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Research with a Twist

Helping students look at something they’ve taken for granted in a new way — that’s what Associate Professor of History Jessamyn Neuhaus said her prom class is all about.

Neuhaus, who teaches a section on the prom in her U.S. Youth History class, wanted to teach an honors seminar and chose the prom because she knew that it is a personal and cultural experience that can be analyzed from an interdisciplinary angle.

Throughout the semester, students analyzed the historical, social, cultural and political aspects of the prom by reading various articles about past proms, watching movies with plots centered on the prom, discussing their own prom experiences and even taking field trips.

Neuhaus said the class took a trip to Fashion Exchange, a store that sells second-hand prom dresses, on May 3.

“It was helpful to get out of the classroom and actually see what we’ve learned about,” said Kurt Wehde, one of the students in the class.

The class will also be observing Plattsburgh High School’s prom on May 12, Neuhaus said. “My hope is that the work outside the classroom deepens their understanding of this topic and strengthens their final projects.”

The final project for the class is a nontraditional research paper. On the assignment sheet, Neuhaus provides students with examples of projects they can do and invites them to come up with their own ideas.

The assignment sheet includes everything from a fictional interview with high school students in the 1980s at their prom to an episode for an imaginary television show that features high school characters from different social groups and economic classes attending a prom.

Neuhaus said she does not have a favorite project idea. “My favorite will probably end up being the one I didn’t think of and that a student created on his or her own.”

Meaghan Averill is one of the students who came up with her own project. She said her project compares adult ideas about the prom over time through two newsletters, one from 1960 and one from 2012, written from the perspective of parents and teachers.

“I appreciate that this project allows us to break from the expected research paper and construct a creative piece of our own choosing. It is a unique approach and a fun way to learn based on research,” Averill said.

Katie Davis, another student in the class, is writing a children’s short story that she said is similar to Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Instead of learning to be respectful and kind through the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future like Ebenezer Scrooge, Davis’s main character learns these lessons by attending past, present and future proms.

“I think it’s interesting and much more fun to do than just write a research paper,” Davis said. “It’s nice that we are being allowed to demonstrate our knowledge in more creative ways.”

Neuhaus and her students said they enjoyed looking closely at a topic that does not seem like it would warrant such an in-depth study at first glance.

“My favorite part of this class was just thinking about a seemingly simple topic that was familiar to all of us as a tradition. Seeing the prom from a new perspective was very interesting,” Averill said.

Neuhaus said the success of a class like this depends on professor and student willingness to come together around a subject as a community.

“The students’ ability to look closely at the historical, political, cultural and social aspects of the prom, to study the scholarship on the prom and to re-examine their own prom experiences has enabled us as a community of learning to explore this complex part of American life,” she said.

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