The ongoing discussion about whether the humanities in general, and history in particular, are relevant to today’s students can often get deeply abstract (enough so to be off-putting even to many of us invested in the question). But the debate and discussion also has a practical element. In my classes, and in particular in my survey courses (which most students are taking for general education credit), I encourage them literally to see the history that lies right outside their doorsteps.
Teaching early American history at a campus twenty miles west of Boston makes that process relatively simple. When I need an example, Boston, Massachusetts, or New England is usually standing by with a dozen at the ready. We obviously talk about Puritans and their culture, and read Mary Rowlandson (we’re just sixteen miles from Lancaster), but I also try to insert Boston and New England examples in less obvious moments when possible to bring the history home. My favorite is when we discuss the abolition movement, and I tell them about William Lloyd Garrison’s famous July 4, 1854 address in which he referred to the Constitution as a “Covenant with Death” and then burned a copy of it. I then ask them where they thought he gave this speech, and jaws drop on learning that it took place in Framingham, barely a mile and a half from our classroom.
I also encourage students to venture beyond campus to one of the dozens of early American historic sites within driving distance. To accomplish that goal, I’ve come up with an extra credit opportunity that rewards their curiosity.
Before I describe how it works, I should explain the basic advantages and disadvantages that I faced in coming up with something workable:
- Many of my students are commuters or otherwise have access to cars, especially on the weekends. That means they can usually reach sites on their own or with friends.
- On the other hand, many of my students have access to cars because of off-campus commitments to families or (often) to jobs. So many work 30+ hours a week that I couldn’t in fairness make a historic site visit a requirement of the course.
- Many of the sites in New England are either free or inexpensive (see the above about needing to work).
Based on those criteria, I decided that extra credit was the way to go, and compiled a Google Map (see below) of about 25 sites not far from Framingham (now up to about 40).
The sites are color-coded to correspond to the number of points students can earn, anywhere from one to three on their final grade (and a total of three possible if they visit small sites). To earn the credit, students have to visit the site and then turn in a response paper, one page per point at the site. As you can see on the page I set up, there are a few open-ended questions that basically ask students to think historically about the site(s) they visit. My logic is really simple: a day spent walking the Freedom Trail and thinking about what it means, and then writing an extra paper on it, is about as good as anything else students can do in my class. For general education students, it’s a chance for them to see their home (almost all of my students are from Massachusetts … sports discussions can get rough). For education majors, it opens their eyes to potential field trips. For some, it may induce them to change their major to history.
By far the most popular site to visit is the Freedom Trail, which has the advantage of being free, worth three points, and an excuse to go into Boston. But students have visited a number of other sites around the region, and have added a number to the map, including the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire, and a host of sites in Sandwich, Massachusetts on Cape Cod (a current student lives there and asked about them). One student even took time during a spring break visit to family in Virginia to stop by Jamestown.
The opportunity isn’t perfect. For one thing, I never get quite the take-up that I hope for, though it usually falls in the 10-20% range. And of course not every student has the Eureka! moment I imagine in my John Keating fantasies. But of course that’s not the (actual) goal. Instead, I mostly just want to move the needle and get them to think.
 For another example of using local history in the classroom, see Jonathan’s post on Philadelphia streets.
 This may be a good place to note that credit is also contingent on photographic evidence.