Object Lessons

I really enjoy teaching with mini lectures. The pace and variety of having an activity or discussion interspersed with lecture material gives students options for learning the material. One variation of this structure that I have used this semester is what I call the “object lesson.” The topic of the day’s class focuses on one particular physical object that we think about historically. I present some basic information about the object and then ask student to brainstorm with a neighbor historical questions they can ask about the object. This activity has a two-fold purpose; it lets students have some level of control over what we talk about and it allows us to discuss the historian’s craft.

A few weeks ago our object lesson was the Model T. I had prepped several questions and answers and had collected a wide variety of facts and historical interpretations about the importance of the car. We diagrammed questions on the board which I had divided by some broad categories (economic, social, technological, class) and I inserted lecture material where appropriate. For some questions (like “how did the Model T change American transportation”) I had students extrapolate from previous class material while for other questions (“what role did race play in the ability to buy a car”) I had to supply the information.

For several questions I had no answer. For those, I found answers outside of class and posted them in our digital classroom.  For some students, that demonstration of intellectual curiosity and admitting the limits of my knowledge was exciting.  They then started asking other questions and bringing me their own information.

I have done this with other objects as well; beaver hats during discussions of westward expansion, the “Stamp Act Repealed’ tea pot during the American Revolution, and I’ll be doing one with the pill in a few weeks.

Something about the concrete nature of both the object and the class structure is appealing to both myself and my students. It’s fun. It is also a safe, grade-neutral way to practice historical skills like using evidence to prove a point, crafting good historical questions, and pulling together disparate information to craft a thesis.

How do you use material culture in the survey?

One thought on “Object Lessons

  1. Pingback: March 26th: Object Lessons | History 910, The Study and Writing of History

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