In Spring 1986, I began teaching college classes—so this year marks my 25th anniversary as a college instructor (although I have not taught 25 consecutive years). One thing I have noticed over this time is how much technology has changed, especially in the college classroom. Back then, technology was a 16mm film projector to show films/documentaries, an overhead projector, and a carousel slide projector. All boards were chalkboards. Dramatic changes have even occurred since I arrived at Mansfield; during my first semester, I taught in a classroom that did not even have an overhead projector nor a VCR or TV/monitor, but it did have an opaque projector and a baby grand piano (I could have taught history like Mark Russell if I had wanted—but I know my teaching evaluations would have suffered if I had tried to sing). Now, I teach in a classroom that has a whiteboard, projector, DVD player, VCR, computer, and the capability of playing sound clips embedded into PowerPoint slides. This means that what I will be doing this Friday (it was supposed to be on Wednesday, but Mother Nature intervened) will be something I could never have envisioned when I first taught American History since 1865 at the Berks Campus of Penn State.
A little bit of background: In some ways, some of my class lectures (or at least the lecture notes) are remarkably similar to the ones I delivered in 1986. They aren’t identical; those were handwritten, and the ones I use now are typed. But the content (and delivery method) had not appreciably changed. So, last fall, as I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the U.S. history survey class this spring, I decided that some of the lectures would be revamped (I’m not crazy; I wasn’t about to rewrite thirty lectures over semester break). One way in which I would be changing the lecture would be to incorporate more primary sources/firsthand accounts into the presentation—in other words, use the words of the people who actually lived during the time period and experienced the history. For the second half U.S. history survey, oral history would prove to be a good way to do this, especially when I get into the 20th century. Now, by training I am an early American historian—and, well, we don’t do oral history, as we haven’t really found anyone to talk to who was alive in the 18th century. So for the early classes—and especially my Pennsylvania history class, which underwent the transformation a few years ago—using printed primary sources to bring the past to life has proven to be quite effective.
The first lecture/presentation that would be revamped would be the one on immigration in the late 19th/early 20th century. The old version—the one written in 1986–was, to put it mildly, dated. It mostly consisted of statistics, general themes, origins and destinations of immigrants, etc., but there was no “life” in it. It’s like I was teaching immigration history without actually including any immigrants. So—the first step was to find the stories of immigrants and learn about their experiences on the trans-Atlantic crossing, the challenges they faced at Ellis Island, their expectations of life in the United States, etc. That was the easy part, as I had recently purchased Ellis Island Interviews: Immigrants Tell Their Stories in Their Own Words by Peter Morton Coan (New York, 1997), and it is a great collection of immigrants’ recollections of their experiences. I also was able to borrow JoAnn Skov’s photo of the street sign for Hester Street in New York (another thing I am trying to include in the lectures is popular culture, and I will be discussing the movie Hester Street as part of the presentation). But the highlight of the lecture, as it would turn out, would almost literally fall into my lap in a totally unexpected way.
More background: as you can tell from my gravitar on the blog, I am a fan of Charles Shaughnessy—actor, entrepreneur, blogger. Charlie is the person responsible for me entering the world of blogging, as I started participating in his blog (“Only Connect!”) in late 2009, and I started my own blog partly to express my thoughts (in the hopes that someone would read them) and partly because Charlie had become too busy to blog as often as he had previously. Anyway, to make a long story short (or, rather, shorter), on January 11, 2011, Laurie Baker’s OutTakes Interviews program on BlogTalkRadio had Charlie as a guest, and I was fortunate enough to be able to call in and talk to him—and ask a question. My question: Why did you choose to become a naturalized citizen? It was something I was interested in (mainly because I teach a course on immigration history, but also because of his blog). I had no idea at the time if he would answer what could be considered a personal question (although it probably wasn’t as personal as some of the other questions asked during the program), much less how he would answer it. After playing that portion of the radio program to my mother the next day (hey, Mom—I was on the radio!), she said that Charlie’s comment about why he became a naturalized citizen would be perfect for my lecture.
