History is Personal: The Final Lecture of My Course

One of the professors that I’ve TA’d for at Purdue does a very powerful and moving “Meaning of Life” lecture to end all of his courses. In the presentation he takes the kids through his personal history emphasizing important lessons he’s learned on how to be successful and happy. It’s incredibly well-done and always leaves students moved.

Though I don’t have the same life-lessons and experiences yet, I tried to do something similar at the end of my course this fall. I called it “History is Personal” and delivered it on the last day of class. I was unable to do my “The Recent Past” lecture, where we talk about things like 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama, because I was ill, so I tried to build off of those historically significant moments where my students have personal memories to start a larger conversation about our personal interaction with history. While this is a theme I tried to carry throughout the semester via the book on Swimming Pools, I viewed this final presentation as a more explicit discussion of personal history.

I divided the lecture into four different angles to look at history — all of which my students can personally relate back to themselves. The angles were: 1) historical events you lived through, 2) historic sites and places, 3), personal history, 4) digital history. Then I concluded with some final thoughts and takeaways from the lecture and the course overall.

* * *

The “History You’ve Lived Through” section was more questions driven. I wanted my students to think about major historical events that took place during their lives and think about what they remember about it, how if affected their lives, and consider how their experiences are different than other people who lived through the same things. At the heart of these questions are notions of perspective and context highlighting the complexity of history and sources. They also shed light on questions of significance and how time and distance can affect our views of the past.

Most of my students were 5 or 6 when 9/11 happened, they remember it much differently than I do. Likewise, some were in different parts of the country. Timezones can make a difference when major events happen. Regardless, they all had some sort of memory and something to share. These memories are important. Some recognized that they’ve been shaped by subsequent news coverage and anniversaries. What was fun was to see their minds working though their memories. Especially when I told them that these are stories they’ll probably be telling to their kids or grandkids someday. My Mom told me a story about where she was when JFK was shot, and they’ll have something similar. History is something we all witness and all have different views and perspectives on. It’s a real thing, and sometimes these multiple memories and perspectives get lost in lectures and textbooks.

* * *

Next, I asked my students to think about how they connect with historic places and sites. At a fundamental level these things attempt to anchor history to place. The idea of what happened here, or as my good friend Peter asks, what grows here (since he is an environmental and agricultural historian), are fundamentally personal questions about a community and a place that invite us to learn more. They’re telling of a place and its history. It’s the connection between sense of place and sense of history. These connections can be very powerful and help not just historians, but visitors and community members better understand their world.

I asked my student to think back to when we talked about the 1920s and 1930s — I told them about Ross-Ade Stadium and Elliott Hall of Music at Purdue and their connections to national trends. I reminded them that there are probably similar stories about their hometowns. A famous person, a famous building, perhaps a courthouse or a school, maybe a park and a bandstand. Maybe it’s an old stadium. These histories are their history because they shape who they are by defining where they’re from. They introduced them to the world around them and what their community values.

Of course, historic sites aren’t personal for everyone. If you go somewhere new, you might not see the significance in things. An old house or an old tree might seem lame. But if you take a step back, you can see how different things in history are important to different folks, different communities. This goes beyond places. People in the South view the Civil War and its leaders much differently than those of us in the North. People out west have different views of Native Americans. Likewise, a historic site in a different country might not mean the same thing to you.

* * *

For me, however, personal history is directly connected to public history. I got into history because I grew up having really close and personal relationships with my Great Grandmothers. I continued cultivating my interest in history by studying the places around me. Much of my undergraduate research was on local history and university history. I did my senior thesis on the history of my college track team. Later, my master’s thesis focused on Billy Mills, one of my running heroes growing up. For me, history has always required a personal connection for it to come alive. Learning family history and local history helped me discover who I am, where I came from, and how I fit into the larger story of American history. I hope that by sharing my story and the story of my family, it helped my students to think about their story and how they connect their personal and family history to the history they learned all semester.

* * *

On my way back from my research to trip to Oklahoma last summer I drove through Kansas. I grew up in Kansas and while I was cruising through the majestic Flint Hills I passed familiar places from my youth. I was overcome by nostalgia seeing the familiar sites and reading the town names. It’s been probably 15 years or more since I’d seen the old family farm and the houses where my Great Grandmothers lived and I spent so much time as a kid. I decided to stop, stretch my legs, and take a few photos.

