Stewart School Public History Project

I realized that I have not posted to this blog in quite some time, which is due in part to the time I have been devoting to a public history project for my hometown historical society in Stow, Ohio.  Last weekend, the project came to fruition at Stow Historical Society’s Harvest Festival, and I believe that it can be counted a success.

In 2012, Stow Historical Society acquired Stewart School, an original one-room schoolhouse built in the late nineteenth century in Stow.  The only catch was that they had to raise the money to move it a short distance from its then current location to Heritage Reserve Park, where SHS maintains three other historical buildings.  From 2012-2013, SHS raised approximately $40,000 for the move, and the building arrived in its new home in October of 2013.  Restoration work has been ongoing since then (the school had been used as a church for many years and had underwent many changes as a result).

Stewart School, a one-room school from Stow, Ohio dating from the late nineteenth century, in its new location at Heritage Reserve Park in Stow

Stewart School, a one-room school from Stow, Ohio dating from the late nineteenth century, in its new location at Heritage Reserve Park in Stow

I am on the committee for the interior restoration and interpretation of the building and, earlier this year, I wrote an Ohio Humanities grant to fund the production of exhibit panels discussing the history of Stewart School, the history of education in Stow more broadly, and the broader history of the national shift from one-room schools to centralized schools.  SHS received the grant, and the last few months have been a whirlwind of exhibit panel development and fabrication.  Local historians Marilyn Lown and Beth Daugherty provided invaluable local history information that enabled me to write the panels, and graphic designer Anna Bose designed them.

Stewart School Exhibit Panel 1 of 6

Stewart School Exhibit Panel 1 of 6

Although the interior of the schoolhouse is not finished yet, we debuted the panels at this year’s Harvest Festival on October 3 & 4.  Eventually they will be mounted permanently on the walls.  The exhibit for the Harvest Festival also featured an interactive component, posing questions for visitors to answer using Post-It notes.  Unfortunately, Saturday was rainy and quite cold so attendance was low, but Sunday dawned sunny and significantly warmer, so we had over three hundred people visit Stewart School and view the exhibit!  It was wonderful to read the Post-Its and listen to conversations evoked by the schoolhouse.  For example, several people shared that they had attended one-room school or that a family member had attended or taught at a one-room school.  Below I’ve included a selection of some of the other Post-It responses to the question “What does the one-room schoolhouse evoke for you?”

Visitors to the Stewart School exhibit at Stow Historical Society's Harvest Festival, October 4, 2015

Visitors to the Stewart School exhibit at Stow Historical Society’s Harvest Festival, October 4, 2015

Blessed

The brick one-room school where my mother-in-law taught

Lots of eager minds all at different levels growing & learning & developing together

The living room

It was a simpler time when people were more important than things!

History!

Discipline

“Probably haunted”

We were married in this room in 1966! [when it was being used as a church]

Wow I like this school

Teaching done right!!

They [were] tough kids in those days and said the Lord’s prayer

Happy

One of two "blackboards" on which visitors could leave responses to the exhibit

One of two “blackboards” on which visitors could leave responses to the Stewart School exhibit

Although I wish attendance had been better on Saturday, I feel that the exhibit successfully evoked at least the beginnings of a community conversation about education and history.  There is still much more to discuss and share, and I hope that Stewart School will continue to prompt these conversations as restoration and interpretation of the structure proceeds.

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Working from Home with Pomodoros

Working from home most of the time presents a variety of challenges.  If I am to get any work done at all, I have to be almost entirely self-motivated.  Distractions abound (particularly in the form of two cats).  Sometimes it can get lonely.  Sometimes I feel as though I cannot stand to be in the house another second!  Of course, there are advantages to working from home as well, such as having no commute, not having to pack a lunch, being able to do chores on my lunch break, and, perhaps best of all, having the pleasure of feline company while I am working.

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I mean, really, how could these faces not be at least a little bit distracting?

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In addition to the intrinsic challenges that accompany working from home, I also have found it sometimes difficult to balance the multiple projects on which I have to be working at any given time.  This summer, I have been able to focus a bit more than usual on my dissertation research, but I have also been working on a project with Stow Historical Society, the local history organization in my hometown.  I wrote and we received a grant from the Ohio Humanities Council for a series of exhibit panels to be displayed in the SHS’s recently acquired one-room schoolhouse dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  I am glad to be finished with the grant, but lately I have been drafting the panels and seeking images for them, which has proven a little more difficult than I thought it would be.  Next week, classes start, and I will soon be working at a local historic house museum for a few hours a week.  It’s going to be a hectic autumn.

