Fresh Starts

I consider it a great piece of luck that Trey Popp, the Gazette’s senior editor, and Walter Licht, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History Emeritus, happened to run into each other in West Philadelphia back in the spring. Their encounter led to this issue’s cover feature, “(Re)Introduction to US History,” which is a kind of story we don’t do often enough, even though what it describes is central to what can make going to college such a memorable and transformative experience—a deep dive into what happens in a particular course. In this case, the course was History 011: “Deciphering America,” an entry level class in the department that was developed and is co-taught by Licht and Kathleen Brown, the David Boies Professor of History. Shortly before he and Trey met, Licht had led his final class in the course—and at Penn—before retiring, and he told Trey that teaching it had been “the most rewarding” experience of his long career. The class is designed to be the antithesis of the introductory survey lecture course that flourished a few decades ago—the article includes shoutouts to two notable practitioners of the genre at Penn, Alexander Riasanovsky and Richard Beeman—but that was rendered mostly redundant by the proliferation of AP history courses in high schools, as well as increasingly problematic as more thematic scholarly approaches and contested perspectives made it harder to sustain an overarching historical narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Drawing on a range of primary sources—from newspaper clippings to product ads to a finely made handsaw from Philadelphia’s industrial heyday and music videos from MTV’s—the class calls on students to interpret whatever they’re looking at without preconceptions and then see how their views change once the week’s prompt is put in context via lectures and readings. With any and every historical fact instantly available on the internet, the goal of an introductory course becomes less about imparting information and more about teaching students “how to think historically,” as Brown put it, and to be able to ask questions about “how the past is being reconstructed or used.” Besides hearing from the two professors, Trey also talked with some students in the class, who attested to its eye-opening impact. One called the experience of realizing how much information and how many perspectives could be discovered from studying a single artifact “mind-blowing.” Another approvingly compared the class’s methodology to being given...
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