“This is a classic Macalester course. It’s discussion-based, full of students very interested in the topic, and with a professor who enjoys tangents and gets deep into the literature.”
—Nick Rea ’13
History can be understood from many perspectives, of course, but labor historian Peter Rachleff finds it especially compelling to teach from the perspective of U.S. immigration and the various ethnic groups that have come together to make up our nation’s citizenry.
His lively class, Immigration and Ethnicity in U.S. History, moves among German immigrants in 1800s Philadelphia, Asian immigrants to 20th century California, the great internal African American migration to northern cities in the 20th century, and Mexican immigration—that caused by movement of the border in 1848 and that caused by crossing the border.
Along the way, Rachleff is famous for his fascinating classroom sidebars, at one point recommending various Spike Lee movies, at another discussing the Giants/Dodgers World Series of 1965.
“This is a classic Macalester course,” says political science and Russian studies major Nick Rea ’13 (Rochester, Minn.). “It’s discussion-based, full of students very interested in the topic, and with a professor who enjoys tangents and gets deep into the literature.”
Rachleff has seen the content of this particular class “change profoundly” in the 30 years he has taught it, noting that when he first created the class its subtitle was “From Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island.” Since the early ’90s immigration has become an increasingly important issue in the U.S., says Rachleff, with the current percentage of immigrants about what it was a century ago.
The connections between U.S. immigration history and the challenges and biases connected with that issue today are what drew Clare MacMillen ’13 (Sturgeon Bay, Wis.) to the course, despite being a biology major. “I felt it was my duty as a responsible citizen to learn more,” she says.
Both MacMillen and Rea were fascinated by 19th century census data from Philadelphia and Richmond, Virginia, noting where and how people lived and how they divided themselves into ethnic groups—or didn’t. Although archival material is more and more found on computer databases, Rachleff had his class access Richmond census data via microfilm. “It’s the real thing, the raw material, and there’s something just so juicy about that,” he says. “They came to class hauling huge printouts.”
Every reading done for the course—from My Music is My Flag to Becoming Mexican-American to The Warmth of Other Suns—discusses a different dimension of immigration, says Rea, who adds, “I enjoy Peter’s take on it, which is that every detail of a life can indicate a greater pattern in society.”
The wide variety of students enrolled in the course enriches class discussions, says Rachleff. Fewer than half are history majors, and there are both first-years and seniors, as well as a young woman born in a Thai refugee camp, a young man whose father grew up in Congo—even two middle-aged staff members. “The best discussions come from having students with different experiences, “says Rachleff. They enjoy that varied interaction.”
Some students hope, as Rea does, to move from the classroom to working with refugees. Others, like MacMillen, are content to become better informed citizens. What Rachleff ultimately hopes for all his students, he says, is that they “leave here with the understanding of how the past informs the present so they can understand how to make a better future.”