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(By Luke Jeske, PhD Student, History Department)

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 and universities’ responses to fluctuating public health guidelines have presented many instructors with a sort of pedagogical crisis. Professors and graduate students across the country have numerous questions about how they can continue to provide high-quality learning experiences to their students this fall. Many conversations center around digital teaching methods, especially ‘asynchronous’ and ‘hybrid’ learning, that will safely enable instruction as quarantine measures and social distancing guidelines remain in place. University faculty must also focus on the changed context in which students are learning. 

Whereas prior to the pandemic most student learning occurred on or near university campuses, this fall a sizable minority – although it may be a majority if a ‘second wave’ of cases happens – will engage with coursework from home. While many instructors may see students working from home as a disadvantage, I feel it presents unique opportunities for history teachers to infuse their lessons with intergenerational learning, the transmission of knowledge, skills, and traditions among people of different ages. Intergenerational learning often occurs within family groups, but this fall it may happen within whatever mixed quarantine settings students find themselves. 

I first discovered the linkages among online teaching, quarantine living, and intergenerational learning as a teaching assistant this past spring for Professor Matt Andrews‘ “Baseball in American History” course. This two-hundred-student class transitioned from a combination of in-person lectures and discussion sections to an asynchronous online learning model. Lectures were posted to Loom, a video messaging platform, for students to watch and rewatch at their convenience. Discussion sections were replaced with online forums in which students responded to weekly readings and each other’s interpretations of those documents. As quickly became clear in student responses to lectures, each other’s writing, and final essays, students were sharing their lectures with parents and grandparents. 

During our unit on the peculiar nostalgia for 1950s baseball, an era headlined by ‘greats’ such as Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, parents and grandparents’ responses to the lectures generated precisely the kind of nostalgia we were discussing. I read several discussion forums and final exams that used this evidence of nostalgia to support arguments that an older generation of (mostly white) baseball fans remembered the 1950s so fondly because the sport changed so dramatically in subsequent decades. From the late 1950s until the 1990s, Major League Baseball experienced racial diversification, geographic expansion (most notoriously the relocation of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles), and the rise of the athletic superstar. Talking with family members who remembered these historical shifts in the game infused personal memories into students’ learning in ways not typically possible in campus-bound lectures and discussions. 

In what other courses might instructors integrate intergenerational learning? Many large lecture courses accommodate themselves to student-led oral histories related to major historical themes. By way of example, I consider here the case of UNC’s perennially maxed-out class “The World Since 1945.” Because of the vast geographic and thematic expanse of this course, students could use intergenerational learning to explore many facets of their coursework. A sample assignment might read as follows: 

“Watch a course lecture with one person (who has lived through or can identify with the events discussed in said lecture) of your choosing. Then, conduct a brief oral history with this person asking him/her to think about how these events most shaped his/her life and generation. After your interview, consider the following questions: How did your subject’s individual experiences reflect larger trends including shifts in political, social, and economic life discussed in the lecture? How, if at all, did they depart from the lecture discussion? How does your subject remember history and how might you, as a historian, accept, challenge, or modify such narratives?”

Whatever form student responses take, from written essays to digital presentations, the above task would sharpen learners’ abilities to critically engage with the ideas, emotions, and life experiences that historians encounter in their work. Furthermore, this—or a similar assignment—would showcase the everyday applications of the critical thinking and communication skills acquired in university-level history classes. Finally, with potentially limited access to libraries or other sources of historical information during the pandemic, intergenerational oral histories would allow students to conduct primary source research at a time when other avenues of academic inquiry may not be open.

Instructors have an opportunity to engage students in intergenerational learning because of the new contexts in which education is occurring. With course materials available online and students learning remotely, historians have to rethink how they teach. Creating intergenerational learning experiences is one way to continue delivering high-caliber education and bolster student engagement with coursework. 

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