On the first day of class I ask my students, “What will scholars in the future learn about our times from presidential letters as opposed to your coffee cups?” With this question, students start thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of traditional historical sources and material culture in the world around them. They begin to look at objects as things with social agency that can make and unmake us as human beings.
Objects, unlike premodern texts, allow us to see the everyday experiences of both elite and non-elite people in the past. In my classes, students engage with things as varied as Queen Isabella I’s rosary beads, the deviant burials of Anglo-Saxon women who died in childbirth, Viking graffiti in Istanbul, and Aztec bloodletting bowls which were reused as baptismal fonts. In both introductory surveys and advanced electives, we work with images, 3D-modeled replicas, as well as the material collections of local museums and to bring the distant premodern world into the classroom.
By focusing on the role of objects in history, I encourage students to root large historical processes and ideas in the actions of individual women and men. In this way, advanced students in my medieval lifecycle class explore the rough folia of a vellum manuscript, learning about both the philosophical revolution sparked by its contents and the laborious local processes of book making that permitted such ideas to spread. My goal is to teach liberal arts students how to connect individual people, places, and things in history to larger impersonal forces and narratives. When students engage with historical actors as equals and see themselves in the shoes of someone who lived one thousand years ago, they learn that people from the past may be strangers but not strange. I accomplish this through my deliberate emphasis on teaching with interdisciplinary sources as well as collaborative learning in and outside of the classroom.
Material and visual evidence are essential to reclaiming the history and agency of the poor, women, and religious and ethnic minorities who left behind few surviving documents. This approach resonated in my diverse classes of local and international students at Boston College and St. Lawrence University, classes that have included first-generation college students, students with disabilities, those learning English as a second language, and STEM as well as History majors.
In one of my introductory courses, students studied the Spanish conquest of the Americas through a combination of interdisciplinary evidence and modern media. We interrogated archaeological, visual, and documentary sources as well as websites, popular films, documentaries, and scholarly articles to investigate not only what we know about conflict and agency, but also how we know it. In discussion, students uncovered the Native American experience of the conquest and identified the biases in our sources. It was the big moment when students realized that studying history was more complex than a list of dates and kings. I direct my students toward such moments in order to emphasize the contingency of the past and the potential of their future. This lesson encourages them to be curious citizens and to implement the skills of historical inquiry in their lives beyond college.
Collaboration in my classroom helps students learn through group activities, both through student-led discussions as well as assignments. One of my most successful classes involved a role-playing exercise on the Reformation in which three groups of students representing Calvinists, Lutherans, and Reformed Catholics tried to “convert” me to their cause. Students needed not only to have read the primary and secondary readings and images for the day, but also to think like their historical actors, cross-examine each other’s positions, and acknowledge issues affecting rich and poor in late medieval Europe. One group continued debating into the hallway long after class had ended. Collaborative activities such as creating online museum exhibitions and peer-editing research papers help students help one another to reveal different perspectives on the past. By the end of my course, students have learned how our narratives of “History” are formed from many diverse, contingent “histories,” in which historical strangers are not so unfamiliar.