Course Reflection: The Technology and Culture of Flight

The following is a guest blog post by Katie Martin, who recently graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and American Studies.

As a senior History student, I had taken plenty of history classes. However, I have never experienced a class quite like HIST 395: Air and Space: The Technology and Culture of Flight. This junior research seminar was taught by Professor Michael Smith in collaboration with Tracy Grimm, the Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration at Purdue Libraries Archives and Special Collections. To facilitate discussion and use of archival materials, the class met in Swaim Instruction Center, right across the hall from the Archives and Special Collections.

Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam

Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam

On the first day of class, we knew we were in for a different kind of history course. Professor Smith explained that by the end of the semester each student would complete a publishable 25-page paper using primary sources held in the Purdue collection. With Tracy’s great assistance, each student identified a topic and used class time to peruse Purdue’s physical and digital collections. I chose to focus my research on Amelia Earhart, specifically, how she and her publicist husband, George Palmer Putnam, worked together to craft her enduring public image.

I looked through several Amelia Earhart scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings relating to her lecture tours, her flights across the Atlantic, and her failed world flight attempt. I also read various correspondences between Earhart and people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Edward C. Elliott, President of Purdue University during Earhart’s time on campus. I received permission to view the original materials.  Holding the physical materials in my hands provided a deep understanding of my topic and strong connection to the past. I also utilized the digitized Amelia Earhart Collection in Purdue e-Archives, which consists of more than 3,500 scans of photographs, maps, documents, and artifacts.

Daily Mirror newspaper clipping, June 19, 1928

Daily Mirror newspaper clipping, June 19, 1928

The research sessions were broken up by reading assignments and even field trips. During one memorable class period, we rode the Boilermaker Special to the Purdue Airport for a tour led by Dr. Thomas Carney, Professor of Aviation Technology. We also viewed and discussed the exhibit on display in the Archives at the time, Steps to the Moon: Selections from the Neil A. Armstrong Papers and the Eugene A. Cernan Papers. Most exciting of all, our class was invited to the opening of the Armstrong and Cernan papers on November 21. We heard Eugene Cernan and Carol Armstrong speak and even got the chance to shake their hands and discuss our experiences working with the collections.

The class picked up in intensity as we neared the end of the semester. In the final weeks, we were expected to submit a 5-page abstract to our classmates. One person per class presented their work for 30 minutes followed by a session of critique and discussion. Although this portion of the class was stressful, my fun and supportive classmates made the experience worthwhile. I completed my paper and am now in the process of publishing my work in a journal of popular culture. This class improved my research, writing, and presentation skills tremendously, provided opportunities to actively learn, and exposed me to persons and scholarship on an international scale.  I won’t soon forget working with the Amelia Earhart Collection and my experiences in this class!

This class is being taught again in the Fall of 2015 as HIST 495: Flight and Space Exploration: Archival Research Seminar.  Persons interested in the course are encouraged to speak with their advisor, Professor Michael Smith, or Tracy Grimm for more information.

One thought on “Course Reflection: The Technology and Culture of Flight

  1. Angie Klink

    The class sounds outstanding! Katie wrote an excellent synopsis of her experience. Mixing archival research and real-time events made for such a rich and rewarding learning opportunity!


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