Making Mental Links across Time and Among Diverse Materials

Learning is a recursive process. Riding a bike provides a clear example. You get on the bike, push off, wobble, and fall. Then you repeat the process as many times as it takes for your body to intuit the connection between forward momentum and balance. Once it does, you can ride even though you still have a lot to learn. The point is clear. We learn by going back to tasks and trying again and again. History teaching, on the other hand, is rarely recursive. It is linear, particularly in surveys. We do not have time to revisit questions. Scarcity dictates linearity. Linearity, in turn, dictates superficiality. We can’t go deeply into the origins of World War I, for example, without revisiting the Franco-Prussian War and Prussia’s earlier war with Austria. So we content ourselves with a narrative of events. Studying history this way is analogous to learning to ride a bike and never getting any better at it than that first time we didn’t fall. Students emerge from our surveys with not much more sense of what historians do than they had on the first day of class. This is not true for students in principles of accounting or introduction to biology courses. Anyone who has passed Accounting I and II has an accurate view of that profession. Anyone who has passed Principles of Biology knows something about the process of research and has an understanding of basic notions such as mutation and sexual selection. Pedagogies of scarcity ill serve students in ill-structured fields.

Buchanan Cartoon It is possible to take advantage of the new technologies to build courses that are recursive. It is one of the advantages of abundance. I begin my survey of American women’s history with a question based upon an 1857 cartoon portraying “Mrs. Buchanan” physically removing officeholders from the Pierce administration. Why is President Buchanan wearing a dress? is our opening question. (Available online.) We spend the class looking at related cartoons. One shows President Buchanan, dressed as a man, sitting between two New York City newspaper editors who are portrayed as “rival coquettes.” This helps establish the point that cartoonists of the period routinely drew men in women’s clothing. Then we go back to the first cartoon and pay attention to the caption, not shown here, in which “Mrs. Judy Buchanan” tells the outgoing appointees that there are “some dacint boys” who want “your sates.” Why the brogue? The question leads to cartoon portrayals of Irish domestic servants, popularly known as Biddies, a nickname for Bridget. We also look at an illustrated poem “B is for Biddy” in which she is called a “tyrant.” Several cartoons make the same point. This takes us back to the first image. What did it mean to portray Buchanan as an Irish domestic?

Next we look at a cartoon from 1860 that shows Buchanan as “the old schoolmarm” no longer able to control her students. Some of the girls, starting with “Carolinny” have run off. We pair that with a cartoon showing Lincoln as a schoolmistress asking Caroline to spell constitution. She does and, in the process, also spells secession. We end the class by noting that the debates over women’s rights in the North in the 1850s provided a rich set of metaphors for portraying Caroline, Virginia, Georgia, “Miss-Sippy,” “Louise Anna,” and their sisters defying an exasperated Uncle Sam.

The point of this exercise is to get students to come back again and again to the cartoon, each time with new evidence. Over the course of an hour they build a fairly sophisticated reading of the image. And they begin to appreciate the intellectual challenges, and pleasures, of the historian’s craft. They also learn how reflexively nineteenth-century Americans thought in terms of gender, one of the main things they will have to keep in mind all semester.

Toward the end of the semester we do a segment entitled “Reprise: A New Domesticity and a New Feminism." Students choose between two assignments for the first class. One asks them to read Betty Friedan’s “The Problem That Has No Name” from The Feminine Mystique, a reassessment of Friedan by Daniel Horowitz (available online through the college’s subscription to Project Muse), and the relevant section of their textbook: Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience, 3rd ed., 2000, McGraw Hill. Their task was to report in class on the following issues.

  • The Feminine Mystique helped launch a new wave of feminism."The Problem That Has No Name" was, according to readers, the chapter that most moved and influenced them. How might we explain the chapter's power?
  • Horowitz demonstrates fairly conclusively that Friedan was not at all the "typical" housewife she portrayed herself as being in The Feminine Mystique. To what extent, and in what ways, does this impair the work's credibility? To what extent, and in what ways, does this impair its value as a historical source?
  • Woloch revised her essay on Friedan after Horowitz's work appeared. How did she respond to the questions posed above?

All three are challenging questions. Students, however, were very familiar with these sorts of issues by May. They were accustomed to reading primary sources and thinking about how contemporaries might have reacted to them. They were able to differentiate between the persona Friedan created for herself in the book and its reliability as a source. Its value, a student explained, lies to a large extent in how women reacted to it when it was first published. It is evidence about them whether or not Friedan was one of them. And students had become critical readers of the textbook. This was the last of several occasions on which I had asked them to assume an editorial stance toward it.The alternative asked students to visit a web site created by the Art History Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago devoted to Levittown, the setting for the new domesticity.” They were to report on:Most of the relevant evidence here was photographic. This too rehearsed earlier assignments. Some of the students, for example, had worked with Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photographs from the 1930s at the Library of Congress’ American Memory site. Students who read Friedan were fascinated by the images of Levittown and interjected passages from her chapter into the Levittown reports. Those students, in turn, were very curious about how women living in such a town felt about their lives. And most of them made reference to the larger theme, that the new feminism was a reaction to the new domesticity. This allowed me to turn the discussion, with about ten minutes of class time remaining, to a comparison of the new feminism with that of the first generation of women’s rights activists. Early in the semester we had worked through materials dealing with what Paulina Wright Davis calledsoul murder." Speaking at the Twentieth Anniversary Convention in 1870, she said, “Were I to go back of these [first] conventions, to see what had roused women thus to do and dare, I should be obliged to go into a long history of the despotism of repression, which German jurists call ‘soul murder’; an unwritten code, universal and cruel as the laws of Draco, and so subtle that, entering everywhere, they weigh most heavily where least seen.” How reminiscent of soul murder was the problem without a name? I asked.Several students told me afterwards that this was the best class of the semester. The parallels between “soul murder,” as Paulina Wright Davis had described it, and Friedan’s “problem without a name” were the missing pieces of the puzzle, one told me. “There was just this click,” she said. I told the students that I agreed. This was our best class.

  • What was this "ideal suburban community" like? That is, what were the houses themselves like?
  • What was life like for the wives living in this new suburb? (check out the family photographs)
  • What was the town, housing aside, like? (check out the commercial real estate photographs)

Examples of web sites that can further add to a student's understanding of a particular subject:

Library of Congress Site - Photos of Dorothea Lange

This is a Library of Congress site and is devoted to the photography of Dorothea Lange.

The Bourgeois Gentleman

This site contains the works of Moliere.

Paulina Wright Davis

This site was constructed by McClymer for his class devoted to women's suffrage.