I am sure that everyone who works from home and/or engages in multiple tasks at once has a particular method or process which works for them.  I have found that a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique works well for me.  I have not bought or read anything on the technique, other than browsing the website, but I created my own modification of it.  I set a timer for 52 minutes and devote myself exclusively to a specific work-related task during that time.  When a distraction pops into my mind or I think of something else I need to do, I allow myself to write it down, but do not abandon the task at hand.  After 52 minutes, I take an 8 minute break in which I can do whatever I want (have a snack, stretch, play with the cats, go on the Internet).  Then I move on to another Pomodoro.  The system is not perfect; sometimes I do still get distracted and off track while I am in the midst of a Pomodoro.  But I find that I can be much more productive using the system.  At the end of the day, I tally the number of Pomodoros that I have completed, and I feel a greater sense of accomplishment than I otherwise would, especially when I am doing work that does not produce an immediate concrete result, like dissertation research.  Of course, putting in Pomodoros does not necessarily mean that I will finish everything, but I usually find that if I put in the time, one Pomodoro after another, the work will get done.

What are some strategies that you have found to be successful in enabling you to work from home and/or juggle multiple projects at a time?

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Obstacle Course.”

From the Archives: Proselytizing and Doubtful Conversions

While in the midst of research, it’s always exciting when you find a connection that you suspected, but did not know existed for certain.  I have spent the last week or so as a research fellow at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio, conducting research for the chapter of my dissertation focusing on early American Jewish educators, specifically Isaac Leeser.  Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) was the hazan, or cantor, of Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue.  He also commanded a position of national prominence as an advocate for Jews, the Jewish faith, and Jewish education, in part by means of his periodical, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate.

Isaac Leeser

Isaac Leeser

Since I started researching Leeser, I have wondered if he knew Frederick A. Packard, one of my other research subjects, a Protestant evangelical who served as Secretary of the American Sunday-School Union in Philadelphia.  Today, I was excited to find proof that Packard at least knew of Leeser and felt comfortable asking him for a favor.

I discovered two letters from Packard to Leeser in the Gershwind-Bennett Isaac Leeser Digital Repository.  In one of the letters, Packard asked Leeser his opinion of the moral character of a Mr. Berk, “said to be a Polish Jew converted to Christianity.”  Packard had been asked to arrange for Mr. Berk to give a lecture and did not want to promote the man “if his moral character & standing are not irreproachable.”

Frederick A. Packard to Isaac Leeser, March 3, 1849

Frederick A. Packard to Isaac Leeser, March 3, 1849 (http://leeser.library.upenn.edu/documentDisplay.php?id=LSTCAT_item156)

In addition to evidence that Packard and Leeser corresponded, I found this letter interesting because it brought into relief an issue that preoccupied Leeser a great deal, as revealed in several Occident essays that I read this week.  In the early nineteenth century, Protestant evangelicals launched several efforts aimed to convert American Jews to Christianity, such as the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews.  Many Jews, including Isaac Leeser, resented what they viewed as missionaries’ presumption that they could not manage their own spiritual affairs.  Leeser also viewed efforts to convert the Jews as standing in stark contradiction to the American ideal of freedom of religion.  In the pages of the Occident and in letters to the editors of other newspapers, he vehemently denied that American Jews needed spiritual or material aid from Christians and encouraged those of his faith to firmly rebuff missionaries.  He also frequently challenged missionaries’ statements that they had achieved as many conversions as they claimed (in fact, almost no Jews converted to Christianity as a result of early nineteenth-century American Protestant efforts).

I would very much like to find Leeser’s response to Packard; I suspect that he would have questioned Berk’s conversion.  Leeser believed that most conversions of Jews occurred only as a result of ignorance, hence his strong belief in the importance of Jewish education.  With a good education, “armed with knowledge of what is demanded of Israelites, and imbued with a firm reliance of Providence, our young men and our maidens might be exposed to the siren notes of proselyte-hunters without falling into the snare laid for their feet.”*  Leeser believed that education and the development of young people’s powers of reason would only attach them more strongly to the Jewish faith.  Packard believed that education and the use of reason would similarly draw individuals closer to evangelical Christianity.  My dissertation will ultimately examine the conflicting religious views of these individuals, and several other nineteenth-century religious educators, who yet all had very similar ideas about the supportive role of reason with respect to faith.

