New seminar offers moving subject matter

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October 7, 2008

2:05 AM

Seated at her desk in a small office in James Blair Hall, surrounded by coloring book pictures rendered by her young nieces and nephews, professor Elizabeth Schroeder grinned buoyantly when she began to explain her freshman seminar offered this semester.

New to the history department this fall, Schroeder brings her enthusiasm for African American cultural arts movements and urbanism into the classroom with the introduction of her freshman seminar, Great Migrations. Despite having only moved to Williamsburg in August, Schroeder did not hesitate to jump headfirst into the subject with her students.

“The students here — and this is a credit to you — are all very earnest and hardworking, and I really enjoy that,” Schroeder said. “When I first came here, a colleague told me, ‘If you tell a William and Mary student to read something, they will.’ And I thought, all right. That’s great. Let’s see how this goes. And so far, so good. Every day is an adventure.”

Schroeder and her students study the history of racial migration and immigration in the United States, predominately focusing on the 20th century. “We focus on the way groups of people migrate throughout the United States landscape and how those groups of people are marked by their race,” she said.
Students with varying interests congregate each week around a small, rectangular table, while Schroeder listens to them discuss readings and bring up their own ideas. Her students are not all history majors and come from a variety of backgrounds.

Katherine Covino ’12 enrolled in the class without knowing much about the subject or Schroeder, but believed that the subject was current and relevant.

“We learn about really interesting topics,” she said. “We even covered how people had to migrate after Hurricane Katrina.”

Schroeder believes that her area of study is extremely suitable to today’s world, and she seeks to impart this conviction to students in the course .

“There’s a considerable portion [of my class] on African-American migration and issues of segregation and race, which I think are always the most important things to study, especially given the contemporary political climate,” she said. “You can drive through any city in America and see the divisions of neighborhoods on racial lines.”

Schroeder’s students examine legislative action taken by the U.S. government, and analyze scholarly monographs about what caused movements and cultural divisions within America.
“I’m trying to establish a narrative about the history of migration and race in the United States, and specifically what that looks like on the ground,” Schroeder said. “There are so many resources available on campus, too. I definitely use Swem and lots of databases and journals. JSTOR’s a great online source for any journal article you could ever want.”

In addition to working with primary sources and directing individualized research, Schroeder’s Great Migration seminar is discussion based, an aspect of the course she considers invaluable to her classroom dynamic.

“A couple times in each semester, I have the students facilitate a class discussion just to get them talking, which is always fun,” she said. “I personally just enjoy hearing what my students have to say about the readings, seeing what they get excited about, what points they raise.”

Covino also finds that the discussion generally makes the class easier and flow better. “Everyone participates, so it makes it easier for us and professor Schroeder,” Covino said. “She really knows her stuff about the subject and tries to get everyone to give their own opinion.”

For Schroeder, these discussions are made even more valuable by the variety of her students’ backgrounds and personal histories.

“I’m looking forward to the conversations when we get to talking about segregation, urban trends and then suburbanization,” Schroeder said. “Nowadays, we grow up in the suburbs or we grow up in the city or we grow up out in the middle of nowhere on a farm, so we all can contribute differently to that conversation.”
A native of Chicago, Schroeder completed her dissertation on an African American arts movement on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s. She studied restrictive racial covenants that created the “Black Belt” of the city after World War II.

“Chicago has a special place in my heart. Anything to do with the city of Chicago, I’ll read,” Schroeder said. “I definitely want to further my own research, in regard to studying race and migration in the city of Chicago.”

A day in the life of Schroeder is similar to a day in the life of any student at the College in terms of preparation, research and passion. Schroeder rises early to begin her daily lecture prep, which involves reading over her assigned chapters, and investigating primary sources and her own individual research to ensure that when she steps into her classroom, she is prepared. Even with all the work involved on a daily basis, Schroeder said it all pays off the minute she begins her class.

“It spoils me because this is stuff that I love to read about. I’ve read, for example, this book, ‘12 Million Black Voices,’ six times,” Schroeder said. “Now, with my students, I have an opportunity to look at it again, contour it with more research and statistics and understand the laws that go into the crafting of what Richard Wright’s doing in this book. And then I teach. Those two hours of the day are the most exciting for me. It’s such an incredible rush.”

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