Designing a Course About a Point on the Map: Thinking Locally as a Way to Think Globally

Nancy Creek

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about buying a five gallon Kline and Brown Churn at an auction in North Georgia. Upon doing some research I found that the churn, made in the mid-1880s, was turned at a shop very close where we live and that the clay was very likely dug out of Nancy Creek even closer to our home. To understand the milieu in which this churn was made, one must subtract I-75, which dissects the space between where the churn was made and where the clay was dug (and where we live), and one must imagine away acres and acres of parking lots, buildings, and restaurants. This is a difficult task—in order to discover the truth of the past we have to see through the layers of change that separate us from it.

We can glimpse the difficulty of our task in perceiving the more distant past when we think about the places we call “landmarks”…the OK Café, Goldberg’s Deli, Tommy’s Barber Shop, and even the Chik-fil-a (apparently the busiest one in the state). To be clear, I am a fan—a big one—of each of these places (I get a great no. 1 haircut at Tommy’s and perhaps the best grits in town at OK), but to call them landmarks is intriguing language, as it points to our relatively short cultural and historical memory.

Our students need a longer view, a more nuanced and a more detailed one. How do we give it to them?

I would love to take or to teach a course that uses this exact area as its subject. By looking at a very small area, the relatively small area around this intersection and the nearby stretches of Nancy Creek, we would develop a perspective that undoubtedly would inform our way of seeing the larger world around us.

Some topics for the course:

  • The geology of the area and the development of Nancy Creek.
  • Native American presence.
  • Pre-Civil War history.
  • Reconstruction to World War I.
  • The Period between the World Wars, including the years of World War II.
  • Post World War II.
  • Current History, which would for example include a study of the pollution and sustainability issues related to the Nancy Creek water shed.

To do this well, the course would require:

  • Working outside the confines of any single academic department.
  • Seeking the expertise of people outside our school community.
  • Careful research in libraries and archives, as well as the collection of oral histories.
  • Extended time. It would be challenging and likely impossible to do this well in the confines of traditional fifty minute a day classes.

As our school embraces “Learning For Life: A Vision for Westminster” and looks toward an ambitious strategic plan, we open the door to conversations about how we might design and support such courses.

[I have not yet read The History of the World Through 100 Objects, but it is at the top of my list. Another way to build a course that would challenge students to see the world through a different lens would be to teach a full history of the Kline and Brown churn itself. In my next post I will describe what that course might look like.]

8 thoughts on “Designing a Course About a Point on the Map: Thinking Locally as a Way to Think Globally

  1. John Burk January 15, 2012 / 2:14 pm

    These are great ideas. Before the History of the World in 100 in objects became a book, it was a fantastic website and series of podcasts which are simply riveting, and each podcast is only five minutes long. I think I listened to 1-20 almost non-stop on a day of yardwork. It made me think of all the objects that could be found our our campus, from the wind harp, to the portraits in Pressly, to many objects that could probably be unearthed along the stream bed, and how students could produce a rich guide to our campus that could help us to understand our own community better and share this understanding with the world.

    At a previous school, the history department taught a very successful class on material culture, where teacher in the department spent 6 weeks teaching students about some aspect of material history. If I recall correctly, students studied the history of spices, gold, chairs, rice, and children’s toys, among others. They also had to select their own object that they whose history they would research and report on. This was one of the most popular sophomore courses in the school, and it got students to start to see the history in everyday objects around them. Later, one student from that class went on to notice that in the hallway honoring students from the school who served in WWII, there was a portrait of a German student, dressed in the military uniform of the Wehrmacht. That led to that student taking on an independent to write a biography of this German exchange student, a project that became so rich and engaging that it was carried on by other history students in later years.

    • J Ross Peters January 15, 2012 / 2:17 pm

      Thank you for once again furthering my thinking here, John. I love the idea that such work can lead to a legacy of engagement like occurred at your previous school.

      • J Ross Peters January 15, 2012 / 10:48 pm

        I absolutely agree. After three visits to The British Museum, I want to go back as often as possible.

  2. adchempages (@adchempages) January 15, 2012 / 7:55 pm

    In relation to your second paragraph, I think this is a reflection of a couple of things; firstly the relative youth of America (in the the way that Europeans find it hilarious that establishments in the USA often triumphantly declare things like, ‘since 1971’); secondly that American culture is one that looks forward more (and back less), than perhaps any other in the whole world. In that regard, ‘American history’ is a strange beast.

  3. jmallan January 15, 2012 / 11:28 pm

    My family has lived on the ridge between Nancy Creek and the Chattahoochee River for 65 years. If Ridgewood Rd. were not in front of our house, I think that a glass of water poured out the back door would go to Nancy Creek and a glass of water poured out the front door would go to the Chattahoochee. We have a lot of history in this area and my dad even had a lawyer do a title search “back to the Indians” for our property. Of course I can’t find it now, but I know the firm that did the work and I should get in touch to see if they still have it. I love, love love your idea!!! Anything I can do to help would be great fun. In all my spare time that is : )

    • J Ross Peters January 15, 2012 / 11:42 pm

      This is great…think of all the people we would get to meet through a course like this. I would love to see that title search!

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