Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Our Life's Work": Rhetorical Preparation and Teacher Training at the Westfield State Normal School, 1844-1932

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Our Life's Work": Rhetorical Preparation and Teacher Training at the Westfield State Normal School, 1844-1932

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: When we think of nineteenth and early twentieth century teacher-training schooh, we tend to rely on a fundamental assumption: that the work of a primary school teacher was intellectually undemanding, consisting largely of exercises focused on rote memorization and correctness, and thus the schooh that prepared future teachers for their work must not have been academically rigorous. And while this characterization may have been true of many teacher-training schools in that period, it was certainly not the case at Westfield State Normal School. Beth Ann Rothermel's illuminating and incisive investigation of archival materials at the college (now Westfield State University) reveals an intellectually rigorous curriculum, one that embraced rhetorical theory and asked students to employ their theoretical understanding in the service of a wide range of discourse practices. The curriculum included not just rhetoric and oratory, butaho more traditional disciplines such as chemistry, botany, geometry, and phihsophy.

Around the turn of the century, reformers attempted to institute a more utilitarian and "practical" approach to teacher training, but many faculty at Westfield resisted the trend, continuing to emphasize the more demanding and intellectually rich pedagogy. In short, the young women and men who were preparing to become teachers at Westfield State Normal School were consistently exposed to a rigorous and varied curriculum, one that certainly rivaled the academic offerings from the regions more well-known and prestigious colleges and universities. This rich pedagogy remained in phce for more than one hundred years, despite the repeated efforts of "reformers" to water down the curriculum. Faculty and students appreciated and embraced a demanding course of academics which inspired generations of teachers in the Commonwealth. These issues remain alive within contemporary debates over teacher training.

Dr. Rothernmel is a professor of Englishe at Westfield State Universty Her research includes articles on the history of American women's rhetorical education, especially at normal schools, along with book chapters in edited colkctions in the field of rhetoric and composition. This article was originally published as a chapter in Local Histories: Reading the Archives of Composition, edited by Patricia Donahue and Gretchen Flesher Moon (2007). It is reprinted with the permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Two other chapters in this collection focus on the history of education in Massachusetts: "Vida Scudder in the Classroom and in the Archives, " by Julie Garbus, and "Life in the Margins: Student Writing and Curricufor Change at Fitchburg Normal School, 1895-1910."[dagger]

In 1923, the all-female senior class at the Westfield State Normal School staged a series of debates. Although these debates focused mainly on civic issues, they also included a reenactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, presented before the entire school in a general assembly. Westfield's 1923 yearbook celebrates the prime players of this drama, noting that "Helen Spelman looked the part of a politician in presiding. Helyne Mousley made a superb Lincoln, and Ruth Grady an inimical Douglas. One could almost imagine one's self as actually participating in the noted campaign for the senato rship of Illinois."' The women aimed to "reproduce the spirit and the main issues" of this famous historical event. It was not, however, the first time that female students at Westfield had imagined themselves into positions of rhetorical power. Westfield's newly enfranchised senior class was, in fact, drawing on rhetorical theories and practices critical to the school's academic programs since the mid-nineteenth century.

In the introduction to his documentary history The Origins of Composition Studies in the American College, 1875-1925, John C. Brereton observes that we "still do not know enough about the connections between college course work and the public and private examples of female rhetoric. …

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