CETL Podcast - Episode 19 - Laura Davis

Tony: Friends good afternoon Tony Pellegrini here for Teaching and Learning at Southern Utah University. We are starting the 2020-2021 series of podcasts that we are starting. We’re starting with an old trend. An old former- I was going to say old but she’s not old and not even former she’s a friend, Laura Davis. Laura Davis is going to give us a moment or two and tell us a little about her- a little bit of an introduction- introduce herself to us. So, Laura let me turn some time over to you to introduce yourself. Would you be willing to?

Laura: Sure! Hi everyone! I’m Dr. Laura Jean Davis. I’m an assistant professor of history here at SUU and I also supervise our Secondary Ed  students in history and social studies and I am the co-director of women and gender studies, so I wear a lot of hats and I teach a lot of things related to gender history, military history, 19th century US history and all that. 

Tony: That is a lot, that is a lot and students love her. I am very very comfortable with students sharing with me their love and appreciation for Laura and her approach as well. Laura was a guest a year or two ago but has agreed to come back to us. We are trying to honor faculty who have received awards and honors from our Provost’s office and Laura has received a recent award and we would like to honor her with that by grilling her with some great questions. Does that sound okay Laura? 

Laura: Yes! Yeah, I was honored to get the award. 

Tony: Wonderful! So, tell us, I apologize I don’t have it right here on the tip of my tongue, tell us a little about the award you received.

Laura: I was one of the three distinguished educator awards, so I was recognized for excellence in teaching at the university level, which as still relatively junior faculty member was a very nice honor to be recognized for the hard work and the innovation that I bring to my teaching. 

Tony: Well and it’s easy to see that enthusiasm and that excitement for your learners how that came about. Let me pose to you a couple of questions and share your thoughts your feelings with us. As faculty members, even junior faculty members we do want junior faculty to contribute to each department’s knowledge base. What are some of the great things that you do to contribute to your department's knowledge base there in history?

Laura: Well I think one of my biggest strengths is the fact that I wear several hats in the department so I at times bring an interdisciplinary approach to the study of history because I am also a women and gender scholar as well and because my areas of strength and areas of specialty are in gender and military history, I’m often looking at American history from different perspectives and trying to bring different stories to the forefront so it’s not just the same story over and over again but were looking at the impacts of various historic events on all types of people regardless of their class, rank, status, race or gender. So, I do try to bring a lot of diverse perspectives and make my curriculum overall more inclusive and as a scholar of the American Civil War and 19th century I try really hard to stay up to date on current trends, where the field is going, and bring those perspectives into my classroom. So, for example, I finally get to teach the Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s a brand new class that just got added to the curriculum- History 3750- and my students are reading three historical monographs that all came out in the last year and so there reading brand new scholarship and getting exposed to the ideas about where Civil War history really is in the field right now. 

Tony: That is very very strong. One of the things that you mentioned that I was curious about was your perspective regarding that interdisciplinary nature here at SUU. Are you comfortable with the size of the institution and the ability that you have to dip your toe in other waters, to look at how other people see things and understand things, and have you felt comfortable with the opportunity to engage interdisciplinarily (if there’s such a word) with your peers on campus?

Laura: Yes, I think so, the fact that I was added on as kind of a co-coordinator for women and gender studies I think it was my second year really helped with that. I’ve been working hard as a co-coordinator to get more and more curriculum added to the minor. So I think we’ve got over 20 classes now, we’ve got classes in the college of Humanities and Social sciences, Business in Science and in Education and in Family and Human Life Development, and so that’s been one of the ways I’ve been able to connect with my colleagues in many different disciplines is reaching out to them, seeing the courses that they’re working on, inviting them to come speak to our students. And then I was able to take advantage of one of the initiatives that the Center of Excellence for Teaching and Learning did a couple years ago to co-develop a class with a biologist. Were actually going to teach it next spring it’s a dual credit general education class and I’m forgetting the call number, it's under an SUU call number but it’s called, Western Women and Medicine and so were going to look at history and biology as it relates to women and kind of flip American history and Western history on its head to look at how time periods relate to women and also look at how women have contributed to medical history and science as well as look at biological health and science as it specifically relates to women and women’s bodies, and so I don’t know if that opportunity to teach with someone who is not only out of my department bit out of my college would have been possible at a different school. I think that’s an advantage to a smaller regional school like SUU is that you get these opportunities and you get to really know faculty outside of your department and even outside your college. 

Tony: Well, I think that’s wonderful and understand, you know, feel your passion and understand the passion of others for their content as well. I love the metaphor you used just a moment or two ago about flipping content on its head. It leads to a question regarding how you connect your lessons you know with your background and your expertise about the Civil War to the real world. Can we learn? Can we flip that, and can we learn from 200-year-old letters and information from the Civil War about how maybe our military or maybe women are acting in our world today?

