In all of my courses—be it a writing seminar, a history survey, or an upper level discussion seminar—I try to incorporate as much of my own research, writing, and publication strategies into the classroom as possible. This makes it more fun for me and it conveys my enthusiasm for the topics, primary sources, and secondary sources I employ in class. It demystifies “research,” an intimidating term for what is often misunderstood as isolating scholarly pursuit. Students fear being alone with their topics—they fear shouldering the burden of creativity alone in their dorm rooms at 3am. I want them to understand research is collaborative; scholarship is a never-ending conversation between people who all sit at their laptops at 3am hashing out ideas. Classroom conversations are those 3 hours a week that we try to decipher what happened at an author’s desk before the text arrived to us in its current form. We ask: “what is their method? What is their thesis? What types of evidence did they use? And [the big one] so what?” At times my students respond, “I wish he/she were here to tell us.” Bringing every scholar to campus would be impossible, so I looked for new ways to overcome this hurdle—I tried Skype. Skype, very familiar to undergraduates, became a way for me to put a world of historians, scientists, artists, filmmakers, and world-leading experts at students’ fingertips so could do the asking “in person.” Skype and other video-conferencing software has become fundamental for professors, librarians, and authors who want to teach their students and reach their audiences in new ways.
My first Skype call was in the fall of 2012 with Susan Sessions Rugh, the author of Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations. I assigned her text in a Freshmen Writing Seminar titled “Road Trips and American Culture.” The course focused on content—the history of automobiles, road trips, roadside architecture, gender, family, sexual orientation, race, and automobility in the United States; it also aimed to provide students with the critical writing, research, and thinking tools necessary to succeed throughout college. Not one of the students was a history major, most declared an interest in the sciences or math. It became critical for me to show this group how historians think, why we rely on primary documents, how we write, and how we convey our ideas to the public and to what ends. I contemplated new ways to do this by incorporating technology into my teaching. After consulting Jamie Wagman, Assistant Professor Assistant Professor of History and Gender and Women’s Studies at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana about her success Skyping in a scholar for her Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course, I sent Dr. Rugh an email and to my amazement she immediately replied “yes.”
Now to logistics. After a thorough student-led discussion of Rugh’s book, I required the class to upload two questions to our course webpage prior to the scheduled Skype-date with Dr. Rugh. I asked the students to consider the following while crafting their questions: her thesis, her methodology, and her research strategy. Then I asked them to craft one “fun” question; ask her anything you want about her book, her next book, etc. Is her book informed by personal experience? We all have a hilarious or agonizing story from a family vacation that we could reference, did Rugh? A requirement for this writing seminar is that students engage in peer-editing sessions on their papers. I took this a step further and required them to peer-edit the questions. We spent one class session at the beginning of the course critically thinking about the mechanics of great class discussion. I could see from their posts they were putting that to good use. If anything, I think I over-prepped these eager undergraduates.
Our Skype-date finally arrived. Did the screen flicker? Yes. Was there sound gaping? Yes. Was our connection lost? No, actually. There were technology glitches time to time, but I had to leave some of that as well as the nature of our conversation to chance. The students were able to ask Dr. Rugh about her book and she was also able to do the same with them—what did they like and why? She definitely kept them engaged for the entire hour as she described her research process, her big questions, what interventions she was making with her text, and how this project came to be. It was a great experience. It proved a wonderful opportunity for my students to meet a scholar, have an actual conversation with her, and ask her about her research process on a familiar digital interface.
I evaluated student performance as I would any discussion-day in the course. Students were assessed not on the quantity of their participation but the quality of their contributions to the experience as a whole. Student evaluations at the end of the course were very positive about the Skype experience. They appreciated the opportunity to meet Dr. Rugh and felt it enhanced their course experience.
I scheduled another Skype session for this semester; my course “African American History Since Emancipation” will host Dr. Danielle J. McGuire, author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.
Betsy Schlabach teaches American History and African and African American Studies at Earlham College. She received her doctorate in American Studies from Saint Louis University in 2008. She is the author of Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscapes University of Illinois Press, 2013.