Using Political Cartoons in History Instruction

If you are a college instructor as I am, the last thing you need is someone advising you of yet another strategy for enhancing your lessons. Nevertheless, I am going to do just that because I must write about something having to do with humor, and this is it.
I teach history at a community college. One of the requirements of history and other rhetoric-based classes is that we have to assign a term paper of 2,000 words per the Gordon Rule. I have found a way to make the assignment less of a burden on my students and less tedious for me.

Bloomerism 1851 vol 21 p 141  Bloomerism

Since I teach Early American History (descent of man to about 1870), I assign political cartoons that were drawn contemporaneously to the time that the students are studying. I bring in copies of various cartoons that were published in Punch, Harper’s Weekly, Vanity Fair, and Leslie’s Illustrated prior to 1870—and there were many. Not only that, the subject matter of the cartoons is quite varied. I lay out copies of the cartoons on a desk during the first week of class, and the students choose which cartoon they will write on. I am fascinated by the cartoons the students pick and why they pick them. Most of them have no idea what the cartoon is about, but something in the illustration gets their attention.
After all of the cartoons have been chosen by the students, I project each cartoon on the screen in front of the class and briefly tell each student what direction s/he should go in the way of researching the subject matter. I only give them a thumbnail idea of what I expect; the rest is up to them. Because I go over all the cartoons in front of the entire class, all students get ideas of how to look at their cartoons and better understand the

Early Train Cartoon c 1850 A little unclear on the concept of an iron horse.

In a fourteen-week course, I assign the topics during the first week (second day of class). Students are responsible for turning in a rough draft by the ninth week. I tell them that the rough draft should be the best research and writing they are capable of. I even encourage them to get help from a friend, relative, or the Writing Center. I correct the rough draft and direct them on how to write at a higher level. One thing that I stress is Robert Graves’s aphorism: There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.
Because each student has a unique cartoon, I do not have to read the same term paper with pretty much the same content from thirty different students. Not only that, because the students have to write about seven pages, they must go into detail on the subject matter that they have chosen fairly deeply and some of them find information that I was not aware of. I end up learning from the students. That is a treat for me, and it usually helps the student get a better grade if s/he can find obscure and interesting information.

Punch One Good Turn 1862 vol 43 p 55  What price emancipation?
Not only do I require the term paper, but students are also required to present their cartoon and what it is about to the class during the last week. The presentation must be between five and ten minutes long. Some students get up in front of the class and stammer for five minutes. Others prepare a Powerpoint or use Prezi Presentations to help tell about their cartoon. Yes, they are graded.
Most of the feedback I have received on the project has been positive. The main reason is that the students feel that they have accomplished something positive. Another reason is that some of the students have told me that they enjoy seeing political cartoons of issues in the present and understand them better than they had in the past. The way I see it is that it is a win for me as an instructor and a win for the students as well.

Punch Transatlantic Cable 1866 vol 51 p 67First Transatlantic cable





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