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Making the New Deal concrete.

July 11, 2012, 4:06 pm

This past quarter, I did something different with my upper-division course on America in Prosperity, Depression, and War, 1917 to 1945. Because the course usually has more than 100 students and no teaching assistant (welcome to the University of California), I have never assigned a research paper before. It’s just too hard to mentor and police that many research projects. But this year, I decided to ask the students to research and write on a New Deal project for one of their papers.

I suggested that the students start by looking at Gray Brechin’s terrific site, and then gave them the following prompt:

Write a history of something – a bridge, dam, road, mural, school, public building, sculpture, park, photograph – that was created or built with federal government money during the years 1933 to 1943. In your paper, consider these questions:

  • Which government agencies paid for this work?
  • How much did it cost?
  • How was the work – the building or mural or whatever – perceived at the time?
  • What was its significance for the people of the time?
  • How has it been used over the years?
  • How is it perceived today?
  • What is the historical significance of this work?

I was stunned by the enthusiasm and the quality of the papers: so many students seemed to really engage with the assignment. At the end of the quarter, I received papers on:
23 bridges
17 parks
10 murals
10 dams
9 airports
5 tunnels
5 city halls or civic auditoriums
5 sculptures
5 high schools
4 outdoor theaters
3 libraries
3 fairgrounds
2 courthouses
2 fire stations
2 fountains
2 plays
2 naval training centers
1 state office building
1 federal mint
1 clubhouse
1 zoo
1 federal writers project guide
1 photograph

Unsurprisingly, the four most popular subjects are in northern California: Sacramento’s Tower Bridge, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, Shasta Dam, and the Coit Tower murals. Many students found federal government reports on their projects; dozens looked at local newspapers on microfilm; some took tours of the project, or interviewed people who work there today, or wrote personal testimonials about how much that particular bridge/high school/theater means to them.

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