Textbooks & Teaching Home
Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

Going Public with Introductory American History

John J. Grabowski

At semester's end I sat down with my teaching assistants, Sven Dubie and Paul Gilmore, to grapple with sixty-two research papers submitted as the final requirement for History 112 "Introduction to American History," at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), a moderate-size private institution best known for educating engineers and scientists. The papers were the results of an experiment in teaching a basic introductory history course. Seeking to dispel the standard undergraduate misconceptions about history--that it is boring, distant, nonrelevant, just dates, etc.--we had prompted our students to get outside the classroom, to observe life on the streets and neighborhoods around the university, and to use the archival and material culture collections of a major museum in an effort to understand a critical issue, unity or disunity in the United States. Some of the resulting papers, as would be expected, represented the bare minimum of work needed to pass the course, but a few were transcendent. One student drove the streets around the university taking pictures of the homes of the poor and the wealthy. He then matched the images with statistical data on income and race and argued that housing symbolized disunity in America. Another interviewed local Asian Indian restaurant owners, checked Web sites on ethnic foods, and talked to Asian Indian immigrants. His conclusion was that the partial Americanization of Asian Indian cooking and the growing familiarity with Indian food on the part of the American public argued for unity. Another reviewed images of children's and adolescents' costume throughout the twentieth century and concluded that by the century's closing decades, labels and diverging styles had made visible the racial and economic divides within the country. These introductory-level students had engaged with material culture, and they had not just learned history, but clearly enjoyed doing so.

The history introductory or survey course provides an ideal ground for changing perceptions and gaining converts within any college or university. At Case Western Reserve University, two courses hold this position: History 112, "Introduction to American History," and History 113, "Introduction to Modern World History." For well over a decade the history department at CWRU has worked to make these courses more meaningful and attractive. Faculty now focus on issues such as gender and race and on developing writing skills, introducing basic historical techniques, and personalizing the past (students in the American introductory course are usually expected to construct a family history and to place it in the context of the American experience).

In the past two academic years, grant funding has allowed faculty teaching these courses to move toward further innovations, including the use of computer-based media in the classroom, permitting faculty on our fully "wired" campus to catch up with the students.1 But by now, the Web is pretty much an inside-the-box experience. Our challenge at CWRU was to go beyond easy access to virtual experience. We determined to link introductory course work to objects and archival materials, thereby lending some reality to theory and electronic images.

Fortunately, CWRU is adjacent to the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS). A typical trans-Appalachian historical society founded in 1867, WRHS has evolved into a major urban research center and museum. For many years university students have used its archives/library for work on local and regional topics as well as for public history internships. Although some of the interactions were substantive, none took full advantage of the historical society's resources. Particularly underutilized were the society's material culture collections. They offered the prospect of linking history to actual objects and of introducing students to the growing use of material culture as an interpretive historical resource.2

The administrations in both institutions welcomed the idea. Despite the philosophical differences that sometimes separate the practice of public history from academe, historical societies and departments of history face the same problem, the need for audience. The quest to increase visitation and through-the-gate receipts drives the programs of many history museums in the same way that the pursuit of larger enrollments and more declared majors spurs change in many history departments. Success in building numbers provides proof of subject value and of success to college and university administrators. Innovative teaching and courses devoted to new or popular topics play the same role in academe as do hands-on exhibits, technological wizardry, and public programming in many history museums. The hard core of individuals seriously interested in history is usually too small to please all trustees, deans, or other administrators. The question in both venues is how to attract and please the marginally interested or the uninterested and, particularly, how to turn them into return customers.

But could museum materials be used in a large American history introductory course in which enrollments sometimes exceed one hundred students each semester? Class size was a key concern. Another was the need to structure the course so that the museum's resources were integral to its theme. We wanted the interaction with the museum to be viewed as something other than a traditional field trip; moreover, students' use of material culture and archival sources had to be central to a final, gradable product.

The course was structured around a broad question--is the United States a divided or a unified society? We identified three subthemes to underpin that theme: food, clothing, and shelter, urging students to consider how those essentials of everyday life might suggest either the unity or the disunity of America. The subthemes proved immensely useful as they played on important aspects of the students' own lives: they came to see how Tommy Hilfiger, Taco Bell, and the number of bathrooms at home reflected sameness and/or difference. Personal experience created an empathy with historical experience and provided the basis of lively discussions throughout the semester.

