Night was coming on fast, so history professor T. Mills Kelly spoke quickly. His class needed to get some critical field work done in the fading midwinter light.
This History 300 Historical Methods class was standing in a parking lot near Bull Run Marina as commuter traffic inched along Yates Ford Road in Clifton, readying themselves for a walk in the woods. Yes, a walk in the woods at dusk, but it gets creepier and more interesting. The reason for this excursion was the Dead in Virginia course; the students were on their way to visit the Woodyard family cemetery.
But before they ventured into the woods, Kelly was getting them oriented—literally. He handed out topographical maps of the area, showed the students how to interpret them, and explained how to find true north. Kelly had brought along a compass and urged the students to do the same.
Over the past few years, Kelly had been looking for a new way to teach historical methods to history majors, and Dead in Virginia is the result. HIST 300 is a requirement for the bachelor’s degree in history; therefore, Kelly’s 20 students were history majors, mostly juniors and seniors.
“[HIST 300] never clicked for me. It is generally not the students’ favorite course to take and not the faculty’s favorite course to teach,” said Kelly.
So he sought to tweak it. Inspiration came from his daily commute through Clifton where he says he passes four or five family cemeteries each day. He also is a Boy Scout leader and familiar with old cemetery renovations because they are popular eagle scout projects.
Kelly offered the course for the first time this spring.
“I thought this would be a great way for students to experience what it is like to be a historian,” he said. “I also wanted to reconfigure this course so it is more about how the students live.” So the students would be using more technology.
It was cold and muddy. Kelly had warned the class it would be and urged them to dress for the weather. The students made their way up a hill and into the woods. The Woodyard family cemetery sits on Northern Virginia Park Authority land and was renovated recently by an eagle scout Kelly knows. There are more than eight headstones and a large tree in the plot. The wrought iron fence enclosing the space is weathered but mostly intact.
Kelly reminded students what they were there to record the cemetery in detail, and the students quickly got to work. They were expected to figure out the cemetery’s dimensions, record the information on the headstones, and even sketch the layout. This activity was a dry run for recording information about a small family plot somewhere in Northern Virginia that would be the basis for their research.
Junior Kate Herndon chose an old cemetery in Annandale for her project. She found that the class had an added bonus: shaking up her Facebook friends. “When you put up ‘heading to the cemetery’ as your status, you do freak out your friends,” she said.
“Why wouldn’t you take a weird class where you look for cemeteries?” junior Olivia Green joked. She chose a small cemetery in Gainesville that she believed belonged to the local Linton family.
After recording all their information about the Woodyard cemetery, the students entered their findings in a database Kelly set up, another practice run to prepare the students to input the data and findings about their cemeteries.
The database is called MyCemetery.org, a website Kelly created using Omeka, an open source web-publishing platform developed by Mason’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM), where Kelly is associate director. The software was created for displaying library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions. The Omeka platform is built around the Dublin Core metadata element set, which is the industry standard for libraries and museums. Simply put, Kelly’s students were going to learn about archival standards and metadata. “The kinds of things archivists care about,” Kelly said.
New media was a component that Kelly had wanted to add to the historical methods course. “Since I work in CHNM, I’m interested in having us do more at the undergraduate level with new media. We already do a lot at the graduate level.”
Back at the Woodyard cemetery, students used their smartphones to photograph information on the headstones, a small group worked together to nail down the graveyard’s dimensions, and all were sketching in small notebooks.
As they worked, Kelly directed their attention to the opening in the wrought iron gate and asked what they could speculate about the original layout of the property. He also told them that before there was a bridge, Yates Ford was an actual ford where people could cross the Occoquan River, so it is likely some kind of commerce was nearby.
These are the things he expects the students to think about and discover when researching their own cemeteries. After this field trip, the class took another to the Virginia Room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library where the group learned how to look up their people using property records and census data.
Members of Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association, a nonprofit that helps preserve local history by restoring and maintaining county cemeteries, was on hand to help.
“I want them to find out everything they can about their dead people. Then they will have to find out what was happening in Fairfax County or that part of Virginia at that time,” Kelly said. “Was this person a Civil War veteran? Why did all the children die in the same month of the same year?”
After placing their cemetery’s deceased in their time and place in Virginia history, Kelly wanted the students to take their research one step further. He wanted them to delve into historiography, or the history of history: what do historians think about the time of the student’s cemetery or perhaps even one of the people in it.
To aid the students in their fact-finding journeys, Kelly also purchased memberships to genealogy websites. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that an amateur historians out there somewhere was working on their family tree needed the data these students were collecting.
In addition to headstones and fallen leaves, the students found a few beer cans and a burned-out votive candle. The trash was gathered, so it could be taken away, but Kelly used the candle for another discussion point: Cemeteries are sacred places.
“Don’t disturb the sites. This is a place where the dead are memorialized,” Kelly said. “Imagine how you would feel if it were your family’s cemetery.”
Picking up trash and clearing fallen limbs was not a problem, but Kelly cautioned the students about moving objects like the candle that could have been placed there by a family member.
“And see this stone,” Kelly said, pointing out a granite slab. It looked like a headstone that had fallen forward. “I’m dying to know if there is writing on the other side of the stone, but I’m not going to touch it.”
The history majors were expected to record their adopted cemetery as it exists right now. If they become attached to it and want to renovate or repair something, Kelly offered to connect them with the appropriate historical society people who could help them with that.
At the end of the course, Kelly opened the MyCemetery.org website to the public and see what kind of information others might contribute. “Cemeteries are things that people care a lot about,” he said.
They are, as evident by the amount of support and interest Kelly has received since first putting the course on class schedule. Right now, it is only available to history majors, but in the future, he will consider cross-listing it with other majors and perhaps offering a general section that even members of the community could take in summer 2012.
“This was definitely the most interesting class listed [in the class schedule],” said student Dan Weber. “I know what the students in the other classes are doing. They are reading about stuff and then writing papers. You can take a hundred of those classes. It is far more interesting to apply methods than it is to read about them.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Cornerstone, the magazine of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.