* Leeser made this comment in a footnote he wrote in Grace Aguilar, The Spirit of Judaism, Third Edition, ed. Isaac Leeser (Philadelphia, 5624 [1864]), 180.

Preliminary Thoughts on Best Practices for Online Courses, Part One

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Late last summer, I began to teach my first online course to undergraduates at The Ohio State University.  In the process of developing it, I found very little assistance available to me in the form of best practices or suggestions on how to create a good online course.  My colleagues who had taught online before were my best, and often only, sources of information.  Ohio State’s University Center for the Advancement of Teaching is apparently offering an week-long online course design institute this year, but attendees have to be able to attend all sessions in person, which is difficult if not impossible for those of us who are teaching online precisely because we are not physically in Columbus.

Over the past year, I have taught three online classes (two different courses), and I have learned a great deal in the process.  I am also currently a student in an online class, “Behind the Scenes at the 21st-Century Museum,” a free course offered by the University of Leicester in partnership with National Museums Liverpool (learn more about the course here).  This MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has me thinking a lot about museums and what they can offer to our 21st-century societies, but the course has also helped me think critically about what makes a good online course.  What practices best facilitate student engagement and learning?  I have decided to begin a list of my own gleanings as to what makes a good online course, to which I will add as I teach and learn more in the future.

1. Make course videos absolutely as short as possible.  Students often find it exceedingly difficult to concentrate fully for the length of a typical class period (45 minutes to 1 hour), and short attention spans will only be magnified in an online course, in which there will probably be many more distractions at hand, not to mention the fact that there are no social repercussions for not sitting through the instructor’s video.

2. Make sure that the quality of audio recordings is solid.  Perhaps nothing is more likely to discourage a student who genuinely wants to learn from the instructor’s audio or video recordings than poor sound quality/background noise that causes distraction and/or makes the instructor difficult to understand.

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3. Be animated and enthusiastic.  This best practice applies to teaching in the classroom, but I think it is even more important in online courses because students are not physically present in the room with the instructor and thus have limited exposure to non-auditory cues such as body language.  An instructor can do a lot to convey excitement via body language, but usually most of that must be transferred to the voice in an online course.  Because, again, students are likely watching lectures in comfort of their homes, where distractions abound, instructors need to work even harder to engage students and hold their interest.

4. Be present in the course. One of the benefits of an online course is that the instructor can record lectures ahead of time, at his/her own convenience, and the students can listen to these lectures at their own convenience.  But I think that this can lead to the feeling that the instructor is not really present in the course – that he or she is just posting material on the Internet and then letting students do their own thing.  Engaging with students regularly on discussion boards can demonstrate one’s presence in the course, as can posting short videos periodically that were filmed especially for that class and that address specific student questions or concerns.  I have not done much with the latter in my own classes yet, but I hope to do so in the future.

5. Give students the opportunity to respond as often as possible and to as many components of the course as possible.  Posting a comment can help a student feel more engaged in the course, as well as help solidify what he/she is learning.  In my past courses, I have limited student discussion to the discussion boards, which are separate from the other components of the course.  If possible, in the future, I would like to allow students to comment on videos, course readings, and all other components of the course to facilitate a bit more interaction among them and with me.  “Behind the Scenes at the 21st-Century Museum” does this very well.

I have more to learn about online teaching (as I am sure that I always will!), and I will add to this list as I come up with more best practices.

Let’s Not Just Remember Reconstruction

Lately, I have been musing a lot about the history of Reconstruction and race in the United States.  Current events, as well as reminders of historical ones, have been motivating my thoughts.  Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2015 Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Signature Event.  On Thursday evening, I attended a lecture on Civil War memory by Dr. Caroline E. Janney of Purdue University followed by a performance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  I observed educational programming for schoolchildren at Historic Ramsey House on Friday.  On Saturday, I volunteered at the East Tennessee Historical Society’s Kids’ Tent as part of the Blue & Gray Reunion and Freedom Jubilee.  I also attended the Peace Jubilee at World’s Fair Park that evening, a commemoration of the Blue & Gray Reunion that took place in Knoxville in 1890.  The other activities associated with the Sesquicentennial event were quite extensive, including a scholarly roundtable discussion about Reconstruction, bus tours, vintage baseball games, dramatic readings, living history, and more.