As my biography page explains, I was lucky as a child. I grew up with two Great Grandmothers that lived into their 90s. Both of them died when I was in high school. They lived less than an hour from me so I spent a lot of time with them at their houses. They told me stories about our family history as well as some local history. One of them got me into collecting coins which I think also contributed to my love of history. In a lot of ways, because of their age and experiences, it was like growing up and having close relationships with two amazing primary sources. Below are a few of their stories (I have more that I didn’t share here).

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McGregor Farmhouse, July 2014

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My Grandma Edith and Grandpa Dean (who I never met) moved to Saffordville, KS in the late 1930s. They moved into a large 5-bedroom farmhouse on the edge of town, across the street from the Toledo Township High School. The house was built in 1916, my Grandma loved to remind me. When they bought it, the trees were overgrown and I get the sense that it was vacant for some time. I remember one story she used to tell about when they first moved in. A black snake was inside the house, slithering on the wall across the archway between the living room and dining room. The rooms were divided by wooden pocket doors. The snake must have nested inside the pockets and become spooked by the new residents. Grandpa Dean was unfazed, Grandma explained. He grabbed the snake by the tail and snapped its head against the ground quickly killing it.

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Grandpa Dean and Grandma Edith at the 50th Anniversary, June 1978

Edith was the daughter of Welsh immigrants. Her father, Evan Ellis, came to the U.S. in 1883, when he was 12 years old. In 1905, he settled in Lebo, KS and began farming. Grandma Edith was born in Kansas City just before they moved. Though she had 5 younger siblings, she outlived them all. I never met my Great Grandfather McGregor. He died before I was born from complications following a stroke. Grandpa Dean worked for the railroad. They lived in Newton, KS prior to moving to Saffordville.

Saffordville was a small town located along the railroad and U.S. Route 50 between Cottonwood Falls, Strong City, and Emporia. The Cottonwood River ran just south of town providing fertile soil and irrigation to the farming community located on the eastern edge of the Flint Hills. Farming and ranching were the primary occupations of most resident of Chase County, Kansas. Though Grandpa Dean worked for the railroad, he owned land too. He rented some, but not all of it, to other nearby farmers.

I don’t know the complete history of Saffordville, but the story of its end is all too familiar. The 1951 ravished the area. The Cottonwood River didn’t just jump its banks, it engulfed the nearby plains. The water kept rising and rising. It crested just below the top of Grandma Edith’s dining room table. While most residents evacuated and moved, she stayed. Grandpa Dean took a row-boat to Emporia for work and the rest of the family — my Grandfather Gary and his sister Janet — moved to the second floor of the house.

Grandpa Gary was 16 at the time and quickly grew restless. According to William Least Heat-Moon’s book Prairie Earth (which is a history of Chase County, KS), he passed the time by climbing on to the roof to shoot trash floating by in the muddy water. Heat-Moon’s account comes directly from my Grandma Edith, who he interviewed while writing the book.

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Toledo Township High School, July 2014

Saffordville never recovered from the flood. Most residents picked up and moved to higher ground or other towns not in the Cottonwood’s flood-plain. The only remnants of the town are three houses and the old Toledo Township High School. As a kid we joked that we doubled the town’s population whenever we visited. 

I’m not sure when the high school closed. Both my Grandpa Gary and my Grandma Donna graduated from the school in the mid-1950s. The interior wasn’t in bad shape when I explored the old building in the late-1990s. We walked through the gymnasium and I remember being amused by its small size and lack of a 3-point line. This was before I learned it wasn’t added to the sport until the mid-1980s.

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Saffordville United Methodist Church, July 2014

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Following the flood the Saffordville United Methodist Church moved to higher ground. As I recall the church building was moved on a truck and placed on a new foundation north of U.S. Route 50, roughly 3 miles from the old town. Both of my Great Grandmothers were members of the church. Their funerals were held there, and I believe my Dad’s parents, my Grandpa Gary and Grandma Donna, were married there. It was the social center of so many of my visits to Saffordville. Throughout my childhood I attended church there on my visits and went to their Vacation Bible School during the summers.

Because my Great Grandmothers both lived into their 90s and spent all of their adult lives there, the entire congregation felt like family (and a lot of it was). My Granny Buffon lived closer to the new church site. She was born and raised in Chase County. Her father, Walter Erickson, came to the U.S. when he was 12 too (which would have been 1895). He was tenant farmer most of his life. I actually own his old truck now, a 1952 Chevy.

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Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse

My Granny Buffon taught school while my Grandpa Buffon farmed. Granny Buffon started teaching right after she graduated from 8th grade. She got a special teaching license and taught at the Lower Fox Creek one room schoolhouse. There was only about 3 families in the area, so she didn’t have too many students. Her younger sisters were actually among those students. The school is now a part of Tallgrass National Prairie Reserve. My Granny was the last teacher at the school, and according to the National Park Service, she made $80 per month in 1929 (she would have been 18 years old). She later went to Kansas State Teachers College  (now Emporia State University) and got her full teaching license.

