Student Work

It is the end of the semester and this week was all about grading–always a humbling process which exposes the strengths and weaknesses of both instructor and students.  Sometimes I wish I could just whip out a stack of Reward of Merit cards and fill in my students’ names!  These little ephemeral scraps illustrate the evolution of assessment in American classrooms:  from handwritten Sunday School tokens of moral behavior in the eighteenth century to nineteenth-century printed cards issued to encourage more secular standards of diligence, punctuality and “comportment” and ultimately to twentieth-century report cards.  Here is a sampling of reward of merit cards from the collections of the Library of Congress, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, dating from about 1830 through the 1880s.

A strikingly simple reward of merit card from the Rhode Island Historical Society via its delightful blog, A Lively Experiment:

This looks like a John Derian decoupage tray in the making! (Actually he’s already produced a reward of merit tray, available here).  While looking for some more examples in the online catalogue of the Winterthur Library’s Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, I came across the work of the New York Printer-Publisher Charles Magnus (1829-1900) and got quite distracted. Magnus came over from Germany around 1848 and soon flourished in New York City; his output included all forms of stationary and really beautiful birds’ eye views of North America’s major cities.  During the Civil War,  Magnus expressed his passionate pro-Union sentiments by issuing envelopes emblazoned with the seals of all the confederate states encircled by the Devil!  Well, as you can read, I’m going off on a tangent….here are two of Magnus’s rewards of merit:

While digitally digging around in the online archives of the Winterthur Library, I also found the image below, from a scrapbook of drawings, clippings, wallpaper scraps, and fabric swatches assembled by an anonymous young design student or interior decorator in the 1880s, maybe in Salem or the Salem area according to the stationers’ label:

I find this unbelievably charming–so much so that I’m gently forcing it into this post with only the Winterthur catalogue description that it is the work of a “young” decorator!  There’s something about (good) student work that is captivating; I think it is the recognition of potential combined with the lack of established, learned constraints.  Here we have the (giant!) bellows over the fireplace, a crazy-colorful rug, and somewhat strange scale and placement, all combined to create a really unique image.  The last stack of papers I have to correct are those from my research and writing seminar, our Department’s capstone course in which the students complete a serious research paper on whatever topic they choose.  You don’t have to imagine the diversity of topics; I’ve got papers here on Marblehead fishermen, New Bedford whalers, a mythical witch in central Massachusetts, the great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, the Viking occupation of England, the building of the US Capitol, advertising images of 1950s housewives, and several on the development of New England amusement parks (for some reason!) including Salem’s own Willows, all of which deserve much more substantive assessment than a cursory reward of merit.

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