HST 296E
Seminar in the History of Rural Life in the United States

Professor Dona Brown
204 Wheeler
Office hours:  Tuesday 1:00-4:00, and by appointment
 (E-mail communication is welcome, but remember that I will probably not be in my office 24 hours a day!)

Course Description

This seminar explores the history of rural life—which was for most of American history the experience of the vast majority of men and women.  We begin the course with historical readings organized around a series of questions about the history of rural life.  When, if ever, was there a “traditional” way of life in the countryside?  When, if ever, were those ways completely outpaced by the demands of industrial capitalism? What was the impact of American agricultural practice on the environment that sustained farmers?  How was work organized within the farm household? How have Americans imagined the farm and rural life over time?

Most important, however, this course is a research seminar, designed to offer you the opportunity to conduct your own research project in a group setting.  It is really a “how-to” class—a series of workshops in the analytical, research, and writing skills you will need to complete a work of original scholarship. Although you will not be required to turn in a final version of your essay until the end of the semester, it is very important to begin thinking about it early in the semester.  I will ask you to turn in a detailed proposal for the project in the week of March 10, and I will meet with you individually to help you shape your project.  Near the end of the semester, you will present a “smooth draft” of the paper—as good as you can make it—to the class.  You will then have one more opportunity for a final revision.

Obviously, the most important factor in your grade for the class will be your final paper. It will make up roughly 60% of your grade.  But you will have other significant obligations to the class.  Roughly 40% of your grade will be based on class presentations and on the help you provide to classmates with their projects. There will be a formal structure that will allow you to offer readers’ responses to your classmates.  Of course, our weekly sessions are vitally important.  Unless you are the victim of a sudden and serious crisis, I will ask you to attend class regularly and to commit yourself to the due dates listed below.  Your grade will suffer from frequent absences or if you turn in assignments late.  The date for class discussion of your paper, especially, is written in stone, once you have committed to it.


These books will be available to buy (and also in the library)—

These readings will be available at the library and also circulated from Wheeler House—

Options for Student Discussions (all books available on 72-hour reserve)

Each student will choose one book to report on for the semester, at the time specified below.  The team (usually 3 students) will describe the argument of the book and its evidence, and place the book in the context of readings done by everyone in class.  Your task, in short, is to report on your book in such a way that it will be as if your classmates have read the book, too.

Class Schedule

Week 1 (Jan. 20): Introductions

Week 2 (Jan. 27): Magic and the Marketplace

Henretta, "Families and Farms: Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America"
Chapter 5 from Merchant, Ecological Revolutions
Chapter 2 from Gilmore, Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life

Week 3 (Feb. 3): Northern Farms

Student Discussion #1 on The Great Meadow

We will spend the second half of this class in Special Collections, where we will explore 18th and 19th-century farm materials and you will identify materials for next week.

Week 4 (Feb. 10): The Farmer's Age

Assignment #1: Letters and Diaries
The library holds a wide assortment of published and unpublished diaries and letters from farm families.  Identify some that you find interesting and browse through the entries.  Write a short (500 word) description of one document or set of documents. If you were to use this document as a basis for a project, what “big issues” might it help to illuminate?

Week 5 (Feb. 17): Abandoning the Farm?

Barron, Those Who Stayed Behind, Chapters 2-Conclusion
Student Discussion #2 on Larding the Lean Earth

Week 6 (Feb. 24): Modernizing the Farm?

McMurry, Families and Farmhouses
Student Discussion #3 on Transforming Rural Life

Week 7 (Mar. 3): Writing about the Farm  

Individual meetings this week!—please sign up

Assignment #2:  Magazines and government publications.  Identify a published source from the late 19th or early 20th century (state or national government publication, farm magazine…).  What does it tell us about the plans of the “experts” to change farm practices, rural life, or farm family experiences?  Write a short (500 word) description of what you have found.

Week 8 (Mar. 10): Proposals for papers due (see attached description)

Week 9 (Mar. 17): Industrializing the Farm

Student Discussion #4 on Danbom, The Resisted Revolution
Student Discussion #5 on Jellison, Entitled to Power

—Spring Break—

Week 10 (Mar. 31): Returns to the Farm

Brown, “That Dream of Home” in Inventing New England
Merrick, Green Mountain Farm

Week 11 (Apr. 7): New Dreams of Farms

Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life

Week 12 (Apr. 14): New Dreams of Farms

No class—individual meetings to work on projects—Group 1 drafts due

Week 13 (Apr. 21): Group 1 class presentations; group 2 drafts due

Week 14 (Apr. 28): Group 2 class presentations

Guide to Writing Paper Proposals

A proposal is more than an idea.  It is more than one word or one phrase—“dairy farms,” or “the decline of dairy farms.”  In order to write an effective proposal, you must already have consulted a wide variety of sources.  You must have a good idea of what sorts of materials area available, and what it is possible to find out from them.

