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What It’s Like to Learn from a Pulitzer Finalist

Go inside the classroom with two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and history professor Jacqueline Jones to see a master storyteller at work.

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Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on? 

As Pete Seeger‘s voice carried the populist refrain through her history classroom, Davina Bruno began to sing along and experience the past in a whole new light.

The song is a famous labor tune written by Florence Reece for a coal miners’ strike in the 1930s. History professor Jacqueline Jones likes to play Pete Seeger’s 1967 version for her students and then invite them to join the chorus.

It can be a powerful and memorable moment for students, and it’s just one of the methods Jones uses to make history come alive in her classroom. Watch the master storyteller at work, and it’s easy to understand why she has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history, most recently this year for her book, “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race From the Colonial Era to Obama’s America.” The first was for her 1985 book, “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to Present.” She also won a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius” award) in 1999.

Jacqueline Jones, University of Texas history professor, 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist

“History is fascinating!” Jones says. “Anyone who loves a good story will love history, where the human experience in all its complexity is played out on a grand stage.” 

“She never recites anything, but tells it like it is, a story,” says Bruno, the public relations junior who chimed in on the labor song. “The Great Depression and the presidency of FDR was my favorite lesson from her class. She vividly described the breadlines and horrors of the lower class as though she were there. She showed us pictures of poverty and told us stories about how different types of socioeconomic classes fared during this period. She connects the different aspects of U.S. history into an inter-woven group of events that has significance to modern day America.”

In her classes she teaches everything from first-year seminars to graduate courses Jones presents primary sources that help students “hear” voices from the past and “do” history themselves by analyzing the sources in a critical way. She uses photographs, popular music, film clips and campaign ads to bring subjects to life.

Jeff Johnson, an exercise science junior who took “American History Since 1865” this spring, enjoyed Jones’ unique approach to the subject.

“I have always been interested in history and have always enjoyed learning more about it,” Johnson says. “She was able to present new and interesting material and perspectives of a time period that I had learned about several times before.”

Giving students a fresh take on history and its subjects is at the core of Jones’ curriculum.

Ida B. Wells

This portrait of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells is one of the images Jones shares in her class. 

“In almost every class I provide a biographical sketch of a person famous or not-so-famous who can help us understand major transformations in American society,” Jones says. “I show a picture of the person, then present his or her own words in the form of a speech, a letter or a book excerpt, for example. The exercise is designed to introduce students to techniques of document analysis, the foundation of a historian’s craft.”

Henry Wiencek, a third-year graduate student of modern U.S. history, has learned from Jones the professor, but also Jones the research director and dissertation adviser.

“She is a really thorough editor of student work and helps you become a better writer,” Wiencek says. “When you get papers back from Dr. Jones, every page is marked up. It looks daunting at first glance, but the comments are always thoughtful and highly constructive.”

Graduate student Deirdre Lannon agrees.

“She challenges comments thoughtfully, in ways that make the speaker feel supported and engaged in an intellectual exchange,” Lannon says.

As for Jones’ favorite type of history to teach?

American history is especially close to her heart.

“I think it’s essential that everybody learn about American history; it’s a story of great drama, and of course the past shapes who we are today,” Jones says. “I love introducing my students to the grand sweep of American history and to fascinating individuals they may not have heard about ordinary people who changed history.”