A history professor helps students grapple with the complexities of slavery with a controversial approach: She asks them to look at all sides of the issue.
Lecturer of History, Morgan State University
PhD, MA, and BA in History
The conversations in the World History II class of Jyoti Mohan, PhD, often teeter on the edge of politeness. Perhaps that is no surprise, given the emotionally charged subject matter of some of the lessons, including a weeklong unit on slavery.
“[Having historical sense]—understanding how the larger standard of life and values were in a particular time and place, before we judge them against our own personal beliefs—seemed to be the most practical strategy for talking about the uncomfortable truths of slavery,” says Mohan. Her methods include a flipped-classroom approach, case study examination, and student-led discussions and activities.
Mohan appreciates her ability to innovate and adapt her lecturing style at Morgan State University, because it allows her more latitude than she would have had in India, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “Education is more standardized there,” she says. “When I thought about becoming a professor, I was excited to try the American system, where I can take more liberties and be more creative with my approach.”
Still, Mohan has great respect and gratitude for her early teachers, who helped set her on the path she walks today. “This is a profession that we encounter early on, so it’s something everyone considers doing at some point,” she says. “Everyone knows a teacher!”
Challenge: Too much memorizing, too little logic
Mohan asserts that the university system has a responsibility to teach freshmen (who make up most of the students in this course) how to discuss even the most challenging and polarizing of topics with a focus on facts, not feelings. “I want students to develop an argument about the history of the time period that is fairly logical, based on circumstances including political, geographical, and environmental factors.” A historical examination of slavery provides the perfect venue in which to practice rational discussion, but there are some significant hurdles to overcome.
One of the first challenges she needs to address is the fact that the class is made up of students of a variety of racial identities, usually different from her own. Also, they lack a comprehensive knowledge of slavery, imagining its effects only in Africa and America. “Slave trade has been common for as long as human beings have been on the Earth in civilization,” says Mohan. Since this is a course on world history, they need to widen their worldview. Further, she says many students are accustomed to history tests requiring them to regurgitate names, dates, and locations, rather than question the why behind the events on history’s timeline.
Ultimately, Mohan would like students to be able to examine events—in history and today—logically, in order to gain a deeper understanding of human action. Her hope is that her students will derive enough information and inspiration from the past to facilitate positive social change in their own future.
Innovation: Building skills needed for predictive thinking
When students learn history, they are learning to see patterns. While the situations and circumstances change from era to era, the interactions and behaviors are familiar. History is exciting, says Mohan, because it is all about logic. It asks us to examine causal connections: Why did things happen? What were the circumstances? What were the choices? What were the possible paths? What were the actual paths? Put another way: Why do we study history? Because, says Mohan, “It has all happened before.” By discovering the patterns in the world’s history, students will be better prepared to make informed decisions in their own future.
For this reason, Mohan centers her class on the concept of historical sense—an understanding of the standard of life, values, and other circumstances of a particular time and place—which she says helps students be more reflective in their learning. “Sometimes we see history as isolated events, which makes it difficult to put people’s actions in context,” she says. “Seeing how historical figures saw the situation at the time brings a logic to the material. Only then we can begin to debate the issues.”
Her main approach is to help build historical sense by selecting a historical case study that has powerful, moving details yet is supported by enough factual materials to enable students to use predictive thinking to intuit the outcome.
The foundation of her lesson on slavery is a case study on the Zong Trial, which occurred in 1783 and involved a British insurance company and the owners of the slave ship Zong (see sidebar). In short, it involves ditching the textbooks, flipping the classroom lecture, and then spending class time engaged in discussion.
Course: HIST 102 World History from 1500–Present
Frequency: Online lectures and readings provided weekly; 50-minute online discussion sessions 3 times per week for 12 weeks
Class size: 25
Course description: World History I and II (HIST 102) are a survey of the development and spread of civilization from ancient times to the present day. These courses adopt a global perspective of history, while at the same time attempting to do justice to the distinctive character and recent development of individual civilizations and regions in the world.
In her words: “Using a variety of recorded lectures and downloadable materials, such as PowerPoint, narratives, and illustrations, I offer students information they need to come to class and have meaningful discussions about difficult lessons in history. I hope they leave with a better understanding of historical sense and the power of personal action.”
HIST 102 World History from 1500–PresentSee materials
Lesson: A case study on the trial of the Zong slave ship
Mohan’s “crash course on world slavery” takes place during one week of the 12-week semester. At its center is the Zong Trial (see sidebar) and the role of early abolitionists.
“First, we discuss, ‘What are the facts? What were the values and cultures influencing people of the time?’” she says. “[Then] we talk in class with honesty and respect about the people living at the time and the choices they had, basing our discussions on fact, and then, afterwards, we talk about current issues.”
