Critical Family History: Ancestors in college classrooms

by Dana Saxon

Did you catch my written interview over on Christine Sleeter’s Critical Family History Blog back in February? Well, the opportunity to be interviewed by Christine was plenty exciting. And it’s since led to another rewarding opportunity for me and Ancestors unKnown.

Christine interviewed me about my personal family history research and the founding of Ancestors unKnown. We discussed approaches to family history research, including the “ah-ha” moment I experienced in my research and the benefits of bringing this type of research and personalized historiy education into high school classrooms.

Here’s a sample of the conversation:

Christine: Dana, on the website, readers can learn about the profound impact genealogy research had on you and why you developed Ancestors unKnown. Briefly, what would you say was the greatest surprise, or “Ah ha” you had doing your own genealogy?

Dana Saxon: Prior to digging deeply into my family’s history, I was under the impression that it wouldn’t be possible for me to find information beyond the 20th century, much less that monstrous 1865/1870 “brick wall” that stands in the way of discovering my enslaved ancestors. So one of my greatest surprises was my ability to poke holes in that brick wall. I believe the first pre-1870 record I found was my 2nd great grandfather’s 1862 Civil War enlistment with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops.

As it turns out, this interview found its way to another classroom: Prof. Kristen Luschen’s Critical Family History class at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Imagine my delight when I was invited by Dr. Luschen to speak with her students about Ancestors unKnown via Skype.

Opening doors

Luschen’s students are studying a topic that makes me so envious of their rich undergraduate experience. She described the course in three parts:

  • The first part of the class asked students to engage in the ways in which the cultural and familial knowledges and histories of certain groups have been institutionally marginalized and/or attacked.
  • Next, students considered the significance of situating oneself – as future educators in the study of history and power.
  • The next section addressed Critical Family History methodology using Christine Sleeter’s approach. Students have been researching their family genealogy (archival work, artifacts, oral history interviews) and identifying secondary sources to place their genealogies in social and historical context.

Wow! Wouldn’t you like to audit that class? I certainly would. Luschen’s students are getting a first-hand experience that can show them the value of family history knowledge, the importance of diversified historical perspectives, and strategies for exploring these concepts with youth audiences.

I spoke with Luschen’s Critical Family History class last week. And as I expected, the students were incredibly smart, with thoughtful questions about my motivations for Ancestors unKnown and the organization’s approach when introducing students to family history research. The conversation was quite a pleasure. I only regret it didn’t last longer.

I hope the students were able to take away some insight from my experience, including both the successes and challenges behind Ancestors unKnown. I definitely took something away from the conversation: we need to get some brilliant and thoughtful college students involved with Ancestors unKnown. The motivation, inspiration and understanding they would bring to the program could have a tremendous impact on our high school participants.

Thank goodness for modern technology that makes it possible for us to connect and learn from people across the world. Thank goodness for thought leaders in the field of Critical Family History, like Christine Sleeter and Kristen Luschen. And thank goodness for brilliant students who will continue to revolutionize this work and sustain impact for years to come.


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