Using an old newspaper to teach historical thinking

The last time I taught mass communication history, I largely avoided lecturing according to chronology, focusing instead on broader themes and problems. The course also attempted to join media history with local history in an effort to provide students with more practical research ideas. But I am inspired to do better.

The spark for this reconsideration is a course in teaching history that is part of a graduate certificate program through George Mason University. A set of readings, especially one by Lendol Calder1, has provided a guide to designing a course that emphasizes historical thinking over accumulation of historical facts. While the latter is important, learning how to do history requires giving students the tools and the opportunity to use them. Calder outlines a pedagogical approach involving a series of six “cognitive moves” — “questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, and recognizing limits to one’s knowledge”2 — that he wants history students to learn.

The Prescott Paraclete
The Prescott Paraclete, published in 1855, was the first newspaper in Pierce County, Wisconsin.

In adopting this approach, I want to design an introductory digital project for the mass communication history course that can help students understand historical thinking. The project will begin with a simple media artifact: an issue of The Prescott Paraclete, the first newspaper published in Pierce County, Wisconsin, which is where my university is located. The newspaper appeared for only a few months in 1855 at a time when the region still had sparse white settlement.

Anecdotal evidence tells me that undergraduate students today rarely engage with a physical newspaper and that they have limited knowledge of how such a publication is structured and of the professional norms guiding its creation. Using this as a starting point, I would want media history students to examine The Prescott Paraclete, looking first at the cosmetic differences between a newspaper from 1855 and a local newspaper from today. They should be able to easily spot differences in design elements such as headlines, body type, and illustrations or photographs. From this observation might come some questions: Why the difference? What technologies were available to the publisher of a mid-19th century newspaper?

Digging deeper, I would ask the students to read an issue of the Paraclete and to create an inventory of the content. Given what they know about news coverage today, I would then ask them to contemplate the difference in what they observe in 1855. This is a key media history question3 for students to consider, because what news is has changed over time — and continues to evolve.

Other questions also come to mind, such as the development of professional journalistic standards, the relationship between press and power in a community, and the economics of media, but I have to remember to keep an introductory project simple.

1. Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History 92:4 (March 2006), 1358-1370.

2. Calder, p. 1364.

3. See, for example, Michael Schudson, Discovering The News: A Social History Of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), and Gerald J. Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).