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APSU professor Uffelman using Skype to connect students with scholars

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – When Austin Peay State University history major Rick Casteel raises his hand in his “The South To 1861” course, he knows that it’s important that he say the right thing.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – When Austin Peay State University history major Rick Casteel raises his hand in his “The South To 1861” course, he knows that it’s important that he say the right thing.

But that’s not because Casteel is worried about answering incorrectly, or impressing his teacher, APSU associate professor of history, Dr. Minoa Uffelman. Having just read Cornell University professor Ed Baptist’s study on American slavery, “The Half Has Never Been Told,” the 58-year-old non-traditional student is forming the perfect question because he has a chance to meet face-to-face with the author himself – from his office nearly 1,000 miles from APSU’s campus.

Technology has made the world a much smaller place, and Uffelman’s class is using the power of the internet and Skype video conferencing software to connect her students with scholars and authors from around the country.

“When you get a chance to ask questions of authors and scholars who wrote the works you just read, you want to make sure that you’re well-read on the subject,” Casteel said. “And for me, knowing that (a question-and-answer with the author) was coming up made our studies more interesting, and asking good questions of the authors just made the fruits of our labor feel more worth it.”

Working in collaboration with APSU Distance Education, and instructional technologist Bob Anderson, Uffelman has been able to connect students in her history courses with authors of important and informational works on subjects critical to the subject matter.

“We integrate the study of these books throughout the semester, and each time we’ve done (a Skype session), the students have really brought their ‘A’ games,” Uffelman said. “The really great thing about using technology like Skype is that we’re now able to connect APSU students here in Clarksville with preeminent scholars around the country.”

University of Buffalo professor of history Carole Emberton recently penned “Beyond Redemption,” an award-winning look at violence in the South in the decades following the Civil War. A major part of Uffelman’s “The South After 1861” course, students were assigned Emberton’s book before receiving a chance to chat with the teacher and historian through Skype.

“(‘Beyond Redemption’) was one of the best books on southern history the year it was released; it’s a really great, complex book and I threw our students into the deep end of the pool with this,” Uffelman noted. “But the students digested the work and they had a great discussion with (Emberton).”

The rare chance to explore history with respected experts in the field has been invaluable for Uffelman’s students, many of whom have more than a passing interest in the subject.

“The opportunity to pick the brain of the author of a book you have just read is second to none,” APSU student Jay Averitt said. “Reading can often become a passive experience, but the Skype session really brought the voice of the author to life.”

For some, a chance to converse with outside historians and professors goes beyond the subject matter. APSU history major Katelynn DiStefano, who noted her interest in both history and higher education, said the discussion with Emberton was an invaluable experience.

“This was amazing talking to an award-winning scholar in my field of study,” DiStefano said. “The experience helped me learn about life outside of college and the world of academia that is not shown often in the college setting.”

As one of the first faculty to use Skype as a way to communicate with experts, Uffelman said she plans to continue its use in her classroom. Future courses, Uffelman said, will continue to incorporate scholars and published authors from outside APSU as a way to broaden her students’ outlook.

One future session, Uffelman said, will be with author and historian Rebecca Sharpless. An associate professor of history at Texas Christian University, Sharpless’s study, titled “Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens” explores the history of female African American workers in the South from 1865-1960 and their domestic work in the kitchens of generations of white families.

As higher education continues look for ways to engage students, APSU President Dr. Alisa White credited Uffelman for her creativity in integrating modern technology into the classroom setting.

 “Austin Peay is nationally known for the use of technology to promote student success,” White said. “What may be a surprise to some is that technology is used very successfully in the classroom to broaden the student experience, and Dr. Uffelman’s use of videoconferencing is a great example.”