, speeches, and legislation to opinion pieces, political cartoons, poetry, radio addresses, videos, and music. 

“Technology has opened so many doors and there are so many amazing collections and archives available online that I didn’t have when I was going to school. This has opened up so many opportunities for me in my classes when I am coming up with assignments,” Karl said.

“For example, instead of just having them read about the founding fathers, I have them read letters they wrote back and forth to each other discussing and debating the details of the structure of our new nation. That’s pretty neat, right? It changes everything when you can connect to history like that.”

The method has paid off. In an attempt to gauge whether any of her “apathetic” students changed their mind about history, she asked students to write an essay about their thoughts on using primary sources and if it helped them understand or appreciate history more.

“I’ve had a lot of great moments with students over the years and have a few examples of some ‘before and afters.’ One of my favorites is a student who said at the start of the semester ‘I have always hated history classes because that is all we ever do is look through the textbook and there is never anything interesting,’” Karl said. “At the end of the semester, that student said ‘When I enrolled for classes, I was not very excited that I had to take this class. I have never liked history and have always thought it was the most boring type of class ever. After this class, my views have completely changed. … The primary sources helped to make this class very fun and, in a way, special. I believe it is very important to use primary sources in a history class, especially if it is an online class. They help to keep students like me interested and are great learning sources.”

Those kinds of responses led Karl to realize that taking herself out of her students’ learning whenever possible is important so they can create their own, individual relationships with the past.  

“This reflection essay has also helped me personally. Semesters are stressful and we tend to only hear from our students when there is something wrong – rarely will I receive a message from a student because they just wanted to say they are happy,” Karl said.

“This can take its toll on the psyche and there have been semesters where I was pretty defeated by the end because I just wasn’t sure if I was actually making a difference. Reading these essay responses has become something I really look forward to as a way to help me remember that I do.” 

The Innovation in Teaching award includes a $1,500 stipend and plaque for the winners. Submissions are assessed according to utility, creativity, effectiveness, challenges and transferability of the practice. Entries needed evidence that the particular teaching method helped to solve an issue common throughout college courses.