Reading the Pages of Adolescence

Article excerpt

What tickled Joan Jacobs Brumberg the most about her class was the amount of chattering that went on. "It was really fun to listen to the students talk among themselves," says Brumberg of her course Female Adolescence in Historical Perspective.

The topic of one such conversation was a teenage girl named Lynn Saul who had grown up in Pittsburgh, Penn., in the 1950s. Three of Brumberg's students became privy to Saul's most intimate thoughts as they worked through the fastidiously handwritten pages of her personal diary.

"I particularly remember overhearing them ask what each other thought of Lynn's comments about her boyfriend Bobby," says Brumberg, a social historian, Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, and professor of human development, smiling at the memory. "That's how deeply, how personally involved they'd become in the life of this young woman."

Saul's diary was just one of many made available to Burmberg's students, whose assignment was to research what female adolescence was like in the past. Written by girls between the ages of 13 and 18 who lived from the 1830s to the 1980s, the diaries revealed to the students the tension between continuity and change in the experience of American girls. In addition to this adventure with primary source materials, they read collateral works on women's history, family history, and the social patterns of a different time as a way to better understand where Saul and the other diarists--"their girls"--were coming from.

As juniors and seniors studying human development, Brumberg's students had already studied developmental psychology, so they bad the concepts from that discipline at hand. What's more, they were not that many years removed from their own adolescent experience. …