Yesterday was the last day of classes for the Spring 2015 semester at Messiah College. It was also the last day of my Pennsylvania History course. Teaching this course at Messiah has been an interesting challenge. Pennsylvania History is taken by a cross-section of students: history majors, history majors with a public history concentration, and general education students pursuing a “pluralism” distribution requirement. In other words, some of the students get pretty fired up about the study of the past, while others are just enduring the course in order to get their pluralism credits “out of the way.”
The History Department at Messiah hopes to achieve multiple goals and purposes with this course. First, we hope that our students will gain content knowledge and learn how to think like historians. Second, we want them to develop an appreciation for the state in which they live or are attending college. Third, we want to teach them practical skills for “doing” history. These include digital history, local history, and oral history.
So how did this all work out?
In terms of delivering content, we read all of Pencak and Miller’s Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth. Students had a quiz on every chapter, exposing them to content from native Americans prior to the arrival of William Penn all the way up to the turn of the 21st century. Most of the lectures in the class played off of my strengths in early American history. We covered Pennsylvania history up to the Civil War. These lectures focused on the native American-European contact, William Penn and the Quakers, the connections between religious freedom and liberalism in the colonial era, the Paxton Boys Riots, the Enlightenment in Philadelphia, the American Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion, early republican politics, and the Civil War in Pennsylvania..
Early in the semester the students did some work on the 1900 census for the city of Harrisburg. They matched the names on the census records with the names on the 1900 membership rolls of the Market Square Presbyterian Church. We were then able to begin identifying the religious commitments of the people on the census and, with the help of Digital Harrisburg guru David Pettegrew, were able to mark the Presbyterians on a 1900 map of the city. As might be expected, Presbyterians lived in some of the most high-end neighborhoods of Harrisburg, especially those neighborhoods situated along the Susquehanna River. Thanks to some ethnic mapping done by the Digital Harrisburg project, we were also able to compare the places where Presbyterians tended to live in 1900 with the places where Germans (mostly Lutherans and Catholics), Irish (mostly Catholics), Greeks (mostly Orthodox), and African Americans (most AME or Baptist) lived.
|Presbyterians in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, circa 1900|
The students were also required to complete an oral history project. They interviewed someone who experienced a significant event in Pennsylvania History, prepared a transcript of the interview, and then used the transcript to write an eight-page paper on that particular event, using the interview as their only primary source. Popular topics included rural Pennsylvania and the World War II homefront, the Three Mile Island meltdown of 1979, agricultural and family life in Pennsylvania, and the history of various religious organizations and denominations. Students were held to professional standards of oral history practice. One student loved the assignment so much that she wants to pursue an M.A. in history with a concentration in oral history.
Finally, students were asked to contribute to the Digital Harrisburg Project through an exploration of Catholicism in the city during the years 1900-1910. Each student was given a ten-month period from a Harrisburg newspaper (thanks Newspapers.com) and told to write a five page history of Catholicism in Harrisburg during that period. We then spent a couple of class periods trying to redact their various reports into some kind of narrative. We never did decide on one overarching theme that defined Harrisburg Catholicism in this period, but we did spend a lot of time talking about the relationship between Catholicism and ethnic identity, immigration in the city, the Harrisburg Catholic response to the assassination of McKinley, Protestant-Catholic relations in Harrisburg, the local response to the death of Pope Leo XIII, and the building of the Cathedral of St. Patrick.
I am not sure all of my students were thrilled about doing these assignments. Some didn’t really care about history. Others wanted more content and fewer skills-based assignments. Some had no interested in Harrisburg. But in general, like all diligent Messiah College students, they did the assignments with little complaint and perhaps even a bit of good cheer. For a lot of them this was their first exposure to a history course and how historians think differently than nurses, engineers, or business professionals.
Keep your eye on the Digital Harrisburg Project website. Some of the stuff that the class produced this semester may eventually find its way there.