Step 1:
For example, perhaps you are interested in finding out about farming during the Depression.  You would need to know something about the Depression and rural life in the 1930s in general, and you would also need to know something about the primary sources available to you. Are there any diaries or letters from the 1930s in Special Collections?  Are any of them interesting? Would you look at farm magazines from the 1930s? Government documents?  If not, you will need to search in a different way, so you should be aware of that as soon as possible.

Step 2:
When you have investigated your general topic in secondary sources and located some promising primary sources, you are ready to refine your question.  Perhaps you have decided on a more specific question:  did the Great Depression change the way people farmed in northern New England?  Now you are ready to find more specific sources (histories of northern New England, town histories, local histories).  And now you can begin to look more closely at the primary sources you intend to use.  Make sure they can tell you what you want to know!

Step 3:
Now you can make a proposal.

Think of your proposal as a contract that describes what you intend to do and how you intend to do it.  Of course you may have to change course later, but the more closely you can stick to your plan the better off you will be.

Formulate a hypothesis, or a basic question:  “Did the Great Depression force people to modernize their practices, or did it force them to return to older methods of farming?”

Sketch your plan for research:  

“There are three good studies of rural life in northern New England: they are --, --, and --.  I will use these as background and to compare with my own research.  There are 5 interesting diaries from farm families in the Great Depression.  ( 2 of these are from --, 1 is an older woman, …)   I will use those to draw up a composite picture.  There are also 3 published memoirs of growing up on farms in the Depression.  I will use those, too, but they will be a little different because people remember their childhoods very differently.

If you act on this proposal and later find out that you are more interested in the diaries, for example, you can alter your emphasis, but you will not have wasted your time gathering irrelevant background information (or not gathering any!).

Finally, you write a title for your proposal:  “The Impact of the Great Depression on Three Northern Farm Families.”

Step 4:  
You append to your proposal a bibliography, listing the sources you intend to consult, along with the most important related books, articles, etc.  The bibliography is not a random list of stuff you find in the catalog, but materials that you have checked out and have found important.  It includes primary sources and secondary sources.  I will give you instructions about proper format.

Sample Topics

1. Using a diary, journal, or letters of a farmer or farm family, analyze the economic life of a farm over time.  To what extent does it fit historians’ notions of “self-sufficiency” or “market-oriented” behavior?  Does it follow the general trends of farms for its time and place?  How does that work for this family?

2. Using published “back-to-the-land” accounts, analyze the motives and experiences of urban people who “returned” to the farm in the 1930s, 1940s, 1970s….

3. Explore the rise or fall of a specific sort of farming.  Using census materials and other government documents, tell the story of the rise and fall of sheep farming in Franklin County or vegetable farming in New Jersey.  (This project adapts well to non-local sources.)

4. Look at the representation of rural life in museums (Shelburne Museum, Ethan Allen Homestead, Rokeby…).  What do museums teach people about farming and rural life? How do they represent rural people and rural ways?  

5. Using a diary or letters, see if you can reconstruct the gender and age-related distribution of work on a specific farm.  Who did what work, and where?  Does your sample reflect historians’ notions of how such things worked?

6. Using diaries in combination with local newspapers and other materials, try to reconstruct the social lives of rural people at a given time and place.  What sorts of entertainments did they enjoy?  What social contacts did they have?  How often did they travel?

7. Explore the curriculum of a typical land grant college—perhaps at the University of Vermont.  What were the experts teaching young rural people at the turn of the 20th century?

8. Using a variety of published materials, test the “decline” thesis for a rural community.

9.  Using a variety of materials, look at the effects of one or more rural ‘reform’ efforts in the first half of the twentieth century: consolidated schools, for example.

10.  Decribe the history and evolution of an Old Home Day or Week celebration in a town: what has its effect been?

11.  Do a study of a particular rurally-oriented magazine.  What sorts of articles are published in it?  Does its content change over time?  Can you determine who subscribed to it?

<><>Posted by hope.greenberg@uvm.edu, 25-Jan-2005
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