Here is how she carries out her case study approach:
Flip the classroom—and explain why
Mohan explains that the flipped classroom enables students to gain more from her and from each other. She tells them that by assigning the “lecture” materials as homework, they can spend in-class time asking questions and sharing their thoughts.
Focus on growth more than grades
Students come to college with a variety of experiences from high school, says Mohan. Some of them have stronger writing and reading skills than others. They may not understand all of the words in a typical textbook, which is why she does not use one. She instead focuses on meeting students where they are, finding out what they need to learn, and making sure that by the last day of class, they have grown.
Context of the Zong Massacre
The foundation of Mohan’s lesson on slavery is a case study on a merchant ship called the Zong. In 1781, Zong was making the journey between Africa and Jamaica. This part of the voyage was called the Middle Passage, as it was the middle leg of a three-leg “triangular” journey. In the Triangular Trade, manufactured goods were shipped from England to the west coast of Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were shipped to Brazil, South America, the Caribbean Islands, and other locales. There they were traded for raw materials bought by the British upon the ship’s return. The Middle Passage involved British shipworkers and businessmen, yet most of England was unaware of the slave trade and its magnitude.
It was during the Middle Passage of Zong that the crew threw more than 100 slaves overboard because, they said, it was required for the good of the ship and the remaining slaves and crewmen. (Mohan related the details in this lecture on the Zong Trial given at Course Hero headquarters.) The Zong Trial itself was brought before a British judge by the ship’s insurer, which felt it should not have to pay for a loss caused by poor management. As the trial was reported upon by British media, however, it resulted in an increased awareness of and outrage over England’s role in the slave trade. Abolitionists reframed the Zong Trial as the Zong Massacre, focusing the debate instead on whether the crew should, in fact, face murder charges.
Mohan notes that change does take time: Fifty years would pass between the Zong Trial (and the initial public outrage it inspired) and the banning of slavery in Britain (1833). “What can the Zong teach us? What bothers us today? How can we use the lessons from this to create change in a system from within?” she asks. “The Zong gave us a powerful lesson on how to do that.”
Post materials in bulk
Mohan supplies reference materials that were written or created by people living in that time period. These include first-person narratives by slaves, political cartoons, ship schematics, personal essays, and newspaper articles—all on digital media. Mohan uploads a week’s worth of materials at a time, so students can digest them at their own pace. “Students can listen to my lectures anytime, anywhere—even while they are walking across campus,” says Mohan. Digital resources also allow students to take notes within the presentation documents.
Do not plan every minute of class time
Mohan’s focus, and what makes the class come alive, is on class discussions. Though she always has a backup plan of what to talk about, she prefers to “wing it” and see where the students take the conversation. Do they want to talk about Django Unchained? Do they want to talk about the lyrics in a recent Kanye West song? Do they want to make connections between the treatment of groups today and slaves in the 1700s? Do they want to get even more creative? The Zong Trial case study, for instance, lends itself well to a role-playing exercise, in which students take sides, act out the roles of key players, and offer predictions of the outcome.
Celebrate the ability to communicate well
Being familiar with the material is only a starting point for Mohan. What really counts is how students listen to each other and use logic and evidence to support their arguments. “We have a responsibility to teach freshman how to raise questions and to recognize that people’s actions are not based solely on morals or ethics but are acts of self-preservation. It is exciting to see when students recognize that it takes a very brave person to go against the grain,” explains Mohan. “The people [in history who did this] were game changers.”
As students begin to make historical sense of people’s actions and see patterns in human behavior, Mohan wants them to ask themselves: “How can we use what we know now to understand the events happening around us today?” In this way, they may become game changers of the future.
While Mohan has not had to defend her methods, she can imagine someone saying that the flipped classroom approach is pandering to the student. She agrees that there should be a limit.
For example, she knows that some students are visual learners, which is one reason she includes a variety of media resources. However, she says, “I’m not going to give them video games to play all semester. We [educators] all try to hold [students] to a higher standard in university. That’s a moving target depending on where they’ve come from.”
Every year a senior colleague provides assessment, and Mohan’s assessments are always very good.
Mohan says that she has made some minor adaptations as she has gained more experience with this lesson. “I have learned to be more of a moderator and an active listener than a lecturer,” she says. For students who are less comfortable with public speaking, Mohan allows the submission of a brief written response to the issue that is under discussion.
“I think that by the end of the course, students realize that the type of fact-based debate and interpersonal skills we practice in class are important, and they can use them [throughout their lives].”
Overall, students have expressed positive opinions about the lesson and its presentation.
One student who really loved the Zong Trial lesson and mock trial was an international student from Nigeria majoring in engineering. During the mock trial, he opted to argue on the side of the owners of the ship and did so quite passionately. He told her that the experience offered the potential for him to learn a great deal and to really get engaged, and he appreciated that it was a completely different, interesting approach.