Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bootlegging a public history approach into the conventional history classroom?

In my day job as a University Professor, I often find myself struggling with a rather basic question: What is my role? Should I lecture to provide students with historical information? Or, should I facilitate discussion, encouraging more active inquiry by asking students to raise their own historical questions while reviewing primary sources? This afternoon’s session, “Creating Public Historical Narratives with Stamps, Posters, and Music in mid-Century America” reminded me of both the promise and the problem at the heart of my quandary.

This semester, I am teaching a catalog course on the Progressive Era. As part of our ongoing classroom discussions, I have been working to help my undergraduates recognize immigration as a site of contest, a mirror for anxieties about work, money, civic responsibility, and national identity. We have read scholarship to support this interpretive position. I have spent a considerable amount of lecture time raising questions about the ways in which the economic and political context of the late 19th century shaped American’s perceptions of immigration. We have also focused on primary source documents regarding restriction debates and reform initiatives including Americanization. We studied photographs by Jacob Riis and read his often ambiguous descriptions of various immigrant people.

Yet, none of this work seems to have been successful. Students’ oral and written work indicates that they accept both the notion that immigration is a cause of social disorder and that American freedom attracts people from less fortunate nations. These stubborn beliefs create a distorted lens for viewing photographic evidence in particular.

Joan Fragaszy Troyano’s talk, “US Government Propaganda and the Creation of a New Historical Narrative of Immigration” made me consider integrating public historical approaches into traditional subject matter courses. Troyano demonstrated that images snapped by Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis and others became ubiquitous in government propaganda, marketing and popular culture over time. Progressive era photographers had hoped to document immigration’s social impact, to study immigrants’ racial distinctiveness, and to engage in debates about their relative fitness for citizenship. During the first and second World Wars, however, the very same images were used to urge immigrants to earn and protect the freedom and diversity they had helped build. By showing us the same images put to different purposes –with radically different captions--over time, Troyano provided provocative visual evidence that photographs lie.

Using similar images in my class might provide students with a more critical perspective. In my public history practice, I treat history as a tool bag not a Bible. Yet, in more traditional history courses, I somehow feel restrained. If I depart from the disciplinary insistence on periods, integrating propaganda images from World War I, World War II, the 1960s and 1970s into my Progressive Era course, I might be more successful in encouraging my students to read photographs with suspicion. However, I fear I might also confuse their already fragile sense of time and context.

I know what I would choose to do in an exhibition. I confess I often remain uncertain about what is appropriate to do in the classroom.

~ Denise Meringolo

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