– New courses stimulate student interest in history and the Civil War
PHOTO: Students in Prof. Kathleen Nigro’s “Literature of the American Civil War” class taking part in a field trip to Jefferson Barracks. Photo by Colleen O’Neil Photography, 2014 ©. Photo courtesy of Prof. Nigro and Colleen Milne.


By Hung Nguyen, Managing Editor for The Current

Is this person guilty or not guilty? Should they be banished to Canada, executed, imprisoned, or fined? These were the questions that UMSL’s “Literature of the American Civil War” class, taught by Kathleen Nigro, PhD, assistant teaching professor, English and gender studies, tackled on a field trip to Jefferson Barracks.

Being placed in the position of military judiciaries after being introduced to some background about each court case, students worked in groups to press for a verdict and punishment as the clock ticked away the allotted time nearby. Afterwards, each team of three disclosed their decisions and learned what actually happened to the individuals they just condemned or acquitted. Some revelations left students surprised, even after learning the reasons for a seemingly wrong conviction.

The course is one of a few currently in-design that incorporate an experiential engagement with subject matter, particularly in humanities or social science classes where a traditional lab or practical component has not been common practice.

“What makes this class so unique is that students not only are immersed in the history and literature of the Civil War, but also participate in experiential learning in the field,” Amy Dooley, program manager of the school of professional and continuing studies, said. “These historic places create connections to our heritage that help us understand our past that can’t always be accomplished in the classroom. This class is helping students build and grow their knowledge through unique experiences. Each historical site field trip is enhanced by special tours and programs led by experts in the field.”

Nigro’s course will visit several places as the course progresses, including: the Eugene Field House, the Old Courthouse, Campbell House Museum, Jefferson Barracks Museum, Bellefontaine Cemetery, Mercantile Library, and the Ulysses S. Grant Historical Site.

But more importantly, Nigro has pointed to some unexpected but welcome rewards and enhancements while teaching the course.

Because the course does not follow a traditional didactic, lecture-heavy mode of instruction, Nigro has afforded students more freedom and control in how they approach their papers and discussion assignments, within some guiding criteria and themes. The freedom to question and explore other approaches to the subject matter, she noted, has allowed students to come up with and have the courage to think about events and issues in ways not readily seen in the traditional classroom courses, often having a more prescriptive, fact-based approach to inquiry and subject interrogation.

“The experiential learning has caused them to be much more aware of how history is made,” Nigro explained. “We went to the Eugene Field House and then we went to the Campbell Field House and it was very clear to [the students] that difference in class meant where you lived, what you had, how people treated you. I think they see that it’s not only today that we have those same hierarchies of value. I think we tend to romanticize people of the past- that they were all moral, ethical, good, smart. I think it’s interesting for them to go to these places and see that they’re people just like we are. It’s been interesting to show them that history was popular culture to people at one time.”

Myrta Vida, senior, interdisciplinary, commented, “They’re absolutely invaluable for me…There’s something about being able to see the chair where someone sat or the dress that someone wore. It makes it human. It makes the story more human. And it actually makes you interested and excited about history.”

The course is open to both credit and non-credit community members and Nigro expressed enthusiasm at the mixed courses. “I hope we continue to offer these mixed courses, as community members are often older and may have life experiences that our students may not have had to add to the discussion.”

The field trips also bring students out to the community, where they can see individuals working in fields related to history. Nigro noted that by sheer serendipity, some of the docents of the sites were University of Missouri—St. Louis graduates or current students in history or a related field of study, that now have jobs.

Namely, Samuel Moore, a master’s student of history and museum studies currently at UMSL, now serves as the assistant director and author for the Campbell House Museum. Daniel Gonzales, a 2010 graduate from UMSL’s master’s program in history and E. Desmond Lee Fellow in Museum Studies, now serves as a museum curator for St. Louis County, including the Jefferson Barracks Historic Site.

“I think it’s important for our students going into the humanities to know that they have opportunities to work [outside of academia],” Nigro said.

Additional course offerings of this kind are available through the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, in collaboration with various academic units.

© The Current 2014