Laura: Yes! I was actually recently interviewed on another podcast called Sea Control where we were looking at some of the lessons of the Naval War, especially how it related to the Campaign of Vicksburg in the summer of 1853 in the Civil War and kind of the lessons the army and navy were using to do joint operations and some of those lessons still hold true today. I think I’ve been kind of lucky as a civil war scholar, there’s a lot of things related to civil war history that are in the new lately, especially how it relates to history and memory and statues and commemoration and so for a lot of people they’re starting to realize that the legacy of the civil war is still very much felt today and one of the recent things just this semester I’ve tried to relay to my students the lasting impact of historical events on our modern day society. And so, I’ve taken various news articles or ideas that have popped up in the last year, and I’m connecting to our topics in class and our readings in class and having the students write reflections on it. For example this week they’re reading a speech from the 17th century, it’s called the Arbella Sermon, and it was given to a bunch of Puritans as they’re aboard the Arbella ship as they’re getting ready to step off into the New World and it lays out this cornerstone idea that’s been really important in American history, this kind of metaphor that we’re a, “City on a hill”, that were going to be a shining example and a shining light for the rest of the country and the rest of the world about what a good productive society looks like, and this is a metaphor that’s been used by politicians throughout the 20th century. But, over the summer someone did a survey to ask Americans, “Do we still see ourselves as a city on a hill, as kind of a shining example for the rest of the world?” and the survey said that most Americans no longer think that. So, I just thought it was interesting that this topic that we study every semester in history 1700 is again making current news. So, my students are going to hear about the survey and have a discussion about what they think. So, that’s one of the key assignments I’ve added this semester is to make these connections between past events to the present day. But I think we can’t really understand modern day events, modern day symbolism and metaphors, as well as modern day race relations or gender relations if we don’t understand where we came from and how and why do you think they’ve changed or haven’t changed.

Tony: Well I think that you know your perspective regarding what’s going on in our society here in the United States even this summer with whether they be statues or names of bridges named after generals from the civil war and the challenges that our students are having to deal with these real world applications. What are some of the ways that you use real world applications within your assignments and activities? What can some of your students expect?

Laura: So, I mean the Confederate monument debate has been poignant because it was just last summer, but it’s been a topic over the last few years. So, in my 19th century class I’ve had students debate how we should handle confederate monuments or research how different communities have responded to the monuments. We’ve also been talking about how and when those monuments were put up something that not a lot of people realize is that most of those Confederate monuments didn’t go up in the 1860s or the 1870s during the immediate Civil War era, Reconstruction era they went up much later in the 1890s 1910s as kind of direct response to what was going on in Jim Crow America. So, these monuments have this kind of meaning that’s supporting this pro-Jim Crow pro-white supremacist message because of when they go up. So, they often read the dedication speeches, so they understand how and when those monuments are going up. I think some other real work applications and assignments that I give to my students, I really emphasize a lot of writing and critical thinking because I think that serves you well no matter what your major is, and those are key component parts to the study and practice of history. In several of my classes I have my students write 25 word abstracts so they have to distill an argument from a primary source down to 25 words and I think that’s a really important real world skill to learn because we’re all going to have to communicate efficiently and clearly regardless of our job. You know, you might only get five minutes in the elevator with your boss or CEO, and you might have to convey you know the importance of the research project you're working on, or why you may need a raise. So, I think being able to develop clear communication skills is really important. In several of my classes, not just my social studies education classes, I have students who are in the education program craft lesson plans, so that way they are literally developing tools that they will use in their future careers as teachers. In my American Slavery class its History 3620, my students have the option of either writing an essay or doing a lesson plans involving lesson plans about American Slavery that they could then use in their future classrooms. 

Tony: That’s powerful thank you so much. Let me ask a question maybe for other faculty that are not teaching history but are teaching and want to become better teachers at SUU. What are some of the things that you do to check your students' understanding that they really are connecting with it that they’re understanding the concepts that you are teaching? What are some of the tools you use or the approaches you use to help?

Laura: I always try to have a blend of low stakes assignments and high stakes assignments and blend the types of things that I’m asking my students to do. So, there might be quizzes or conventional exams, but then you know, my lower level classes there’s usually practical hands on assignment kind of weekly activities to specifically have them engage in our readings and our primary sources. I do at times try to get them to be creative so when we’re looking at the Colonial Era which we're looking at right now, they have to create a marketing campaign for their colony, to kind of explain what were the unique features and facets of that colony. So, I think tapping into their creative side helps them. I have students do a lot of reflection so kind of thinking through writing and reflecting on what they learned that week how they’re piecing together the various reading assignments that we have or our various lecture activities. I at times use quick polls, like poll everywhere, to get kind of some quick feedback from my students to see what they’re thinking or feeling. On the first day it’s a great way to kind of get to know your students. And then my upper division classes they do a lot of writing the research, but they don’t necessarily do research papers. Sometimes I have them do various kinds of research activities so they’re developing research skills in these unique ways. So, in one class they go into special collections and look at some primary sources which are some old legal court case records and they have to pick five cases, transcribe the document, annotate it, and explain how they’re all connected. So, I think it’s really important when we’re checking for understanding that we do a variety of different assignments for our students to engage them, but also it allows you to kind of engage their understanding at different levels and at different times throughout the semester.

