My New Favorite Assignment

Because I worried that students might lose track of the order and relationship of different events, I needed to design a new kind of assignment for my course, Disability and Disease in U.S. History, one that focused on periodization.

In this course, there were days when we studied trends in all disabilities in chronological order, following the work of our synthetic text, Kim Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States. We started reading about indigenous beliefs before the arrival of European explorers and then attitudes and practices during the early and later colonial eras. However, there were also days when it made more sense to focus on one topic or disability and follow that topic over the course of multiple centuries.

For example, while studying the unique history of people with deafness, we could observe change from 18th century Martha’s Vineyard (where all the islanders, deaf and hearing, used sign language) through the rise of oralism in the late 19th century (a philosophy in which those hard of hearing were forced to try to learn to speak, an extraordinarily difficult task that frustrated the goals of communication and forming community) through the growing acceptance of American Sign Language as a legitimate language in the 1960s and the Deaf President Now protests at Gallaudet in 1988.

Similarly, it made sense to focus on psychiatric disabilities and the experiences of veterans with disabilities as separate topics.

Integrating these topics into the days following a more traditional chronological approach might be difficult for any student and even more so for the many non-majors in the course. They didn’t have the same prior knowledge of American history and didn’t have the same sense of context and periodization as history majors and minors. Simply asking students to put events on a timeline felt like a task for elementary school students, not college students; yet that task did seem like an important precursor to the more intellectually challenging assignment I ended up creating. I loved this assignment because it met a number of important course goals and students enjoyed it and found it valuable too.

Here were the steps in the process:

  1. As homework in preparation for class, each student independently reviewed all the topics we’d studied thus far and decided upon 18 events or trends that they thought especially important. (They were told not to overlook any class day.) For each event or trend, they noted the year(s) and included a phrase about why they thought it was significant.
  2. During class, we formed groups of 3-4 students. That meant each group had at least 54 events or trends to consider (though often with some overlap). Those groups looked at one another’s lists and together decided on the 22-30 events or trends they found most important.
  3. Once they had chosen these events or trends, they began working on their periodization (still during class). This was the more intellectually challenging part of the assignment.

    Their instructions at this point were to:

    First, look for patterns in time periods (e.g., Did people with different disabilities experience some common challenges or improvements in the same period? Were some periods quite different from other ones due to things that changed (such as social attitudes, laws, actions by authorities or by people with disabilities)?

    Second, Identify 4-7 time periods that you think generally hold together because of some trends.

    Third, decide upon an original name for each period that you think effectively characterizes it.

  4. Finally, they had to create a timeline that visually conveyed their distinct periods and the events in each period. I didn’t care how they did this – high tech or low tech – as long as viewers could understand the periods from viewing it. I showed them a couple of options – such as a bulleted list of events with clear headings for period names and dates, slides in which each slide depicted one period and the events in it – and let them decide how they’d do it. Given the quick turnaround for the assignment, most chose a straightforward method; one group opted for a color-coded horizontal timeline on multiple sheets of paper taped together.

This timeline and an accompanying document explaining their reasoning for the periods and some things they learned by doing the assignment were due the next class period. Most groups met together outside of class to complete their work.

During that class period, the groups shared their timelines with one another. As a result, they observed both similarities and differences in the events those chose, the periodization they decided upon, and the characterization of the periods. It was like crowd-sourcing historical interpretations.

Here’s what I really liked about the assignment:

  • It meant students reviewed the material and used it. While this was an independent assignment, doing it helped them prepare for a later synthetic essay.
  • It invited students’ creativity, both in naming the periods and in visually depicting their timelines. They came up with names like “Community Care Era,” “Prejudicial Persecution Era,” “Era of ‘Science,’” “Expansion, Exclusion, and Education,” “On the Right Path,” “Isolation to Inclusion” “Federal Intervention,” “Disability Rights,” “A Step in the Right Direction,” “From College to Community,” and “Amplifying Activism.”  While brainstorming period names, they tended to be focused and occasionally laughed at their efforts.
  • Doing the assignment reinforced some important course ideas, such as how disability has been conceptualized and experienced in very different ways throughout American history (i.e., socially constructed). They realized that history is not necessarily a story of continued progress but instead is often characterized by ups and downs. They grappled with history’s complexity as they observed that during the same period there could be both oppressive and helpful actions.
  • The exercise reinforced the idea that if you put people with disabilities at the center of one’s focus, you may have different interpretations than if you focus on other Americans. There’s no way that anyone would call the late 19th and early 20th century “The Progressive Era,” for example, when it witnessed new immigration policies prohibiting the entry of people with various disabilities, the popularization of eugenics and adoption of state laws approving forced sterilization, cities with “ugly laws” keeping people with physical disabilities off the streets, worsening conditions in institutions originally intended for care, and widespread assumption that people with disabilities couldn’t work.
  • They better understood what history scholars do – they must select some things out of many to emphasize and look for trends and patterns when they periodize – and these tasks involve interpretative decisions. As one group noted, “You’re forced to look through the microscopic and telescopic view at the same time.”

For me, this one is a keeper and I’ll be pondering how to adapt it for other courses.

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