For the past decade I have been teaching a course on Pennsylvania History at Messiah College. The class meets several requirements. Some history majors take it for a 300-level American history elective. Other history majors take it as part of their concentration in public history. Non-history majors take the course to fulfill their general education pluralism requirement.
I have to make this course work for all of these students. For the public history students, we do a lot of work on the relationship between “history,” “heritage,” and “memory.” We also feature some training in oral history. Each student is required to do an oral history project in which they interview and interpret someone who can shed light on a particular moment in Pennsylvania history. As a pluralism course, Pennsylvania History must address questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and social class in some meaningful way.
This year, I split the class into four units:
- “History, memory, and the social history of early American Philadelphia.” We read Gary Nash’s book First City and students took a field trip to the city.
- “The Conestoga Massacre (Paxton Boys riots).” We read Kevin Kenny’s excellent history of the Paxton Boys and students were required to write an essay on a document at the Digital Paxton website.
- “History and memory at Gettysburg.” We read Jim Weeks’s book Gettysburg: History, Memory, and an American Shrine. I put together a “memory” field trip of Gettysburg that focused on race, reunion, and the post July 3, 1863 history of the battlefield.
- “Harrisburg’s City Beautiful Movement and the fate of the Old 8th Ward.” We read multiple articles and utilized the amazing resources at the Digital Harrisburg Project. Students took a field trip to the Capitol Complex, the site of the Old 8th Ward.
After several tries, I think I have finally found a pedagogical formula that works. The students take their two-hour final exam on Friday. Here are the questions they are preparing:
In preparation for the exam, please prepare an answer to one of the following questions:
In each of our four units this semester, we spend considerable time talking about the idea of race and race relations in Pennsylvania History. How do issues related to race play out in the following periods and places in state history:
- Early 19th-century Philadelphia
- The Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s and 1760s.
- The way the Civil War has been interpreted at Gettysburg
- The City Beautiful movement in Harrisburg
- The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia (1876)
- The Paxton Boys Riots
- Gettysburg as a “sacred” site
- The portrayal of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward by reformers affiliated with the City Beautiful movement.
Good luck! Or as I like to say to my Calvinist students: “May God providential give you the grade you deserve on this exam.”