Thursday, October 1, 2009


Tutor Hopkins: Today, we will practice using material objects as historical sources. When you are approaching an object, the first thing you should do is take some time to look at it carefully. Try to rid your mind of preconceptions and just make concrete observations about the object. Anything goes — just tell everyone what you see.

Undergrad #1: It's made of stone.

Tutor Hopkins: Ok, good. Does anyone know what kind of stone?

Undergrad #2: Slate?

Tutor Hopkins: You're right — it's a nice, fine-grained slate. What else?

Undergrad #3: There's a skull with wings.

Undergrad #4: And some Latin on the top.

Tutor Hopkins: Great. We're looking at the material, the iconography, and the language. Who here speaks Latin and can translate for us?

Undergrad #5: Remember Death? Time is fleeting?

Tutor Hopkins: Yep. Time flies. What else do you see?

Undergrad #6: There's an ornate floral design on the bottom.

Undergrad #7: And the top is bumpy.

Tutor Hopkins: Is this the same design aesthetic as the Georgian buildings Prof. X showed you?

Undergrad #8: No — it's sort of symmetrical, but not really geometric like the buildings.

Tutor Hopkins: Keep looking. Anything else jumping out at you?

— silence —

Tutor Hopkins: Anything surprising or unexpected?

— silence —

Tutor Hopkins: Anybody?

Undergrad #1: It's kind of . . . small.

Tutor Hopkins: I suppose. I'm a little surprised that no one has noticed the GIANT BREASTS on the borders. There are eight of them.

Undergrads #2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8: Oh! I saw those, but I didn't think they could really be . . . you know.

Tutor Hopkins: Were you expecting to see GIANT BREASTS on a gravestone from 1710?

Undergrads: No. (nervous giggling)

Tutor Hopkins: The first lesson of using objects as sources: make concrete observations without hampering yourself with expectations. You may find some strange and unexpected things.

(Very attentive undergrads go on to spend a lovely hour noticing things in the graveyard.)


Robert J. said...

Anyone notice the hourglass?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Yes. I shortened this conversation so it wouldn't go on and on. They noticed everything — every word and detail — and I still couldn't get them to say breasts.

I was lucky enough to do this presentation twice in a row, and had the exact same conversation with both groups.

Robert J. said...

You might almost say they were Puritanical.

Also: A classic lesson in object-teaching from a fellow buried at Mount Auburn.

Buffy's Blog said...
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Buffy's Blog said...

I wonder if this could say anything about the woman's death? It seems rather odd on a gravestone. Than again all the really old gravestones only date to pre Civil War down here.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Breasts are a common motif on 17th- and 18th-century gravestones in New England (for men and women) and common imagery for Puritan poetry and sermons. In the poems and sermons, they usually refer to the spiritual nourishment of the gospels.

You can read more about breast imagery on gravestones here and here.