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Social Sciences professor McCormack continues work to teach year-round inclusivity at CCRI

Social Sciences professor McCormack continues work to teach year-round inclusivity at CCRI

While February is known for the celebration of Black History Month and June is synonymous with Pride Month, among others, Suzanne McCormack works every day to ensure her students understand the importance of inclusivity and diversity while integrating such topics into her teachings throughout the year.

A Social Sciences Professor at the Community College of Rhode Island since 2007, McCormack is in Philadelphia this week discussing how to integrate diverse topics into the traditional United States history narrative as a presenter at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) 2024 Conference on Diversity, Equity, and Student Success. 

The key is ensuring important topics and key historical figures otherwise not woven into the typical college curriculum are discussed year-round to help broaden students’ horizons and allow them to develop a more comprehensive understanding of U.S. history. 

“That’s how I’ve always taught,” said McCormack, who’s been at the college since 2007. “Historians get very sensitive about the months. February has always been Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, but social historians teach those histories year round.

“In a perfect world, we’d get to a place where we didn’t need the month, whether it’s Black History Month, Native American Heritage Month, or Women’s History Month, to remind everyone that all of these groups have valuable histories and should be incorporated into the rest of what we’re doing.” 

McCormack, who earned her master’s degree and Phd in Social History from Boston College, encourages her students to view history “from the bottom up.” For example, students in her U.S. History I and II courses are taught the American Revolution from the perspective of the average citizen to get a better sense of the economic issue at play and not just focus on the politics and “the writing of the big documents.” 

“When we choose projects in my classroom,” she said, “they are based on topics my students generally haven’t been introduced to in a previous class.”

McCormack currently teaches U.S. History I and II, Black History, U.S. Women 1600–1900, U.S. Women 1600–Present, and Latin America Since 1820, an experimental course. Her students are given the option to study topics such as the Stonewall riots of 1969, a series of landmark protests by members of the LGBTQ community; politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California who was assassinated in 1978; or key Black Americans such as civil rights and human rights activists W. E. B. Du Bois and Ella Baker, which help students realize “the Civil Rights movement started the day we began having enslaved people in the colonies.”

“When we think about integrating these type of topics into our classes,” McCormack said, “it’s an effort to help our students connect to the curriculum and understand that their families have a history that is just as relevant to the history of the United States as, for example, George Washington.

“We all have these parts that we have played in this big puzzle that is United States history. It’s important to integrate those topics and think about teaching them outside of the month.”

McCormack’s year-round focus on social history in and outside of the designated months also ensures an array of topics and iconic figures are discussed and given their rightful place in the fabric of U.S. history.

“When get overly-focused on a month, then we’re sort of being selective and saying, ‘OK, let’s choose two or three things that we think are super important and just focus on those things,’ and that’s part of the reason students come into CCRI and the only Civil Rights activist they know is Martin Luther King Jr.”

McCormack instead zeroes in on important – yet relatively unheralded – figures such as Baker, who is widely considered a major force in shaping the development of the Civil Rights Movement as a behind-the-scenes organizer and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by MLK and an inspiring force behind the creation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Another example of McCormack’s method of teaching “from the bottom up” is her focus on why women and Black Americans became increasingly more involved in the workforce during World War II rather than spending an entire class discussing the 1944 invasion of Normandy – a.k.a D-Day.

“One of the things we talk about is how the federal government had to rely on these two groups that had historically been discriminated against because they had sent millions of people overseas to fight in the war,” McCormack said. “Students are able to see those historically-problematic areas of discrimination through a different lens.”

DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion – has also been the scope of McCormack’s work at CCRI and remains even more with the recent rise of proposed anti-DEI bills in 2024. Over the past decade, she’s helped launch the college’s Gender Equity Initiative, a collaboration of staff, faculty and students designed to generate discussions about gender, women’s history, and LGBTQ issues; and served on the DEI Council, a group committed to creating a culture of belonging and inclusivity for all members of the college community.  

“We have to recognize today in 2024 that we’ve never had a level playing field in the United State,” McCormack said. “DEI is about bringing human rights into the conversation and the important of recognizing all the important contributions different groups have made.

“Look around our school and how diverse we are as a college. We do a disservice to those students if we don’t teach their history and how their families and communities have been integrated into – and sometimes not integrated into – American life. That’s so critical.”

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