Did you know that for the past 39 years, Kent State University in Ohio has run a class exploring the history of Colonial Williamsburg? Not just the history of the original 18th-century place, but also the history of the Foundation itself! The highlight of Professor Leslie Heaphy’s class revolves around the five-day trip each April to the colonial city.
2017 will mark the 40th year for the course! Since its inception, more than 1,200 students have participated in the class and made the yearly trek to Williamsburg. Many of the students and faculty have returned with us on multiple occasions (my colleague Mel holds the record for having gone about 36 times with the group!) As a result of being introduced to Williamsburg, countless students, staff, and faculty have gone back numerous times on their own as well.
When the course began, it was designed so non-history majors could be introduced to history through a hands-on experience. Now the course includes history majors and minors, and social studies education students. One goal remains constant: to give students the chance to see and feel original objects and places important to history. The course looks not only at history but also the way history is presented.
The class meets outside of school hours, on Saturdays, to prepare for the trip—with discussions and lectures on the early history of Virginia and how colonial Williamsburg started. Students read articles, write papers, and watch videos in preparation for the trip.
Early on a Wednesday morning, we set out, stopping at Mount Vernon before heading to Williamsburg. On the bus, we all watched “Story of a Patriot.” That film gave us a chance to talk a bit about what visitors first see if they start their experience at the Visitor Center.
After an evening at Shields Tavern for dinner Thursday night, we met our tour guides for a day in Williamsburg on Friday. As usual, we had two guides so we could split our group in two and go different places. We always tell our tour guides we want them to take us to their favorite places so we see and hear different stories. We want the students to be able to share what they learn and hopefully get excited about seeing other things. One of our tour guides this year, Andrew, was a student in our class a few years ago and has been working for Colonial Williamsburg the last couple of years. It was great for our students to see this kind of work as a possibility as many of them have an interest in public history! Over the years we have often had repeat tour guides and we meet many of the trades people and interpreters whom we have met before. They are always excited to see our students and like the questions they ask.
Our day in Williamsburg took our groups from the court house to Bruton Parish Church, from the Capitol to the Palace, from the Wren Building to the Peyton Randolph house, from the Wigmaker to the Apothecary, and so much more. Lunch and dinner conversations revolved around what each group saw and what they wanted to see during their free time that Saturday. One of the highlights seemed to be the Peyton Randolph home and all that they learned from the interpreters about family life and slave life.
After another group dinner and Gambols, Saturday saw the group split up to go to either Yorktown or Great Hopes Plantation. For many, the highlight of the trip was the visit to Great Hopes. Between Jason and the two interpreters, we learned so much about work, attitudes, and class issues. We also got some hand-on experience bringing water out of the well and helping to fill washtubs with water for the day. Then, our students were mustered into the militia and marched through town with the Fifes and Drums.
The rest of Saturday the students spent on their own, exploring whatever they wished. Each student had a journal to record his or her experiences. Since our goal for the class is to learn about the history of the time as well as how the history is presented, the journals are a great reflective tool for the students.
Before we left on Sunday to begin our journey home, we had a first for the class: Michael proposed to Amanda near the Courthouse and she accepted! They met in the 2015 class and Michael wanted to propose where they met. Some of his family and another former student from the class came down just to be a part of that special event. They are not the first marriage to result from people meeting in this class over the years, but they were the first proposal on the trip.
On our way home Sunday, we had two final stops to make. Our first was at Berkeley Plantation where we visited the house and the grounds. We include the plantation because it gives students a little glimpse into plantation life and also a historic site run by a family rather than a foundation, or a state organization. It is interesting to see the differences that makes in how the history is presented. Our final stop, as usual, was Monticello where we toured the house and grounds. Students are always amazed at the location and the home. All of Jefferson’s inventions, from the clock in the entry to the pocket doors and the dumbwaiter, generate a lot of interest.
After our return, we held one final class meeting to discuss what students learned. This year we had three graduate students in our group, each working on an individual project. Adam was working on research for a novel he is writing about a patient from the insane asylum. Jason wanted to get more experience leading a group and so he led our Saturday morning tour to Great Hope for the second year. Megan is interested in digital history and she gave us a final report on our social media project. We had been tweeting and posting to Instagram from Williamsburg, Monticello, and Mount Vernon while we were there and Megan was monitoring the amount and types of responses we got as a way to evaluate social media. We also had two undergraduate projects: Michael presented his video and work on the insane asylum and what happened to it and where it is today, and Paul took us all on a guided tour of Bassett Hall, arguing for us to include this as part of our class since it was so important to Rockefeller.
Plans are now underway for the 2017 class as we think about readings, assignments and new ways to continue to engage our students, both new and returning, in historical study.