The News Media and the Making of America, 1730–1800: National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for K-12 Educators. July 26-31, 2021

Full Description

Today mass media and social media infuse every aspect of our lives. New digital technologies have disrupted traditional forms of print, radio, and television and have transformed how we communicate with one another and how we participate in the economy, community, and civic life. One genre of media content vital to public life and civic participation is news, and news has been transformed as well. How people use media technology, not the technology itself, is the key. Use is shaped by technology, of course, but use is shaped even more by the contexts of culture: beliefs and ideas, institutions and rituals, business, politics, and policy.

This Institute is both a colloquium and a collections-based virtual workshop that will explore how media was used during the Age of the American Revolution, a critical era of change in the American news milieu, in media use, in business, politics, and community life. We will examine how news—in all its various forms—was connected to civic engagement and how media fit into the public and private lives of the American people.

The Institute will be informed by these guiding questions: What counted as news in early America? How was news gathered, distributed, shared, and consumed? What impact did the distribution of news have on political discussions and events? How was the business of media changing? What impact did law and government policy have? What roles did news and public information play in the lives of ordinary Americans from different economic, geographic, and racial backgrounds? How might the experience of history shed light on our experience with news and news media today? How might our experience with media today shed light on our understanding of history?

The academic fields that inform the Institute include the history of the American Revolution, of course, but also the history of journalism and the history of readers and reading. Traditionally, historians of journalism have focused on media institutions (newspapers, magazines, radio, and television) and on communications technology (printing, telegraph, broadcasting, etc.). Technology is important, of course. But some journalism historians have begun to look beyond media institutions and technologies, turning their attention to news as a cultural form. We will bring some of this more recent scholarship in journalism history into the Institute. Another important academic field for this Institute is the history of readers and reading. Reading has a history, in the sense that people’s reading has been different in different times and places. Cultural historians now argue that we cannot know what a printed “text” means without knowing what it meant to the people who read it and who drew it into their lives at a particular historical moment. For many years, the American Antiquarian Society has been a leading advocate of the idea that its incomparable collections of printed materials can be understood only when placed into the historical contexts of use.

Sessions will include faculty presentations, virtual collections-based workshops with original materials from the AAS library collections, and live discussions based around activities completed asynchronously. The presentations by scholars will be conducted seminar style, with some introduction of historical content mixed with class discussion. In the library workshops, participants will have the opportunity to closely examine historic documents, graphics, and manuscripts in structured activities that promote intellectual inquiry and analysis. Time will be allotted for participants to engage directly with faculty and to discuss which items and activities they found most interesting and to share ideas for translating the activities into their own teaching. These opportunities for reflection and discussion will be integral to the seminars and workshops that are part of this Institute.

The Institute will be organized into four thematic units:

(1) The Colonial Media Milieu, which will focus on the multiplicity of news sources in early America and explore what people thought was news, what sources they used to gather and authenticate news, and what role news seems to have played in their understanding of public life in their community.

(2) The Long Revolution, which will explore the forty-year period from 1760 to 1800 to examine how people living in rural Massachusetts interacted with the urban media in Boston; how the news of the violence at Lexington and Concord was portrayed in the newspapers and broadsides; and the relationships between printers and how personal, family, and business networks impacted what information they printed.

(3) The Republican Experiment, which will cover the decade or so between the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789 and Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800 by focusing on the concept of “republicanism.” The creation of the new federal union in 1887–89 in no way ended the controversies over how that union should be organized, and much of the news of those years had to do with conflict over the meaning of liberty, self-rule, federalism, and the proper structures of a government in a large and diverse republic such as the United States.

(4) The Revolution in Memory, which will act as a coda to our end date of 1800, tracing into the nineteenth century the public memory of the Revolution and the political uses of the Revolution’s events, language, and symbolism. An endless parade of bestselling biographies of the Founding Fathers and even a hit musical about Alexander Hamilton all attest to the long and significant afterlife of the Revolution.

The colonial period and the era of the American Revolution are part of every K-12 curriculum, and this Institute will provide participants with a unique and relevant way to approach that material. With many states increasing their emphasis on civics and media literacy, studying the founding of the country through the lens of news media will help teachers help their students to see their own media lives in historical perspective.

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