The Anthropology of American History


Anthropology/History 338                                                                                                 Washington and Lee University

Dr. Alison Bell                                                                                                                                                          Fall 2005



Instructor Contact Information



Course Description

This course explores issues within historic American communities that ethnographers often investigate among living groups, including cultural values, religious ideologies, class structures, kinship networks, gender roles, and inter-ethnic relations. Although the communities of interest in this course ceased to exist generations ago, many of their characteristic dynamics are accessible through analyses of historic buildings, landscapes, material culture, documents, and oral history accounts. Students will become familiar with sources and methods of anthropological inquiry into historic communities both by reading case studies and by undertaking a series of projects with primary local sources.


Course Texts

Recommended for purchase at the Frontier Culture Museum:



Course Expectations



In this course students will learn how to investigate the recent past using anthropological perspectives by reading case studies and by undertaking similar (but small-scale) projects in and around Rockbridge County, Virginia. Each project involves first-hand experience with some aspect of local historic communities and requires a short paper (minimum of 5-page double-spaced) that summarizes the student’s findings. Along with their papers, students should submit any materials pertinent to their research including sketches of buildings and transcripts of oral history interviews.


Project One: Focus on the Built Environment

For this project, students will visit the Museum of American Frontier Culture in Staunton and will write a paper addressing several issues about domestic architecture discussed in class as well as in assigned books Vernacular Architecture and The Times of Their Lives. These issues include room names and uses; the relationships between houses and their natural environments; how houses reflect and influence social relations; and critical perspectives on museum presentations of American history. Due October 6.


Project Two: Focus on Written Sources

This project is inspired by A Midwife’s Tale and explores issues of social networks and individual life histories. Each student will receive the name of a person who lived and died in Lexington or Rockbridge County during the 19th century. Students will investigate these individuals through sources including wills, probate inventories, census returns, deeds, and gravestones. Students will post their findings on the course website so that everyone in the class can review the information to address topics such as social structure and gender roles prevalent in this community during this period. Due November 10.


Project Three: Focus on Oral History

Students will become familiar with methods and results of oral history projects through class discussions and reading excerpts of Talk about Trouble. Then they will interview individuals from a variety of backgrounds. Students will work in pairs to develop a set of questions, conduct an interview, and transcribe the conversation. Each student should independently write a short paper reflecting on the findings from the interview. Papers will be returned to the students. Transcripts will, with the permission of interviewees, be put on permanent file in the Department of Special Collections, Leyburn Library at Washington and Lee University. Due December 16.



Reading Reviews


Students need to read the assigned texts in order to design and execute their projects successfully. Reading reviews provide additional venues in which students demonstrate their understandings of and express their thoughts about assigned books. In their reviews (recommended length 5-7 pages, double-spaced) students should provide short summaries of the assigned material and critical analysis of it. Students are encouraged to model their reviews on book reviews published in current academic journals, several examples of which the instructor will supply.


Review One covers The Times of Their Lives and Vernacular Architecture; due October 20

Review Two covers A Midwife’s Tale and Talk about Trouble; due December 8


Final Grades

The breakdown of final grades for the course is as follows:

            Project One:     20%                 Review One:     20%

            Project Two:    20%                 Review Two:    20%

            Project Three:   20%                




Deadlines: As a measure of fairness to students who submit papers on time, late papers will be penalized. This policy does not apply to students whose medical, family, or other unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances prevent their timely submission of papers. Students in such situations should contact the instructor as early as feasible.

Drafts: I encourage students to submit rough drafts of reviews and projects up to 72 hours before the assignment is due.

Revisions: Students may revise graded papers within one week of receiving them from me. The grade on a revised papers will be averaged with the original paper grade.

Class Participation: I encourage but do not grade class participation.


Course Outline


Sept. 8                         Introduction to course


Sept. 13 – 15               Deetz and Deetz Chapters 1, 3, and 4


Sept. 20 – 22               Deetz and Deetz Chapter 5

                                    Glassie pp. 17-51        


Sept. 27 – 29               Glassie pp. 51-96


Oct. 4 – 6                    Glassie pp. 96-159

                                    Project One due October 6


Oct. 11                        Ulrich Introduction and Chapter 1


Oct. 13                         Reading Holiday


Oct. 18 – 20                Ulrich Chapters 2, 3 and 4

                                    Reading Review One due October 20


Oct. 25 – 27                Ulrich Chapters 5, 6, and 7


Nov. 1 – 3                   Ulrich Chapters 8, 9, and 10                


Nov. 8 – 10                 Martin-Perdue and Perdue Chapters 1 and 4

                                    Project Two due November 10


Nov. 15 – 17               Elrod University Commons Oral History Web Page


                                    Handout: anth/hist 338 oral history transcripts 2002-2003

                                    Handout: Telling Our Stories oral history transcripts 2004-2005


Nov. 22 – 24               Thanksgiving Break


Nov. 29 – Dec. 1         Martin-Perdue and Perdue Chapter 5 and another chapter of your choice


Dec. 6 – 8                    Presentations and discussion of oral history projects

                                    Reading Review Two due December 8


                                    Project Three due by December 16

                                    (early submissions very welcome)