Center of Excellence for Teaching & Learning

CETL Podcast - Episode 4 - Laura Davis

Tony Pellegrini: Good afternoon! Tony Pellegrini here! Thank you so much for tuning in again this week to our discussion on teaching and learning at SUU, what makes us different, and special. I am so pleased that you're here with me today and that we have Dr. Davis with us—Laura Davis—and I'd like to ask Laura to take a minute or two and introduce yourself, tell us a little about yourself, and why you're at SUU; give us some background information, would you please, Laura?

Laura Davis: Will do. Thanks again for having me. I'm Dr. Laura Davis, I'm relatively new to SUU; I joined the faculty in fall of 2016 right after I completed my PhD in history at the University of Georgia. So I am a historian by training, although I do have some background in women's studies which is why I'm now the co-chair of the Women and Gender Studies minor. And I have some background in education with a master's in curriculum and instruction, which is why I recently took over the history class on social studies methods—kind of how to teach history for primary and secondary students. My area of specialty is American history and specifically the American Civil War. The reason I specifically wanted to teach at a university like SUU is because of its emphasis on innovative teaching, on having close relationships with students, and allowing faculty the freedom to experiment and innovate with their teaching, and that was a priority for me as a professor.

TP: I am so grateful that you mentioned those! Take a moment or two and talk to us a little about what you've seen over the last year, year and a half, or two years of opportunities that you've had to be able to engage learners in those areas. Could you think of a couple and give us a couple of practical examples?

LD: Of course! So one of the things that I do in my introductory history class—that history 1700 gen-ed requirement that all students pretty much have to take here at SUU—is I do what's called “flipping the classroom” once a week. So instead of, you know, conventionally lecturing to students three days a week, we tend to do only two days of lecture and our third day is always some sort of hands-on activity. That allows my students to take what they've been reading and what we've been talking about in class and apply it in some sort of innovative and creative way.

So for example, just today we, my students who after talking about comparing and contrasting the different American colonies, had to come up with a creative marketing campaign for an individual colony focusing on what is unique about that colony, what are its unique attributes, and why on earth somebody would want to come to that colony. So it allows them to synthesize all this material that we've been reading and discussing in a fun and creative way while also often utilizing primary sources innovatively.

Another innovation that I have been able to implement since coming to SUU is applying a creative pedagogy called “reacting to the past.” It's been developed across different campuses, including Georgia where I came from, and it essentially is a role-playing game that encourages students to take on the identity of a specific person or historical character. And so you have to research that specific person, their ideology, their writings, and make a case in an argument based on how that character would have acted.

So last spring, in my what I call the American Slavery class, my students had to debate and defend slavery or debate and challenge the institution of slavery based on constitutional arguments, based on actual historical figures, and based on reading Frederick Douglass's narrative. And the students got really, really into it and really, really competitive because each character is part of a team and that team has specific goals; so I had abolitionists and then I had defenders of slavery kind of competing one against one another. And they got so into the game that they were spending so much time researching and writing and embracing that character that they really got to understand the nuances of differences between abolitionists, nuances between why people might support or challenge the institution of slavery—and really it was just a completely student driven game. And I, as a professor, really got to be just that guide on the side sitting in the back of the classroom and watching them interact and defend or challenge different points of view.

TP: How fun! How fun, both for professors to be able to approach learning like this and also for students to be participants, engage. I've been thinking about, I have another question for you here, I've been thinking about students who may be listening today who are not necessarily history majors or have that passion in history. What would you do to try to get them to be brave enough to go outside of their comfort zone a little bit? Why, if I were an accounting student, would I want to take a history class? Or should I take a history class? Or, if I was a pre-med student or a pre-dentistry student, why study history? You're passionate about this; what would you do to convince them to take a class or two to help them in their courses of study?

LD: I think there's several key reasons that students should take and enjoy history classes. One is the skill sets that history offers you. We focus a lot as a discipline on writing and communication—and that's a skill that everybody can use regardless of area of specialty, future career aspirations, or major—being able to communicate clearly, efficiently, succinctly; and that is a skill that I work on in all of my classes.

Another skill set that's really important to history is understanding cause-and-effect correlation and sequencing, right? What happens in 1861 doesn't happen all of a sudden out of a box; there are events that have led up to that, but understanding that type of cause and effect is something that's going to help you in whatever career you have, right? If you're in marketing, you need to understand why your clients are responding to a certain ad or why customers are responding to a certain product over another. So being able to do that type of research and interpretation.

And lastly, history is all about analysis and critical thinking—and that's something that I emphasize in all of my classes, right? More than understanding when something happens I want my students to understand why happens and why does it matter. You know, for example, today: why did I have them read “The City Upon a Hill” speech? Well, it's because the metaphor and symbology of that speech carries through to the present day and it's something that we need to hold on to. So if you can explain clearly and effectively why something matters that's going to help you—again regardless of career, explaining to your boss why this new project matters; explaining, you know, to, again to your boss, why maybe you should get a promotion and why that matters. Being able to critically think and analyze is extremely important.

The other thing that's really important about history—especially more and more today— is understanding why famous speakers, politicians, actors, make reference to the past. You know, they throw out a statement, and if you don't understand what that event is or who that historical figure is, you might not understand why they're trying to make that correlation to the present day, or even perhaps why they're incorrectly making a correlation, you know, to this day. So when somebody references Andrew Jackson—well you need to understand why he's a controversial figure, and what using him as a metaphor really means, especially in terms of Native American interactions or economic interactions. And so I think it's an important for contextualizing the modern day by studying the past.

TP: Exciting! And that excitement—that’s one of the reasons that I just I love our association, I love participating with you, is your passion! You have an absolute passion for history, for teaching, for learning. Just this last question about passion: how, what can our, either faculty members here, faculty members or students be able to do—what example could you provide them in finding that passion in their life? It may not be history, but what can they do to find that passion like you found your passion?

LD: I was lucky I found my passion pretty early on: after my sophomore year of high school I knew I was going to be a historian and I knew I'd study the Civil War. But I think we all need to think about what are those things that really interest us, fascinate us, motivate us, and capture our attention and that's giving you an idea of what you are truly passionate about. Or even just thinking about what is it that you spend non-stop talking about, whether with your friends or your family? You know, I can talk history all day, every day—it makes me that excited! And I think if we can find those things that really grab our attention, that's going to signal to us what we should be spending our time focusing on, what we're willing to devote our hard work, and time, and energy to what you might be willing to spend hours and hours reading and writing about. I guess that's the best tip I can give you

TP: That is wonderful! A great, great tip for our listeners.

Friends, I would encourage you: if Laura has inspired you take a history class from her, get know her, visit with her, take her to lunch she'd love to visit with you about history or anything—just any topic that you are that you're involved with.

Laura, I appreciate you, I'm grateful for you and for our association, and thank you so much for participating with me today.

LD: Thank you for giving the chance to share!

TP: You have a great day!

LD: You too, bye, everybody!

TP: Bye.