She continued to teach while my Great Grandpa farmed. They mostly just had animals, cattle, sheep, and chickens. My mother tells a story about the first time she met my Great Grandpa. They were in his truck and he reached over to the glove box and pulled out a bunch of sheep’s tails and waved them in her face to see what she would do. He always a bit of a jokester. My Grandma Donna once told me a story about having to clean chickens for dinner. Granny Buffon would chop the head off with an ax, turning away not to watch the impact. My Grandma Edith, on the other hand, would just wring their necks with her bare hands. Then, my Grandma and her sister would have to clean the bird — pluck the feathers, bleed it out, etc. — before they could cook it. It’s so fascinating to me that only 2 to 3 generations ago that’s how people lived.

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Buffon Farmhouse, July 2014

When I was a kid they still had an old wooden outhouse not too far from their house. According to my Dad, my Great Great Grandpa Walt, who lived until he was 98, refused to use the indoor plumbing. He was a weird guy. He also used the same coffee grounds all week long. A throwback to simpler times when you had to be frugal.

One thing I’ll never forget from my Granny Buffon’s house was the time we went for a picnic in her “crick” — not creek — and the soda we brought started to float away. It was one of those 6-packs with rings that connected all of the cans. We put it in the water to stay cool and anchored it down on a stick. The stick came loose in the current and it started to go down stream. Granny B ran to the house, strapped on her waders, and then went marching after it. I don’t remember if she found it. I think she did.

* * *

This early history, this family history, taught me about who I am, it taught me about the place I was from. Although I didn’t know much about what was going in American history at the time, it gave me a baseline of personal knowledge to connect with major historic events I learned in my classes. Things like the urban rural-divide. The Great Depression, immigration, etc. Of course, I also learned a thing or two I’ve never was taught in school. My Granny Buffon taught me the origins of the phrase “hicks” as in someone who is backwoods and uncivilized. As an old one room schoolhouse teacher, she claims that the term comes from rural and unorthodox teachers who disciplined their students with hickory sticks. People who disagreed with their methods called them “hicks.” I’ve told that story to several other historians, and no one has heard anything similar before, but it seems to be accurate.

My students may not have had the same vast experience that I had with my Grandparents and Great Grandparents, but hopefully they’ve had some. I think its useful for them to think about where and what their grandparents were doing during many of the events we talked about. Personal places and personal history can serve as a way to anchor major events we talked about in class into tangible realities.

* * *

The final angle I explored was digital history. I’m very interested in the digital humanities and mixing history and digital technology. One of the things I do is kook at ways to present history to the public in innovative ways. During the course of the class and as I moved into the 1980s and 1990s, I began to wonder, how do we tell the history of the digital age? What are the important events? And how has digital technology complicated the process of history — remembering things, saving and preserving documents, images, etc.?

My students are what scholars refer to as “digital natives.” They grew up with computers, smart phones, digital cameras, USB drives and easy storage, etc. They also grew up with social networks and blogs. I remember in college waiting a full year after my friends at KU got Facebook until my college was added to the network. In the early days only college students could sign up (you had to have a .edu email) and only certain colleges were recognized. It was a slow process of expanding. I got mine in May 2005.

Now, today so much of our own personal information is spread across the web. Our photos are spread across websites and apps like Instagram and Facebook. All of our phone numbers are all in our phones. Everyone’s had that experience when they lost or broke their phone and everything is gone. You have to start over. No one lists their number in phonebooks anymore. It’s almost impossible to get someone’s number that you don’t know. Phonebooks are basically obsoletely.

We’ve probably all also had the experience of a hard drive going bad and losing our saved files, you know, before the cloud. Bye bye photos and videos. Bye bye saved term papers. How do these things affect history? And how are these things a part of history? Research is affected, obviously. Digital data is tricky to preserve. You have to update software or find machines that can use old software, old storage disks, etc. You also have to figure out what to save and how to best preserve it for future access.

When I went to the archives this summer I searched through a lot of old correspondence. People sent letter to each other, but they also kept a “onionskin” copy. So you can see both sides of the conversation in the archive, you can see the paper trail. Email saves that stuff too, but how do you archive email? How do official organizations saves those records? Technology has made life so much better and easier but it complicates things, too. These are among the issues we have to consider as historians in the digital age, but also as everyday people trying to preserve our own memories.