The logistics necessary to make the museum collections integral to the course work were difficult and forced us to deal with matters both pragmatic and philosophical. While the WRHS's archives/library as a matter of course focuses on providing access to the materials in its collection and thus readily accommodates student use of manuscripts and other unique items, its museum does not have that tradition. Its focus is largely custodial, with exhibits the primary means of public interaction with the holdings. How were the sixty-two students enrolled in History 112 in spring 2001 to review the costumes, food preparation implements, and other relevant items in the museum's collections if no access policy was in place? Unlike the archives/library, the WRHS museum does not routinely make its holdings available for study. In addition, curatorial imperatives put students' handling of objects out of the question. The only acceptable means of access was show-and-tell sessions where WRHS staff selected, displayed, and discussed items from the collection.3 Moreover, curators wanted students to view the items at WRHS so that material would not have to leave the museum, assuring that students would at the very least visit this major public history institution. Other details had to be resolved, including deciding the number of students who could comfortably attend a presentation session given the space limitations of meeting rooms and accommodating the visits to curatorial schedules. An active exhibit program, an inventory project, and a major movement of collections put curatorial time at a premium.

During the first two months of the semester, students had three interactive meetings with curators at WRHS--a brisk ten-minute walk from their classroom. At the first meeting the society's curator of costume and textiles displayed and discussed items ranging from a c. 1900 London-made suit for a rich American boy to a 1950s poodle skirt.4 At the second visit the curator of collections brought out dinnerware and dining implements. These ranged from a frontier-period horn spoon to an elaborate Victorian-era sterling silver food warmer. The third visit was a tour of the society's Hay-McKinney mansion, an early-twentieth-century Renaissance Revival residence built by the widow of John Hay, the former U.S. secretary of state, in which a large collection of decorative arts is displayed in period rooms.

On a recent visit to the Western Reserve Historical Society, John Grabowski shows students in his "Introduction to American History" course how everyday household goods tell the story of American history, revealing the rapid development from a new colony to an industri­alized nation.

On a recent visit to the Western Reserve Historical Society, John Grabowski shows students in his "Introduction to American History" course how everyday household goods tell the story of American history, revealing the rapid development from a new colony to an industri­alized nation. Photograph by Susan Griffith.

Once the visits were concluded, the objects went back to storage and the students went back to the classroom. How were they to continue to use material culture in their research? One solution was to select and set aside in the society's library photographs, newspapers, and magazines that related to food, clothing, and shelter and to suggest that students use those in support of their investigations. Another was to have the students review materials on exhibit at the society. They included high-style furnishings in the Hay-McKinney mansion, an exhibit of glassware, and the temporary exhibit "Pop Up Culture," which focused on the social history of the toaster. Students were also encouraged to walk the streets and to visit the homes of friends or other sites that could provide insights into the subthemes. An instructor-led class walking tour through an Italian American neighborhood adjacent to CWRU helped students understand how architecture and landscape could be used as sources. Lastly, students were encouraged to use Web sites pertinent to the subthemes.

With few exceptions the papers we received would not stand up to intensive theoretical scrutiny: that was not our goal. We had told the students that their mini-theses were likely to be flawed. What the papers did show was that the students (all but a handful of whom were destined for careers outside history) had used nontraditional evidence to explore a critical historical question about American society. Although the collections of material culture did not figure as prominently in their research as we had initially hoped, the students had at least visited WRHS (most for the first time) and had had the opportunity to meet and question its curatorial staff.

Papers, evidence of museum visits, and positive student reviews of the course all suggested that our attempt to get out of the pedagogical box had some success. But the experience also pointed out several problems. The first relates to the World Wide Web. Given an equal opportunity to use the Web or more traditional sources, students will gravitate to the Web. Because of the difficulties in accessing objects at WRHS, the course syllabus did not require that students make use of its materials in their work. Although archival sources were a readily available alternative at WRHS, many students still opted for the ease of sitting in their dorm rooms and surfing. Images and data pulled from the Web predominated in many of the papers. That was not the most desirable result.

