Objects are a useful way to engage students actively in the process of how historians and scholars of cultural studies create narratives. By investigating material culture, students can learn how to tell their own stories about historical change.
I am a big fan of having students get their hands wet in the process of history making. Although I love social history, I have found over the years that my Western Humanities students are often cowed by the stories they are told in the secondary literature (history) they read. For example, while Garnsey and Saller’s The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture provides fabulous background, students don’t have enough knowledge about primary documents to test their ideas about social hierarchies and status. Early on, one of my responses to this was to give a lecture on Roman houses and to provide students with objects with which they could test some of their theories in conference (discussion).
Similarly in my American Studies and Jewish Studies classes, I often have students test their ideas about historical change by looking at objects. One way I do this is through problem-based learning in which students are asked to figure out what kinds of evidence they would need to solve a scenario. It is worth noting that many of my classes are skills based: that is, I am just as interested in teaching students research methods as I am in teaching them content. In order to engage them in the process of creating narratives, I often combine set readings with readings chosen by the students themselves (working in groups) from anthologies we are using. That is, they are collaborating with me to create the story the class is telling. This forces students to think about what texts best address the concepts we are covering and to think about what questions they want to discuss. Likewise when we are studying objects I often assign readings about “how to read objects” but ask the students who are presenting for the day to pick relevant objects from the online database that they feel best reflect the discussions we have been having and their own particular interests. Here is a english303syllabus that uses this collaborative syllabus-building approach. It is worth noting that (1) I teach at a small liberal arts college, so I have smaller classes (capped at 24 students) and (2) this approach requires some confidence and flexibility and hence works best in classes for which you have extensive background on the items you wouldn’t usually assign in an anthology. My willingness to be flexible owes a debt to the comprehensive exams my graduate school department had us take (grueling as they seemed at the time*), as well as to having worked with some fabulous people on creating surveys of American literature and culture for both American Passages and Artifacts and Fictions. See more on the sample lesson plans and sample syllabi for how to enact a collaborative problem-solving approach.
*NOTE: Apparently my old department has changed their model and now only asks people to devise three readings lists with 30 primary texts and 10 secondary texts each. Although this seems more humane, there was a certain logic to the prior system which did give one a very broad training. Prior to the early 1990s when I took the exam, American literature was divided into two eras, each with a list a couple of pages long (e.g. here is the old [prior to 1992 list]). By the time I took the exams (fall 1992?), American literature was three eras and the nineteenth century literature list alone was 33 pages long. I enclose it for people’s amusement. We had three lists like this to “master” for the exams. Probably some of my interest in narrative making comes in part from trying to make sense of these reading lists many years ago.