Taylor Branch, Prize-Winning Historian, to Teach MOOC on Civil-Rights Era

Taylor Branch (Photo by J. Brough Schamp)

The author and historian Taylor Branch spent nearly 25 years exploring and writing about the civil-rights era, and the result was a popular trilogy of books, America in the King Years, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize. This semester Mr. Branch will share his knowledge of the period by teaching a course at the University of Baltimore and opening it up to outsiders on the Web as a massive open online course, or MOOC.

The course, which starts on January 23, is built around his new book, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, and will include face-to-face instruction with 20 University of Baltimore students, along with up to 100 auditors who will tune in online at no charge.

The idea for the course took shape as Mr. Branch worked on the new book, a 190-page distillation of his earlier 2,300-page trilogy. Mr. Branch said teachers and professors had told him that their students enjoyed learning about the civil-rights era but that they found the three heavy volumes to be too cumbersome. He said this was even the case in a course he had taught on the subject.

“It was a very intensive reading course,” Mr. Branch said. “I realized that it was not really practical to assume most college students, let alone high-school students, could absorb that amount of reading in a single course.”

He decided to excerpt what he considers to be 18 essential moments in the civil-rights movement, and to rework those moments into a new, slimmer volume.

“Then I wanted to teach this material again, but organized around this shorter book, which makes it more accessible to students and people that aren’t even in school,” he said. “I wanted it to be accessible as well to people just interested in social movements.”

Mr. Branch, who lives in Baltimore and has been a guest at the university before, developed the course as both a face-to-face seminar and a MOOC. As he discusses the readings with his students, a handful of cameras will capture the lesson live and will record it for later viewing.

Those who choose to view the seminar live online, Mr. Branch said, can send in their own questions, which will be monitored by a graduate student. The seminar will also allow Mr. Branch to reincorporate some of the material he had to cut while abridging his much longer work, a task he said was not easy.

Students in the face-to-face seminar will be split into three groups, with each assigned to read one volume of the original trilogy. This will enhance a main topic of discussion in the course, Mr. Branch said, as students will not only learn about the civil-rights era but also have the opportunity to question why the author emphasized certain moments in the era over others.

“Teaching history is a vital national interest beyond just putting the books out there,” Mr. Branch said. “Going the extra mile to make connections to students is important to me.”

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