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.
A recent conversation with Joe, Ken, and Michelle Moravec has me thinking about ways to use local history in a US survey course. Right now, Michelle and I have it easy; we’re both teaching in greater Philadelphia. It doesn’t take a lot of creativity to find ways to call out local attractions in class. (I can even display a map showing my campus smack in the middle of the Battle of Germantown.) But what about local history in general? How can we demonstrate that history is experienced in particular places, and that every place, at least potentially, has a history?
It’s hard to write about early American print culture or intellect without thinking a lot about geography. Scholars like Trish Loughran, Richard John, John Fea, John Brooke, and Mary Kelley have suggested, in all sorts of ways, that it’s often wise to understand “the” early American public as a web of fundamentally local reading and writing publics. Intellectual culture meant something different from what it means in an age of mass media. But tricky questions come up when you try to write a local history of ideas or culture. Just how local can we reasonably go? How much detail can we actually use in an intellectual map of the early United States without getting lost in coincidences and irrelevance?