Nebraska is flyover country with a history just as boring as the endless fields that line the highways. Or is it?
Ann Tschetter, assistant professor of practice in history, didn’t want her Nebraska history students to think that, so she went outside the box and the classroom to challenge students to think about Nebraska beyond the romantic images conjured by Hollywood’s Old West.
Tschetter learned she would be teaching UNL’s “History of Nebraska and the Great Plains” (HIST 360) last year and researched curriculums from other schools and states. What she found was often dry and downright boring.
“The standard ways to teach state history often highlighted already well-known people, could get pretty one-dimensional, and sometimes did not fit the state’s experience into the national story,” Tschetter said. “I wanted to take students into the field to go beyond some of these limitations. I wanted them to understand the whole story of the ground beneath their feet.”
Tschetter thought about how she could better engage the students and, as a course requirement for education majors, she also wanted to make the class relevant to pedagogy.
The curriculum she came up with turns a lot of preconception about Nebraska on its head and provokes students to think critically about those early citizens who formed the state.
“Students remember the pioneers — they all played Oregon Trail — but they never thought about the negative consequences of Manifest Destiny, that whole idea of westward movement, and what that meant for people who were already out here,” Tschetter said.
“Or, what it was really like to get out here. It sounds great, but it was terrible. It was hot. It was cold. There was drought and grasshoppers. They were just shocked at how difficult that must have been.”
Tschetter also incorporated field trips, an unusual approach in college courses. The class has already been to the Capitol on Feb. 13, the Sheldon Museum of Art Jan. 23 and Special Collections in Love Library Feb. 6. The class also will spend a day in Red Cloud, the hometown of one of the most famous Nebraskans, Willa Cather, April 17.
The field trip proposal raised some eyebrows, Tschetter said, but they’ve been beneficial for the students.
“That brings history alive for us,” said Alex Mallory, a senior political science and history major from South Sioux City. “We can learn about it in the classroom all we want and we can study it, but actually going and seeing the Nebraska Supreme Court and the Norris Legislative Chambers really brings it alive.”
Students are looking forward to going to Red Cloud for several reasons. Tschetter said many students can’t picture a small town or the isolation involved in life on the Plains.
“A couple of the students are from really tiny towns, but the rest of them have no idea what this is going to look like,” Tschetter said. “They’re going to be shocked after they read ‘One of Ours’ and then see that Red Cloud still looks like what’s described in that novel.”
Mason Porterville, a junior from Lincoln, said he can’t picture life in a desolate place.
“I didn’t even know Red Cloud was there,” he said. “Thinking about how it would feel to be on the Plains with nothing, except what you have on hand, that’s been surreal to me, so I want to see it.”
Designing the course is a learning experience for Tschetter, too. She’s already thinking about course improvements and rotating in new trips for future classes, but she sees through the papers the class has done as well as the discussions in each class, that the students are gaining more than just knowledge.
“It’s been fun to see that what they’re learning is getting them excited about their state,” she said. “They like Nebraska. They had no idea there was so much history here.”