Academic journal article College English

"Classbook Sense": Genre and Girls' School Yearbooks in the Early-Twentieth- Century American High School

Academic journal article College English

"Classbook Sense": Genre and Girls' School Yearbooks in the Early-Twentieth- Century American High School

Article excerpt

What is remembered dies,/What is written lives,/Therefore I write to be remembered.

-Ruth Douglass Campbell, in the class book of Kate Bodine Stone (1913)

What we learn when we learn a genre is not just a pattern of forms or even a method of achieving our own ends. We learn, more importantly, what ends we may have.

-Carolyn R. Miller, "Genre as Social Action" (165)

In the spring of 1908, the students of Louisville Girls High School (LGHS) in Louisville, Kentucky, inaugurated their first school annual, a special edition of the school's quarterly literary journal dedicated to the senior class. The object of this volume, as delineated in the preface, was "to collect into a narrow compass, and to arrange in a form convenient for reference, and consultation, a choice selection of the remarkable utterances, and pictured thoughts of the great among all classes, but chiefly of the great Seniors among the class of nineteen hundred and eight" (LGHS, Record 2). That is, a primary purpose of this annual was to compose a shared repository of memories for reference, particularly in the face of an implicitly wide range of student experiences.

But the preservation of these memories was not solely or even primarily for the benefit of the seniors themselves, but instead directed at "the Freshman particularly," to whom "it is of special value, as furnishing the means of storing the youthful mind with a fund of high and ennobling thoughts" (LGHS, Record 2). In other words, the school annual was to play an explicit role in shaping the students' experiences and culture, not merely to reflect and record that culture. This aim is underscored in the featured editorial of that inaugural issue in which the outgoing editors, in typically cheeky but no less earnest fashion, deny aspirations toward "superior intellect" and instead articulate their goal as "the establishment among ourselves of a feeling of fellowship and of loyalty and love for the school as it represents to us, in some degree, a thing higher and nobler than merely a sort of prison school-room during five hours of every day" (LGHS, Record 18). In other words, through this special issue of their literary magazine, students used their compositions to foster a sense of community and shared experience for themselves as students of Louisville Girls High School.

Composing a unified representation of their high school experience in this way may have been particularly important to students at this time, as high school enrollments were expanding exponentially in Louisville and across the United States, rapidly transforming the face of the American high school.1 Louisville Girls High School, the first public high school for white girls in that city, was no exception. This school, initially called Female High School and opened along with Male High School in 1856, had an academic focus and rigorous curriculum modeled on the English curricula of colleges and prestigious high schools nationally. It remained the only public high school for white girls in the city throughout the nineteenth century, though commercial, business, and normal (teacher training) programs were also offered as alternative courses of study. In the twentieth century, branch high schools were opened for students in the eastern and western parts of the city, which provided the first two years of high school study, though the central campus remained the only one that offered the higher branches.

The school's enrollments had risen steadily since its establishment in 1856, growing from a few dozen to an average of 300 to 400 students by the turn of the century (Louisville School Board). By 1910, enrollments had swelled to 607 at LGHS, but by June 1911 these numbers would more than double when female students from LGHS, the two branch high schools for young women, and the co-educational commercial department were consolidated together into one Girls High School, swelling enrollments to a whopping 1,528 students (Board of Education). …

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