Tony: Fantastic, you know I want to stay on the same thing of help or support for another faculty here at SUU. You know, listening to you talk about your learners and opportunities to engage with them I can absolutely sense your passion and your wonderful inquisitive nature. Currently in history you have no reluctant learners. But, if one or two were to come across your path, what would you do or what would you share to other faculty here on campus things you would do to pull in or hook those reluctant learners that may come across your path?

Laura: I think, and I think I do have some reluctant learners in some of my general education classes, I think one key thing is to share your passion and enthusiasm. If they see that you're excited and you're passionate about what you're teaching, they’re more apt to be excited about what you're teaching. I think you hook them in with the things that are unique and interesting about your discipline. People say history is boring, but history is all about stories, so I try to find really interesting stories to share with them. So, when we’re talking about the Gilded Age, I talk about the famous serial killer H. H.  Holmes which everyone finds really interesting, but then we can connect his story and the reason he became a serial killer with what’s going on in that time period. So that helps. I think bringing in new interpretations or perspectives that are in your field, so many what the new trends are in your specific discipline. A lot of times I’m bringing in history from different perspectives than my students are used to or maybe sharing different stories about the American past that they’re not familiar with and I think that helps they realize it’s not the same old same old in your disciple, that there are new interpretations new perspectives, new ways to think about things and really challenge students and I think that’s a great way to hook them in and then using obviously different approaches to how you teach materials, so I often like to bring in visuals to help them whether those are video clips, obviously in history we might do a lot of timelines, but I also looks a lot of content maps so we can map out how different events relate to one another, and they can build those connections and I think that helps students especially my students who might be more STEM focused because we can almost build a process or a visual kind of cause-and-effect relationship that really speaks to them.

Tony: Wonderful, just one last question for you. Both President Wyatt and Provost Anderson shared their perspective, you know wanting to engage diversity in our institution and encourage that. Can you talk about some of the ways that you demonstrate respect and concern for your learners maybe even particularly the diverse learners that you find in your classrooms?

Laura: Yes! I mean I think one of the keyways to respect our diverse student population is to make sure that we’re including diverse perspectives in our teaching. So I make sure that when we’re talking about American history we don’t just talk about one type of person but we're looking at a variety of people and understanding how the same event might impact people dramatically differently depending on their race, their gender, their identity, their class, their rank. I also make sure to make sure my students are reading diverse authors, again so making sure that there’s minority authors, that there are female authors that they’re reading so I think that helps show respect to them. In terms of diverse learners, I think trying to make sure that we offer students the opportunities to learn through a variety of methods because some students are going to be stronger writers, some students are going to have stronger communication through verbal skills, some of them might be more artistic. So, if we can offer them more opportunities to share their knowledge that helps. I try to always talk to my students about what they’re interested in, so often in my upper division classes I say, “What in this time period do you want to learn about?” and I make sure that if it’s not already in my lesson plans that we add that material in. Because then I can engage in what they’re interested in and passionate about and make sure that their diverse interests are being met. And then just in terms of diverse abilities or capabilities, I try and make sure that I reach out to all my students so usually after the first or second exam I do a check in with the students who maybe aren’t doing as well offering them tips and study strategies and asking them to kind of meet with me one-on-one so we can figure out where they’re struggling and where I can help them, and one of the questions I always ask them is what class they’re doing really well in, so I can see how they’re studying and learning in that class and apply it to history. But I also always take time to reach out to my students who are really excelling as well like, “Just a quick note you’re doing awesome you should be really proud of yourself and I want you to understand that I recognize the hard work that you’re putting in.” And I find that those students are really appreciative that someone takes that time to recognize their successes as well. 

Tony: It all comes down to relationships doesn’t it Laura.

Laura: It really does. 

Tony: Thank you so very much Laura, thank you for being willing to share with us thank you for the tips and tricks and approaches that you’ve made. Friends, I would encourage you to reach out to Laura, she’s very open to having you come and visit her class and settings and situations to be able to see some of her work in progress. Laura thank you so very much and I hope that we get to do this again in the near future, okay?

Laura: Okay! 

Tony: You have a great day and one and all you have a great semester this fall even with your masks on. Make it a good one. Thank you, Laura, 

Laura: Thank you! 

Tony: Bye bye now.

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