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Opening Procession of the Civil War Exposition & Peace Jubilee, part of the Blue & Gray Reunion and Freedom Jubilee, Saturday, May 2, 2015, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Tennessee’s effort to commemorate Reconstruction is commendable.  As enthusiastically as many Americans want to remember the Civil War, relatively few seek to remember and commemorate Reconstruction.  So I appreciate the entire premise of this weekend of events, sponsored by the State of Tennessee, the East Tennessee Historical Society, and other local institutions.  But, although I did not attend all of the events, I feel that, given all that has happened in the news recently with respect to racial tensions, an opportunity for potentially transformative discussion has been passed up.

According to my understanding of the immediate post-Civil War era (thanks in large part to Prof. Randolph Roth at The Ohio State University), the roots of modern race relations (and much of our modern society in general) lie in the Reconstruction era, not in the era of slavery.  To understand the imbroglio of race relations in the United States, one must understand Reconstruction.  Yet, until recently, institutions and sites have been decidedly reluctant to discuss it.  While at the National Council on Public History conference last month, I attended a panel that discussed a failed effort to create a National Park Service site commemorating Reconstruction in Beaufort, South Carolina.  I was glad to read that the NPS did recently launch a comprehensive effort to create sites that would commemorate the era in the South (read a recent Atlantic article about that effort here).  So I feel that we are moving in the right direction.

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Reproduction Civil War-era objects at the Kids’ Table, Civil War Exposition & Peace Jubilee, Blue & Gray Reunion and Freedom Jubilee, Saturday, May 2, 2015, Knoxville, Tennessee.

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But we could still do more.  Unfortunately, I missed the roundtable on Reconstruction Tennessee on Friday – if any event last weekend did critically assess Reconstruction and drew present-day parallels, then it was probably that one.  But, I would imagine that the timing of the event (1-2:30 on a Friday) limited the potential audience, especially among the general public.  And, from what I could gather, there were few, if any, other events on the program that would have facilitated a profound discussion of Reconstruction and the roots of our modern challenges with respect to race.

The fact that Tennessee sponsored a Sesquicentennial event commemorating the beginning of Reconstruction is excellent.  It is also wonderful that the National Park Service is seeking to create sites that will facilitate the remembrance of Reconstruction.  But I do not think that we should stop there.  We should not just remember Reconstruction, but we should delve deeply – and without fear – into what it means for us today.

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The sun setting on the Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, Tennessee.

National Council on Public History Conference and Nashville Museums

Last week, I attended the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a great experience – probably my favorite conference I have attended thus far. I met a lot of friendly people who are extremely excited about the work that they do in the world of public history, and I also got to reconnect with old friends and my M.A. advisor. I attended sessions on inclusivity in the National Park Service, religion at historic sites and museums, doing public history at academic institutions, defining success in public history degree programs, and women’s history in museums. The NCPH conference also offered great resources for those just starting out or new to the field – I was quite impressed. I participated in a resume workshop, went to “Speed Networking,” and attended a session on how to get a job in public history. Hopefully I will soon be able to put all I learned into action. The conference really reminded me how much I love sharing history with the public and making it relevant in the community.

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Strip of honky tonks and bars along Broadway, with Tootsies Orchid Lounge on the left, Nashville, Tennessee.

Towards the end of the conference, Mike drove over, and we went together to several local museums: the Tennessee State Museum and the Johnny Cash Museum. The Tennessee State Museum is free, and I was amazed once I started going through it at how much we were getting for the $0 admission price. It is enormous – the galleries just go on and on. The early parts of the exhibit, discussing Native Americans who lived in what is now Tennessee, are unfortunately very dated in design and content. Women are barely present in the narrative, although they appear in paintings illustrating the exhibit. Unfortunately, I would imagine that funding for updates is tight or nonexistent.

In the sections discussing later Tennessee history (primarily the nineteenth century), the creators of the exhibits do a very good job incorporating the experiences of women, minorities, and ordinary people into the overall narrative, although prominent white men still remain dominant. I felt a bit dismayed to see a huge exhibit case with multiple panels and artifacts devoted to Nathan Bedford Forrest, although the text does acknowledge his close connection to the Ku Klux Klan. Elsewhere in the museum, the exhibit includes artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, displayed in a way that demonstrates sensitivity to their abhorrent history. They still made both Mike and I uncomfortable (as they should) and instigated a spirited debate between us about what one should do with objects associated with something so repellent – should they be displayed in a museum or excluded as a statement against their dark past? I defended the museum’s exhibition of them because I believe that it is important to know about even the most unsavory aspects of humanity’s past, not just to keep them from happening again (which is the cliché), but also to inform our understanding of our present-day world. I also think that it is authentic evidence like a Ku Klux Klan robe that will prove that such groups did exist and did commit atrocities, if such a fact ever comes into question. I certainly hope that it does not, but people have come up with challenges to all kinds of factual historical events, the moon landing being one of the most well-known.

