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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Historian Amy Richter and student Rebecca Dezan investigated some of the transformations affecting women, youth and urban areas in the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

Meet the researchers: On the cutting edge

Interview with Professor Amy Richter and Rebecca Dezan
Historian Amy Richter and her student, history major Rebecca Dezan '06, share an interest in the many transformations that were taking place in American society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Richter helps her students explore some of those changes in her research seminar Gender and the City in the United States. For that course, Dezan's interest in education and youth led her to research the playground movement in the early 20th century. She plans to expand her project into a history honors thesis during her senior year. This summer, Dezan, a member of Clark's varsity soccer team, will be traveling to Guatemala to coordinate youth soccer programs, courtesy of an Anton Fellowship.

In a recent interview, summarized below, Richter and Dezan discussed their research. You can read more about Dezan's Anton Fellowship project here.

Amy, what drew you to the study of history, and then to research related to gender roles in the 19th century?

I initially had no expectation of pursuing either subject. In college I studied urban planning. Eventually, though, I tired of listening to fellow students explaining how earlier urban planners had gotten it wrong, with the assumption being that we were on the brink of getting it right, This attitude seemed disrespectful to me in some fundamental way. Urban problems have histories, and the way to understand the problems is to understand their histories. So I started changing the focus of my undergraduate studies to be more historical.

In graduate school I worked with an urban historian who was also an intellectual historian, and for an urban history seminar I had to write a paper on a topic of my choice. I had been taking the train a lot during my college years, and had thought about the way trains constitute a remarkable public and urban space. I thought about what the first train travel must have been like, and speculated that it must have been a transformative experience for many people, but especially for women. And out of that developed an idea for my paper. In the course of my research I found out that the subject was more complicated than I had imagined. I expanded on this topic for my Ph.D. dissertation and I have just published Home on the Rails: Women, the Railroad, and the Rise of Public Domesticity.

What direction is your research taking now that your book has been completed?

For me the 1890s is a fascinating decade, in part because all sorts of interesting things regarding gender roles and relations were taking place during that time. I'm thinking about looking at the impact of foreign policy on gender and domestic culture-domestic in the sense of internal to the U.S. For example, I've been collecting cartoons, articles, and images from the 1890s regarding wealthy American women who married impoverished European noblemen. One cartoon shows women's heads piled up like cabbages with dollar signs indicating their worth. Underneath, it comments that "the United States has produced a great crop this year." There was clearly a concern about these women taking U.S. money overseas. Henry James wrote about this phenomenon a lot, notably in his novel The Buccaneers. It also touches on what happens when the U.S. takes on a bigger role internationally. I have other tidbits that reflect a concern with similar issues.

Can you describe how you structure your research seminar and what its goals are?

The goal is to get students to do their own research, to play with primary sources, to come up with arguments, and to create new types of historical knowledge. The topic for the seminar is gender and the American city. We spend the first part of the course reading books about the topic to gain some common background, to get a sense of what the questions in the field are, and to look at different models of how this research is done. What kind of evidence is appropriate and how is an argument constructed?

I also ask each student to choose a research topic and help him or her design a research question. Along the way each student compiles a primary and secondary source bibliography around the chosen subject. We also have a library day in preparation for which I notify the reference librarians about students' topics in advance. The librarians do a great job showing students where to look for source materials, and even do a bit of looking for them to get them excited.

At some point we stop reading and focus entirely on the students' papers. There are outlines and drafts to be completed. The class ends with presentations of the students' research.

What were some of the topics students researched?

Topics included the place of technology in department stores and how that had a gendered impact; midwifery; women and grassroots organizing, and gender roles in WWII. One student looked at the impact of the Committee of 50, an organization that was prominent in the anti-saloon movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and was able to use Brewer's Association yearbooks in the Clark library. Rebecca wrote about the beginnings of the playground movement in the United States.

Rebecca, how did you come to choose that topic?

This past fall semester I took Professor Richter's course on the history of American women. I needed to take a seminar for my history major, and her seminar in Gender and the American City looked pretty interesting.

I'm interested in youth and urban issues, and the playground movement of the early 20th century fit all of my interests. So far I've been examining gendered ideals of playground reformers and how they directed some types of play at boys and others at girls, based on assumptions of what each gender needed. I plan to do a senior honors thesis next year, and for that I'll expand on my current work by looking at particular neighborhoods where the playground movement was important.

What was the impetus for the playground movement?

The playground movement originally started in Boston and was influenced by ideas coming out of Germany. During the 1890s it caught on rapidly in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and New York. Scientific reformers like Joseph Lee and Henry Curtis and social reformers like Jane Addams promoted the importance of play in a structured setting.

These reformers didn't like the way that urban immigrant and working-class children were playing around the home. They didn't think that immigrant parents were teaching their children the moral values appropriate for future Americans. Middle class children, although they utilized the playgrounds perhaps as much, were not the targets of reformers.

Where were playgrounds located in urban areas?

In green spaces, if they were available, or in spaces between tenements. The reformers also encouraged the use of school spaces during vacation periods. Playgrounds developed around the same time that cities were advocating for open spaces, and the creation of parks. There was also a beautification movement directed at urban areas around this time.

Worcester was a city of national importance at the turn of the 20th century. Have you found evidence of the play movement in Worcester as well?

Yes! Once I started looking for information, I discovered that people associated with Clark had been at the hub of early social reform and research on child development and psychology. I found a lot of relevant sources in our library, some of which, like that by Joseph Lee, had been dedicated to Clark President G. Stanley Hall. Henry Curtis, who completed his Ph.D. at Clark, wrote a book about the significance of the play movement and another about teaching teachers why they should use play in the classroom. Clarence Perry wrote a little guide to community center activities, describing categories of play activities and what community centers should be teaching boys and girls. One of these books contains photographs of play spaces and activities in Worcester.

Can you comment on the difference between learning by doing research and learning in a more traditional classroom setting?

The hands on part--actually going and finding the materials you need to work with--is so much better in my opinion than sitting in a big lecture hall. Even when we went back to class, we spent a good portion of our time just talking about our research and sharing it with each other. And, on top of Professor Richter really caring about what you were researching and giving great suggestions, your classmates knew what you were doing too. I felt like my classmates cared about what I was doing. Sometimes I'd be searching for information, and something would pop up related to one of my classmate's topics. I'd print it out and pass it on. We were all invested in each other's work as well as our own.

I love my research. I feel like I'm doing something that I know really well, that I've invested a lot of time in, so in that sense it means something to me. I never thought I'd write a history honors thesis, but I'm excited to.


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Amy Richter and Rebecca Dezan
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