Introducing the Archive of Childhood

Classic nasty "Ren and Stimpy." Panicked yet?

At last! The site I’ve been working on with my American Studies seminar (Popular Culture and American Childhood) is now live. The Archive of Childhood was born from the idea, dear to childhood studies scholars and historians of childhood, that the history of childhood should strive to feature more voices of children. Often in the archives these voices are an absent presence, and there’s nothing that can be done to recover them (damn you, estate of AC Gilbert, for failing to save the sheaf of letters from young Erector Set fans to the company!); this project was intended as a way for students to contribute their own experiences with popular culture to a web “archive” while these experiences are still relatively fresh in their minds, while simultaneously practicing the skills of analyzing a primary source and writing for a public beyond their instructor.

Students will contribute three entries to the archive over the course of the semester—one for each of the class’ themed units. During the first unit, Moral Panics, we talked about times during the twentieth century that parents and adults have reacted negatively to kids’ interactions with culture; I asked students to remember an encounter with pop culture that worried their parents, and to look at the cultural object again and talk about its meaning. Students contributed “objects” ranging from television shows (“Beavis & Butt-head,” “Jersey Shore,” “Sex and the City”) to musicians (Britney Spears, Eminem) to books (the RL Stine “Goosebumps” series, Harry Potter). The entries revealed the complex relationships that students have with their childhood culture. One student excavated the meaning of “gross” in children’s culture, and pointed to the independence she felt when her parents were disgusted by “Ren and Stimpy”; a student who is the daughter of a pastor returned to Harry Potter and tried to understand her mother’s objections to the series; a student remembered how the male members of her family were allowed to watch and enjoy “The Simpsons,” while her mother prohibited her from doing so, and speculated about that difference.

This project has been a huge learning experience for me, as an instructor of writing; the entries have provided great entry points for discussions about use of primary and secondary sources, textual analysis, embedding quotations and responding to them, and doing research in the library and the library databases. The next two units deal with gender and with the geography of childhood (both physical and virtual); I’ll be posting new entries next week and during the first week of December. You can follow along via this blog, or my Twitter feed, where I’ll be publicizing each new batch as I post it.