It occurred, in part, because of a second and more significant issue arising from what some observers might characterize as the "curatorial mind-set," which precluded a more intimate and extensive student interaction with material culture collections. Ironically, while contemporary historians are finding value in a growing variety of nontraditional sources, including material culture, curators have become increasingly concerned about preserving materials entrusted to their care. With such material, there is, I would argue, a conflict looming between the needs of researchers and the concerns of curators. It is not that curators are possessive about items in their collections or unconcerned about their potential as interpretive tools.5 Indeed, there is a lively debate in the museum world between those who value objects as objects and the growing number of professionals who wish to use objects in expanded ways, both intellectually and physically, in exhibits and displays. That debate is, however, weighted on both sides by a growing body of information about the preservation and conservation parameters for historical objects, parameters that dictate increased caution in display and handling. Whether the objects in museums will ever be as widely available as archival sources is at this point an open question. Certainly, acknowledged experts in areas such as costume, furniture, and decorative arts have been, and will continue to be, able to examine relevant materials. But opening regular access to a broader constituency, including students, poses enormous challenges both to educators and to museum professionals.6

And there is another critical issue: the material culture collections at WRHS, like those at many of its peer institutions, do not yet reflect the broad spectrum of people and life-styles in the region served. Most of the costumes students saw were either high-style or special (for example, a Shaker costume was used in the presentation), and much of the dinnerware was reflective of middle- and upper-class life. The tour of the Hay-McKinney mansion presented only one aspect of the story of housing, essentially, the life-styles of the rich and famous, although the restored and interpreted servants' quarters of the home provided an opening to an alternative story. The lack of commoner, more everyday materials was detrimental for comparative purposes, but it did open the issue of historical representation. The students, the instructor, the teaching assistants, and the curators used this to discuss collecting priorities, the realities of material survival, and historical biases. In the end, the dearth of everyday objects turned out to be the "dog that didn't bark in the night," and discovering it was a most instructive aspect of the course.

That unexpected result should be considered as typical of outside-the-box experiences in teaching. History 112 did not come out exactly as we planned it. However, the very act of planning is antithetical to stepping outside the familiar and the routine. What did occur in History 112 was a learning process in which sixty-two students moved well beyond the usual confines of an introductory course and encountered new ways to view American history. The course was also a learning process for those who conducted it. It required academic and public historians to deal with the sometimes conflicting expectations that divide the way they "do history." By leaving the boxes labeled "professional duties" or "current standards," boxes that restrict the scope of our activities and often our historical imagination, both university historians and museum staffs can enhance their positions within their respective administrative structures while building a better understanding of the value of the discipline they serve. Many students are waiting for us outside those boxes, free of professional conceits, unaware of limitations, and therefore ready to examine the past in new and innovative ways.

John J. Grabowski is director of research for the Western Reserve Historical Society and the Krieger-Muller Asso­ciate Professor of Applied History at Case Western Reserve University.

Readers may contact Grabowski at <jjg4@po.cwru>.

1 Support from the McGregor Fund enabled faculty and student assistants to compile a list of substantive Web sites related to American history in general and to specific topics such as gender and technology. Funds were also used to purchase two laptop computers, which permit realtime exploration of Web sites during class and the pre­sentation of PowerPoint programs.

2 On the role of history museums in the preservation and interpretation of material culture, see Thomas J. Schlereth, "History Museums and Material Culture," in History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, ed. Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig (Urbana, 1989), 320. This essay hints at interface issues that arose in History 112.

3 To select the objects seen by the students, a graduate assistant at Case Western Reserve University used the Western Reserve Historical Society's (WRHS) online catalog--accessible at <> (Dec. 4, 2001)--to locate objects appropriate to the course's themes. His lists and copies of the syllabus and read­ings were then provided to WRHS curators. They used it and their knowledge of the holdings to make a final selec­tion of items to show the students.

4 Most items in the historical society's extensive costume collection (it contains over 30,000 items) are women's garments. This disparity, reflected in the items selected for presentation, prompted questions as to why more men's clothing was not preserved.

5 RHS curators did an extraordinary job in explaining the origins, use, and importance of the objects they had selected. Questions from the instructor, the teaching assistants, and the students helped put that information in a more general historical context that included issues of gender, class, and representation. The interplay of curatorial foci and student interests, one of the most gratifying aspects of the course, argues for a larger role for curators as educators.

6 Museums are making objects more accessible by accessioning some "for use" rather than "for collection." Pro­fessionally, this allows for more latitude in the way an object is handled or displayed. WRHS marks for use materials employed in its K-12 education program and at several living-history sites it operates. However, except in the case of exact duplication, the designation of an object for use usually implies it is of less than the highest historical or aesthetic value. The system may work well for general education or public access, but it may not meet the needs of students and scholars doing serious research.