Digital history is personal for a lot of us. We have our own history of social networks and email addresses, of old messages and photos, old blogs posts, etc. We also have our history of websites. Can you think back to websites that you used to love but have changed or don’t really exist? Do you  remember Homestar Runner? It was big when I was in high school. Did you know there are a few projects building a history of the internet? Have you heard of the Wayback Machine?  They have over 400 billion archived websites. You can go in and visit a popular website on a specific date in the past to see what it looked like. The Internet seems to be a place in constant flux. We might not notice little updates, but over time websites and things have radically changed. The Wayback Machine is one way for us to go back and see change over time.

So what’s the point here? I wanted my students to think about the next phase in history. I wanted them to think about how they interact with history and make history, make documents, every day. The Library of Congress is archiving every public Tweet. Which can be really cool for historian 50 years from now, but also kind of scary for college students Tweeting about their lives. The Library of Congress also put together a Personal Digital Archiving Kit a few years ago. It offers resources on personal digital archiving for the general public. It’s mostly a collection of important tips and strategies for preserving digital files, photos, videos, emails and social media accounts. They encourage people to host parties and workshops to help spread the word about personal digital archiving you are raising awareness to these ever changing formats, technologies and techniques. Preservation is important and requires an active role by all of us, especially in the digital age. I joked that even if we fail to preserve everything, the NSA seems to be doing a good job of collecting our data. Perhaps their massive public spying program can double as a new National Archives of personal digital data.

* * *

So we looked at history from four angels: 1) Historical Events they lived through, 2) Historic sites and places, 3) Personal History, and 4) Digital History. What’s the takeaway?

Obviously we study history to be good citizens. To learn about our government and how we got to where we are. To see how things have changed over time. We learn history to honor our past — national figures, veterans, and even relatives. We learn history to win bar bets and know fun-facts, too. But I think a lot of this all comes back to knowing who we are and where we’re from.

Learning history also helps us think about the world around you in different ways. One of the reasons I assigned the Contest Waters book on the history of swimming pools was because I wanted my students to understand that everything has a history, and everything is affected by history. The book did a wonderful job of illustrating this and my student’s essays really bare that out. As this class ends, that’s one of the main things I hope they take away.

I also want them take away the idea that it’s about them. History is theirs. I recall repeating the phrase “History is yours” several times in the last lecture. It’s something that they’ve inherited it and they’re going to contribute to it. It’s important to know what they’re inheriting. There is a lot of promise in American history, a lot of success, but there’s also some problems, disagreements, and unfortunate stains. But this is our history; it’s theirs and mine, its ours. I encouraged my students to take ownership of history.

We’ll all contribute to it in various ways — voting, running for office, having children, donating money, or just being a part of community. Being a friend and sharing your life with someone can be very significant, too. We all have those friends, teachers, neighbors, whoever, that we remember fondly. As the inheritors and writers of this history, we can use our knowledge of the past to help make changes. History is ours to shape.

During the course I had them write questions for the exams, part of this is because I’m lazy, part of it is because it’s a good way to help them study, but it’s also a way to make history theirs. To give them a say on what they think it important and significant. By writing the questions, they were telling me what they value.

* * *

In the end, this exploration of history from four different angles was a reflection on what history means to me and why I think it’s important. It’s also a reflection on what history looks like outside of the classroom. I wanted my students to understand that history is real, it’s all around them, it’s a part of who they are and they will be and are a part of it, too. Each angle helps illustrate those ideas. They three major takeaways of my class were 1) history is real, 2) everything has a history, and everything is affected by history, and 3) history is theirs (history is yours). As a 100-level, general education, survey class I felt like it was my responsibility to show them how and why history is important. Since this might be the only history class many of them take, I also wanted to give them a few ways that they can use the class to look at the world differently. I think this last mediation on how “History is Personal” really accomplished that and hit home for a lot of them.

This last lecture was one of my favorites to give. It was deeply personal for me not only because I shared my family history but also because I bared my soul and passion for history. I explained who I am and why I’m a historian. It paid off. They responded really well and a few started clapping at the end. I enjoyed the back and forth of sharing experiences and ideas with my students. Seeing them nod their heads as they made connections and soaked in the personal components of history. These reactions validated the semester of hard work and stress, and confirmed that I made the right decision to pursue a career in teaching and research.

2 thoughts on “History is Personal: The Final Lecture of My Course

  1. Mrs. Charles Swank

    Andrew, I enjoyed this very much–you are a very good writer. I hope to print this off and keep it in my cedar trunk (which my Dad made) and add it to other “old stuff”. Love, Grandma Donna

    Reply

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