Historic sites can speak volumes if you know what to listen for. Professor Jim Whittenburg on how to get the most out of site visits.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Professor Jim Whittenburg teaches history in a whole new way, and his students love him for it. He’s gotten all kinds of awards for his novel approach from The College of William & Mary, where he teaches, all the way to the Princeton Review. Professor Whittenburg, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Jim Whittenburg: Thank you for having me.
Harmony: Well we’re an institution that’s interested in teaching history, and when I heard about you and your approach to history, I thought, “Well we’ve got to talk to this guy.” Tell me about how you started teaching history in a way that’s so different from the usual presentation in the classroom.
Jim: I was looking for something that could better explain the social history. It is certainly possible to get that from documents and other media as well – films, things of that sort – but I really believe that being where people lived and events took place helps students to understand what the people were like at the time, how they interacted, and what was going on in their minds when they acted.
Harmony: So that’s what you do. You take students to the places where these events took place and the places where these people lived?
Jim: Correct. I began doing it at Colonial Williamsburg the very first year I was at William & Mary, which was 35 years ago in a course called “Early American Social History.” I took them to just about every site that was available.
Harmony: Why is it important to you to teach this way, to go to the sites?
Jim: I found that there’s more than one reason. I find that the sites are evocative of the 17th or 18th or 19th century depending on what I’m doing that at that point in a way that you simply can’t approach in a classroom. There’s a degree of reality that comes across to the students in walking down the Duke of Gloucester Street that I don’t believe you can achieve simply by talking to them in a classroom or having them talk to you in any other way except actually being on the Duke of Gloucester Street. Then they begin to understand the things that they read.
All of my classes are built around deep reading and some of the very best literature, I think, on early America. But the printed page alone is inadequate to actually being on the Duke of Gloucester Street. To be able to touch, as you can in some places in Colonial Williamsburg, as well as to see and to hear; use all of the senses. I think that helps the students to understand what they’re reading about. It’s another sort of primary source and I think that’s become accepted within the history profession.
Harmony: Do you find that you get the same impact when you go to visit a site that might be in ruins?
Jim: As Rosewell is in Gloucester County, one of my favorite places to go, yes. Rosewell’s very imposing. It was the largest, grandest personal residence probably in British North America and it is mostly down, I’d say half down now, but the walking around it and understanding of your size as opposed to its size, what someone would have seen standing in front of the place, I think the students really began to understand what that means for the super-gentry as I call them, the truly, truly elite families of Virginia.
Harmony: Well of course one of the main things that appealed to me about your method of teaching history is that reminds me so much of Colonial Williamsburg’s mission to set up these buildings and recreate this physical space.
Harmony: And it seems like something that visitors who come to Colonial Williamsburg or visitors that go to any living history museum or historic site can do, that there is some special added virtue in seeing the actual place, standing in the actual footsteps.
One of the sites that you use in your class is a site that people can visit at Colonial Williamsburg, the Peyton Randolph House. What are some of the themes that you try to uncover and try to put your finger on when you visit that site?
Jim: The Peyton Randolph property is diverse in the things that it tells us. It is also something of a mystery to me. Why would Peyton Randolph choose to live in a wooden house that’s in fact two houses cobbled together? The earliest part of that property is one of the very oldest buildings in Williamsburg. It’s even oriented towards England Street rather than towards Duke of Gloucester Street, which marks it as having been built at a time when people, residents didn’t know how Williamsburg was going to develop.
When I’ve gone into the Peyton Randolph House, I’ve seldom gone in the front door. Almost always it’s been the side door. The front door for the 1715 part of the house, and you’re immediately ushered up very winding stairs and then ultimately you find your way to the center staircase, which is very grand. The contrast of this very early staircase that’s sort of shoved out of the way, with the grand staircase, where entries could be made by the family coming down to their guests, I think talks about social change, the way in which buildings can be used, were used.
Harmony: So we should remind folks who Peyton Randolph is. He’s extremely prominent, and would he qualify as one of your super-gentry?
Jim: Oh, absolutely.
Harmony: Peyton Randolph is the Speaker of the House of Burgesses. He comes from an old Virginia, in fact old England, family of a lot of power and a lot of wealth and a lot of standing. So when we look at his house, we can understand some of the mysteries as you’ve pointed out of how the super gentry present themselves to society, but also about what goes on behind the scenes in that household. He had a multitude of enslaved people working for him on that site?
Jim: Yes. I believe the top number is 27, and it’s the largest that were ever there, and yet only four lived in the house. The rest are in other buildings. They sleep in other buildings, particularly the kitchen that’s been reconstructed. So the interaction of black and white is available to visitors there, accessible to visitors there.
The added feature at the Randolph Property is that you have master and slave living on the same relatively small urban plantation. I like for students to think about this complex situation of interaction of black and white. What was the life of the enslaved people at the Randolph Property? To what degree did Peyton and Betty Randolph interact in the lives of their enslaved people and in what ways?
Harmony: Going to these sites really lets you hear the echoes of that history. One of the other things that’s very telling from the Peyton Randolph site that you talk about is the food that would have been available to the different classes of people. Who you are in the world defines what you get to eat.
Jim: Absolutely. I love the dining room at the Peyton Randolph House, especially when they have the calf’s head on the side. If nothing else, the students will get out of this that there’s a vast difference between taste in the 18th century and taste in the 20th century. And at the Randolph House, you not only see this displayed in the dining room. But who prepares it? Here again we have that intersection of black and white. Betty Randolph’s not even in the kitchen supervising. It’s the other Betty, the enslaved Betty, and the other enslaved people at the Peyton Randolph House that do all of the food preparation and all of the service as well.
Harmony: I love this method that you use of reading some background materials, doing some research and then visiting the site. I feel like it’s something that could be duplicated by anybody anywhere in the United States. If somebody wanted to take this approach to visiting a historic site in Virginia or in whatever state they live, how would you recommend that they go about doing it? Getting the most out of that kind of an exercise?
Jim: I think you need a purpose. You need to have an objective. When I was in grade school and we took a field trip it was, you know, get on the bus, drive to the place, get off the bus, see something, get back on the bus and go home again and it was never clear to me why we were at the courthouse in Rome, Georgia.
So I think the first thing is to decide what it is you’re trying to get over. What can the site tell us that’s important? Once you have established an objective, once that happens, things kind of fall into place naturally I think. So the real key is to decide, “What is the message that you want to get over to the students?” and, “How can the site help me get that message over?” And you’re right; I think you can do this anywhere.
Harmony: Jim, Thank you so much for sharing this with us today. It’s a simple but really ingenious method that I hope a lot of people will pick up on when they visit us here in Colonial Williamsburg or when they visit any historic site. Thank you so much.
Jim: My pleasure.