College campuses can feel very empty during the summer, but every year, for three days in June, Central Michigan University is home to an unusual group of students: grandparents and their grandchildren attend Grandparents University. Run by the Alumni Association, at this event alumni and community members come to campus to sleep and eat in the dormitories and to take classes. Faculty, including members of the History Department, offer one time, 90-minute sessions geared towards children ages 8-12. This year, History offered two classes: “The Medieval World”, taught by myself, and “Unlikely Princesses,” taught by Dr. Brittany Fremion. Assisting in my class were two current undergraduate History majors, Elizabeth Fox and Alex Walburg.
This was my fourth time teaching this class for Grandparents University in the last six years, and I enjoyed it more than ever. I start off by giving a short lecture; I make sure to tell the participants that by simply attending a lecture at a university, they are doing something medieval, because universities as we know them originated in the Middle Ages. (The word “lecture” comes from the Latin verb “to read,” lectio.) I then provide them with an overview of the different types of people who lived during this time period and how they lived. This year, we took a few extra minutes to talk about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral and how the reaction to it demonstrates the power that medieval culture still exerts in our world today.
After about twenty minutes of lecture and discussion, we get to the fun stuff. When I first designed the course, with the help of some of the department’s excellent graduate students, I created five different activities for the participants to rotate through. This year, as you can see by the photos, the two favorites were cardboard castle building and coloring decorated capitals in the style of medieval illuminated manuscripts. We also try on costumes (handmade by graduate students six years ago), play “Medieval Market Bingo,” and fire missiles (little balls of clay) using a model trebuchet (a medieval weapon of war similar to a catapult) built by my son.
In Dr. Fremion’s class, inspired by Jason Porath's work Rejected Princesses (both blog and book), students are introduced to the field of women’s history—what it is (and is not) and why it matters. The session begins with a discussion about women’s historians like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and why “well-behaved women seldom make history,” then shifts into a conversation about the importance of curiosity and questions in driving historical inquiry. Women have been athletes, artists, activists, and astronauts; they have seemingly done it all, yet there is much we still have to learn about them. The participants then take part in an interview activity, wherein grandparents and grandkids alike ask questions of one another, with the hope that they might learn something new about their loved ones. With the information from their interviews, they then consider what they learned, why it might matter to their families, and apply this knowledge to the analysis of famous women’s lives, including Pocahontas and Maya Angelou. The class concludes with an activity driven by a discussion of female astronauts and the construction of space helmets made out of paper grocery bags (see photo).
In the end, though it takes some long-term planning and short-term preparation, I am always glad to have participated in Grandparents University. The grandparents and kids are enthusiastic, polite, and appreciative. And with enrollment in history classes at colleges and universities declining nationwide, it is more important than ever for faculty to engage with the public and help them to understand what historians do, the importance of the past, and how much fun it can be to learn about it. I am waiting for the day when a student in one of my classes comes up to me and says they remember me from when they were eight or ten years old and attended Grandparents University. It hasn’t happened yet, but I am hopeful.
Dr. Carrie Euler has been teaching in the History Department since the fall of 2006. She specializes in early modern European history but also teaches courses on historical methodology, medieval European history, and world history.