Teaching Beyond Tea Sets: Assessing Source Material in the U.S. History Survey

A few months ago I did a post on Abby Chandler‘s excellent piece “Teaching with a Tea Set.”  It appeared in the April 2014 issue of Perspectives on History.  In response to that post I wrote:  “I have long been interested in bringing objects into my survey course but have never felt I was enough of a material culture expert to use them effectively.  Chandler’s essay has forced me to reconsider my cautiousness on this pedagogical front, especially since her essay is focused largely on the first half of the survey.” 

After that post appeared, Abby and I had a few e-mail exchanges and she agreed to develop her thoughts on teaching with objects for The Way of Improvement Leads Home readers.  (It’s an exclusive, folks!)  In the piece below she talks about how she uses objects to assess student learning.  I encourage you to read it alongside her original Perspectives in History essay.  –JF

Teaching Beyond Tea Sets: Assessing Source Material in the U.S. History Survey
By Abigail Chandler, University of Massachusetts at Lowell

Once my students have been introduced to a wide range of source material including material culture, primary source documents, period music, art and films, I also use these sources when evaluating their learning outcomes on both the second and third exams of the semester.
The test covering the nineteenth century gives students with an object recently seen in class, asks them to provide both identification and historical context of the object and then discuss the use of material culture when studying history. Test objects can be selected to play to the strengths and weaknesses of individual classes and I also try to select objects with multiple layers of interpretation available to students. A Noah’s Ark is deceptively difficult as most students are familiar with the toy before the class. Here, the challenge becomes whether they can fully link the object to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of specific middle-class values and lifestyles in the nineteenth century. The less easily identified glove stretcher serves a dual purpose on tests: attentive students have the satisfaction of knowing they now possess the skills needed to identify and interpret a glove stretcher and frequently absent students are provided with a reminder of the importance of attending class. On the whole, I find these essays both interesting and rewarding to grade as they give students opportunities to develop their own analytical and contextual skills.
I also have a bonus question on the final exam which asks students to identify their favorite source and to explain why and how this particular source appealed to them. This question provides insight into the minds of students encouraged to think about history in ways they had rarely considered before taking the class. In preparation for this paper, I asked permission to quote from their tests in order to give a fuller sense of their responses. One wrote that “being the only one in the class who could identify a stereoscope made me feel like a genius.” Another added “I believe that using music . . . shows how we can connect with the past. Each piece illustrated how life was. The music and songs were packed with emotions that were felt at the time.” A third commented that“material culture was what won me over. I am never going to forget that middle class men and women had glove stretchers because I held and felt it, and then reflected on it.”
            Without doubt, these are all comments to warm the heart of any history professor. More importantly, student responses help me to identify which sources are working, which may need more contextualization in the classroom and what sources should be removed all together. They also encourage me to reflect, in turn, on how I use source material in the history classroom and to what pedagogical ends. Most students who identify themselves as visual learners in their responses then explain that they enjoy the objects because they helped them to learn history in ways that the printed sources could not. Though aware of (and actively implementing) the extensive body of research demonstrating that students learn in different ways, I have wondered whether some students may decide their ability to connect best with the objects justifies giving less attention to the printed sources or vice versa. Consequently, my next semester will be opening with a more structured discussion of learning methods intended to encourage students to experiment with their responses to different sources. Students who think of themselves as visual learners will be encouraged to develop their skills with interpreting primary source documents, while students who prefer written sources will be encouraged to consider the period objects more closely and so on. The means by which these efforts are fully implemented remains a project for the summer and their success rate an unknown for the next academic year but I look forward to the latest transition in my evolution from living history interpreter to history professor. 

2 thoughts on “Teaching Beyond Tea Sets: Assessing Source Material in the U.S. History Survey

  1. John, if you want to borrow our stereoscope I can have it to you in a day. If you want to borrow our Noah's ark, hand-made for my mother-in-law, with another pair of animals each year on her birthday while she was growing up, I will retrieve it from my daughter in Maryland.


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