Now the fun part begins. How in the world does someone who isn’t exactly the most technologically adept person incorporate a sound clip into a PowerPoint presentation? Who do I need to contact for permission to do this? I decided to tackle question #2 first, because if I could not get permission, there was no point in trying to figure out the technology. As a side note—Facebook has become more than a social network for me; it has also become a place to conduct business (so to speak). I have negotiated internships, kept in contact with student teachers, and corresponded with a friend about research projects, so the idea of obtaining permissions via Messages on Facebook wasn’t an alien one. Thus, I sent a PM to Laurie Baker (host of the program) and Charles Shaughnessy (the person who responded to the question), asking their permission to use an audio clip from the program in my class (and providing them a transcription so they were aware of the portion that I wished to include). At that time, I still hadn’t grasped the possibility of being able to actually have Charlie “speak” in my class—but that soon would become a reality. Laurie responded right away and consented (and even expressed a hope that I would be able to figure out a way to have Charlie “speak” in my class instead of reading the transcription aloud). Then, I heard from Charlie through his Facebook Team (aka Team Charlie)—and he agreed to let me “use his voice” in my class.
After recovering from the initial shock of actually having Charlie agree to it (and knowing that this potentially meant that the students would hear more than my voice in class that day), I then set about trying to figure out the technology. That’s where Tamela Bastion of MU Campus Technologies came into the picture. I burned a CD of the radio program, and, using Audacity, we edited the radio program so that the exact sound bite I wanted (me asking Charlie the question and his response) could become a sound clip that I could then embed in a PowerPoint slide. After we got it to work, I then offered to e-mail the slide with the audio clip to Laurie and Charlie—and Charlie’s Team provided me with the e-mail address to send it to them. That proved to be a bit of an adventure, since I had created the slide using Office 2010, and they couldn’t open it. Well, for once my technological ineptness proved to be a virtue, as I forced myself to try to solve the problem—which I finally did when I went to the campus the next day and worked on the PC in my office, which still has a Windows XP operating system (for once, I appreciated the dinosaur in my office). I then finished the rest of the slide presentation, and I tested it in the classroom where I would be teaching. It worked—and, other than realizing that I would have to adjust the volume a bit (let’s just say I won’t need it on surround sound), the PowerPoint outline was ready for class. I then shared the completed PowerPoint with Charlie’s Team for their files and informed them that all but the last slide (the one with the sound clip) would be posted online on Desire2Learn (our course management site) and that the slide with Charlie’s contribution to class would only be presented in class. It turned out to be quite the experience getting the permissions (actually, it was much easier than I anticipated), and I got the sense that Charlie was happy to help (according to the Team, he said it was “very cool that he is part of a history lesson”).
Update: Overall, the lecture was a success, as the students seemed to enjoy hearing the “Voices of Ellis Island” that I read, but they especially liked our “guest speaker” today. Before the audio clip, I asked the class if they had heard of Charlie, in case I needed to provide more biographical information than “Charles Shaughnessy (England)” that was on the slide (all of the quotes included the name of the immigrant and his/her country of origin). Fortunately, they had–apparently I have an entire class of students who have watched “The Nanny” and were thrilled that Mr. Sheffield was going to talk to them. I then explained how I knew Charlie, because the tone of his response indicates that he is talking to someone he knows.
As an introduction, I described how I got the quote–asking the question on Laurie Baker’s OutTakes Interviews program on BlogTalkRadio when Charlie was the guest–and, after a slight technical glitch, played the audio clip for the class. A word of advice for anyone who wants to do this–make sure that the speakers are turned on before you decide to play an audio clip. The students LOVED hearing Charlie’s thoughts on the topic and laughed when he said Americans drive him crazy.
A final thanks to everyone who helped with this adventure–Tamela from CT, Jo, Laurie, and especially Charlie, all of whom made the immigration lecture both a nerve-wracking and a memorable experience.