B’more Authentic: Teaching Difficult History in the College Classroom

By Menika Dirkson

Carol Highsmith, “Pocomoke City Bridge, built in Worcester County, Maryland” [between 1980 and 2006], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I’ll never forget my first mentor in graduate school. He was a black man from Baltimore who taught African American History at a predominantly white institution for over twenty years. I first met Dr. Lawrence “Larry” Little when I took his course as an undergraduate student at Villanova University. I thought he was cool and smart but also a bit eccentric for telling so many jokes throughout his lecture, all while sprawled across his desk as if he were reclining on a therapist’s couch! In many ways, Dr. Little’s personality was intriguing because it reminded me of my grandfather who died when I was young. My grandfather was also from Maryland by way of Pocomoke City and was known for his brutal honesty and comical stories. Nevertheless, Dr. Little’s use of comedy along with real talk on race relations in America was memorable and effective in educating students like me.  

“Prof. John Langston, Howard University,” [between 1860 and 1875], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When I began my Master’s degree in History at the same institution in 2013, I was the only black student in the graduate program at that time, as well as a first generation college graduate. While the road ahead seemed daunting, it wasn’t insurmountable. As a graduate student, one of my assignments was to be a teaching assistant to Dr. Little. Although my main responsibility was to attend class lectures and grade papers, I chose to closely observe his teaching style to determine how I would cultivate my own pedagogy. What impacted me most was his ability to comfortably teach difficult history, particularly topics like slavery, lynching, and white supremacy. If I learned anything from Dr. Little, it was the power of simplicity and authenticity. Whether he was leading a seminar about Voltaire’s 1759 satire, Candide, or lecturing about the groundbreaking research Ida B. Wells published in her 1900 book, On Lynchings, he knew when to put jokes aside and provoke students to share their honest opinions about the historical themes presented in class. Dr. Little’s ability to effortlessly code switch from scholarly rhetoric to urban colloquialisms was not only impressive, but also helped him build rapport with students, encourage them to ask questions, and want to learn more about difficult history. Nearly eight years later, I’m still finding Dr. Little’s approach to teaching difficult history effective as I work as an instructor of record today. 

I taught a history course on race in America at Temple University this past semester, in the midst of a rocky year filled with a global pandemic, outbreaks of police brutality, uprisings, and heart-wrenching protests challenging the institutional racism inherent in American society. This semester, more than any other, I drew from Dr. Little’s teaching philosophy to discuss topics like the Confederate monuments debate and the Black Lives Matter movement with students. While these conversations often became heated and divisive as we delved into the core issues, I was able to successfully discuss controversial topics straightforwardly with compassion and authenticity to demonstrate the importance of understanding difficult history. I’m thankful for having Dr. Little as a mentor. His guidance shaped me into an educator who knows that the way to effectively teach difficult history that matters is to first build trust with students and then tackle the real issues with honesty. It all starts with that first joke.

Menika Dirkson is a Philadelphia native and PhD Candidate in History at Temple University who specializes in Race and Policing in post-1968 Urban America.

Featured image (at top): “Teachers of [Agents of] Rosenwald Rural Schools,” 1916, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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