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Johnny Cash custom Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar, displayed at The Johnny Cash Museum, Nashville, Tennessee.

Mike and I both enjoyed The Johnny Cash Museum immensely. It is a small museum that has only been open for about two years. Although I am no expert on Johnny Cash, the museum appears to do a very good job of telling his story through text, images, artifacts, and (of course) music. Early on in the exhibit, I was a bit worried that it would not do justice to the major role that faith and religion played in Cash’s life. (I had just attended the NCPH panel about how museums are often reluctant to discuss religion for fear of offending people.) But I was pleasantly surprised to find several mentions of religion in the exhibit and an entire panel and exhibit case at the end discussing Johnny Cash as a man of faith. Before touring, I was also very curious as to how the museum would deal with Cash’s drug addiction. Although the exhibit does mention it, I do think its creators could have delved into the issue and its effects on Cash’s life and relationships a bit more. I was not surprised that it is rather glossed over, given that the museum is devoted to celebrating Johnny Cash, but I think that presenting more about it would deepen the intensity of the portrait that The Johnny Cash Museum paints.

Overall, it was a great long weekend in Nashville. Sometimes I feel isolated as I am writing my dissertation and teaching online, so it was wonderful to meet so many enthusiastic and like-minded people at NCPH, as well as to wander around in a couple of new museums. I hope that this will be the first of many NCPH conferences I attend.

From the Archives: Humanizing the Past

One of the reasons that I love history is that it brings to life figures who are so human.  Often I can see something of myself and those around me in the people of the past.  Other times, their actions seem bizarre and foreign, but I can still see that they were motivated by many of the same worries, passions, and emotions that we experience today.  While buried in research and writing, however, I have found that it is easy to lose sight of this fact.  It is easy to just record the life details of a historical figure – when they were born, where they went to college, when they got married, and so on, while forgetting about the human emotions that accompanied each of those life events.  I recently came across some information that reminded me of the humanity of the figure I was researching and brought me much closer to understanding him.

Frederick Adolphus Packard (1794-1867) was an attorney and nineteenth-century reformer who served for roughly forty years as the Secretary of the American Sunday-School Union, a national organization devoted to founding and supporting Sunday schools, still a relatively new innovation in the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century.  Although he was extremely prominent during his lifetime, Packard has been largely forgotten by historians over the years.  A few have chronicled his professional accomplishments, but his personal experiences and his inner life remain obscure.  I hope to change that.

During my early research on Packard, I kept coming across contradictory information with respect to how many children he had – some sources said he had four, while others said five.  While looking through an obscure genealogical book available on Google Books, The History of the Descendants of John Dwight, of Dedham, Mass., Vol. II by Benjamin W. Dwight (1874), I realized why.  Packard had five children, but one, his firstborn son, died of unknown causes on his second birthday, January 20, 1829.  I was able to verify this by finding copies of town birth and death records from Springfield, Massachusetts on the genealogy website FamilySearch.

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“Massachusetts, Springfield Vital Records, 1638-1887,” index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XPNX-WYH : accessed 27 March 2015), John H. Packard, 20 Jan 1829; citing p 145, Springfield, Hampden, Massachusetts, Springfield City Hall; FHL microfilm 185,417.

The death of John Hooker Packard occurred just a couple of months before his father gave up his law practice in Springfield, MA, and moved to Philadelphia to take the job as Secretary of the American Sunday-School Union.  I also knew that Packard’s wife, Elizabeth, did not join him in Philadelphia until the fall of 1829.  Knowing this brought Packard’s situation into sharp, emotional relief for me.  The hardship of losing a child surely devastated Packard and his wife.  To be grieving alone, in a strange city, while trying to acclimate to a new job, must have been excruciating.  Suddenly Packard was much more to me than some guy who died a hundred and fifty years ago; he was a person with whom I felt deep sympathy.  Despite my sorrow at learning of his son’s tragic death, I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience this human connection with Frederick Packard.