November 9, 2009

JHU Course Catalog: Puritan Maidens to Pop Culture Tweens: The History of Youth in America

The Dean’s Teaching Fellowship course taught by PhD candidate Katherine Jorgensen Gray traces the evolution of American adolescence over the past 300 years. Photo: Will Kirk,

The Dean’s Teaching Fellowship course taught by PhD candidate Katherine Jorgensen Gray traces the evolution of American adolescence over the past 300 years. Photo: Will Kirk,

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series in which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout the university’s nine academic divisions. Suggestions are welcome at

The course: Puritan Maidens to Pop Culture Tweens: The History of Youth in America is offered by the Department of History in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. It’s one of the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship courses, sponsored annually by the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences. The fellowship program is designed to foster innovation in the undergraduate curriculum, give advanced graduate students experience teaching their own undergraduate courses and provide funding for graduate research. The semester’s work for the 19 undergraduates is worth 3 credits.

Meeting time: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m., fall 2009.

The instructor: Katherine Jorgensen Gray, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, is currently completing a dissertation titled “Mixed Company: Youth in Philadelphia, 1750–1815” and expects to complete her degree requirements in fall 2010. She has held fellowships at the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia, among other institutions. Gray, who earned her master’s degree in history from Johns Hopkins in 2006, did her undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated summa cum laude with degrees in history and English.

Syllabus and course work: Gray’s course traces the evolution of American adolescence over the past 300 years, using both academic texts and primary source materials. From farmers to flappers, factory laborers to hippies, all the way to the 21st century, the class examines how young people’s lives have changed, as has the cultural importance of youth. In addition to many articles on e-reserve in the library, readings for the course include Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture. Moving through the course’s timeline, the source materials include films and music, such as the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause and songs by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Public Enemy and Nirvana. Students are expected to be both lively seminar participants and bloggers, with at least two postings each week to the group’s blog to share personal analyses of the readings and thoughts about classmates’ comments. The students are also writing an eight- to 10-page paper due during finals week and two shorter papers, one of which can be rewritten for the possibility of improving the grade.

Katherine Gray says: “My own dissertation research has uncovered a vibrant youth culture in early America. Over 200 years ago, young people were constructing peer culture, and adults were worrying over ‘kids today.’ In the dissertation, I situate this youth culture in the specific cultural context of the Late Colonial and Early National periods, but I was also struck by parallels to contemporary discourses about youth. I thought teaching this class would be a fascinating way to take a wide-angle lens to the question of youth culture. By looking at more than 300 years of American history, my hope is that we will be able to find broad, trans-historical trends about how young people fit into their communities. But I also hope we will identify important changes: evolution in the concept of youth, shifts in the status of youth and different anxieties about the role of youth in American culture.

Students say: “I enrolled in Puritan Maidens to Pop Culture Tweens because I was looking for a history seminar that would challenge me to re-examine an issue I had taken for granted—adolescence. The course does not disappoint. Beginning with differentiating between childhood and youth in the Puritan colonies, we have engaged in some serious discussion about what it means to be a ‘young adult.’ This proves to be especially provocative, considering the diversity of our class. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the readings thus far. Katie does an excellent job of assigning a good balance between primary and secondary sources. She clearly puts a lot of time and effort into preparing her lectures. Whenever there is a lull in the discussion, she always prods us along with a question that forces us to re-address the issue from another angle. Katie values each and every opinion presented in class and encourages us to think beyond the scope of our readings and the classroom itself. She is so clearly invested in our progress and our appreciation of the material, as evidenced by her willingness to meet with us and discuss the week’s readings outside of the classroom on her own time. While we are only halfway through the semester, I must say that I believe I have achieved precisely what I set out to do by taking this course: to gain a fresh perspective on youth culture in America.”

—Sarah Sabshon, 22, senior majoring in Public Health, from New Rochelle, N.Y.

“I enrolled in the class because it seemed a bit different than a mainstream history course. Also, I’ve taken other Dean’s Fellowship courses in the past and have really enjoyed them. I like the fact that the course covers 300 years of American history. History textbooks tend to depict one-dimensional representations of Colonial Americans, but this class has made me realize that youth 300 years ago aren’t all that different from youth today. The workload is pretty comparable to most other history courses at Hopkins. We have 100 or so pages of reading a week. Professor Gray tends to mix both secondary and primary sources, which makes the reading a lot more interesting.  Scholarly articles are important for the context, but it is the primary sources—the diaries, letters, etc., of the time—that are more fun to discuss. The primary sources are also the ones I tend to hold with me once the course ends. You can tell that Professor Gray spends an enormous time prepping for class. In general, grad students are so connected with their work, and it really reflects in the way they structure and teach their courses. This is especially true for Professor Gray. I would definitely recommend this class to my friends. Who doesn’t want to learn the history of their own age cohort?”

—Katelyn Saner, 21, senior majoring in history, from Brookline, Mass.