“American History and the Structures of Collective Memory”: Working Survey Results From My Students

Michael Frisch‘s “American History and the Structures of Collective Memory: A Modest Exercise in Empirical Iconography” caught my attention some time ago. Please read or at least skim the article if you can. If you do not have access to an academic database, send me an email, and I can email you a copy of it. Anyway, in this article Frisch talks about a really interesting experiment he did from 1975 to 1988 with 1000 students. This experiment focused on giving students a survey where they wrote down ten names that came to mind in response to the given topic. I decided it would be interesting to duplicate this experiment, with a few minor changes. I conducted this experiment in my Fall 2015 class at the University of Houston. 47 students were enrolled in this class. On the first day, before talking about anything, I gave each student a piece of paper that said: 

Without thinking more than just a few seconds, please write the first ten names that pop into your head in response to the following prompt: “United States history from 1877 to the present.”

Ten blanks followed.  Looking at results for names placed on the first line, there were 41 total responses and 23 (or 56%) unique answers. Specific top results for the first line were as follows.

Word Occurrences Frequency Rank
Off Topic 6 14.6% 1
Abraham Lincoln 4 9.8% 2
John F. Kennedy 4 9.8% 2
Barack Obama 4 9.8% 2
George Bush 3 7.3% 3
Martin Luther King, Jr. 2 4.9% 4
George Washington 2 4.9% 4

“Off Topic” answers had responses such as “racism” and other things or places, not names. Technically, George Washington is “off topic,” too, but it is a name at least. Two students ranked him as the first name that comes to mind when they think of U.S. history from 1877. I’m not sure if this is a “not following directions,” “not fully reading the directions,” or a lack of historical literacy. Looking at the results collectively, so all of the responses for the ten blanks, all students wrote in their top ten list, there were 321 responses and 161 (50%) unique answers. Top results were as follows: 

Word Occurrences Frequency Rank
Off Topic 46 14.3% 1
Barack Obama 23 7.2% 2
John F. Kennedy 17 5.3% 3
Martin Luther King, Jr. 17 5.3% 3
Richard Nixon 12 3.7% 4
George Bush 11 3.4% 5
Bill Clinton 11 3.4% 5
Abraham Lincoln 10 3.1% 6
Ronald Reagan 8 2.5% 7
Bush 8 2.5% 7
George W. Bush 7 2.2% 8
George Washington 6 1.9% 9
Teddy Roosevelt 5 1.6% 10
Clinton 5 1.6% 10
LBJ 4 1.2% 11
Dwight D. Eisenhower 4 1.2% 11
Ford 4 1.2% 11
Adolf Hitler 4 1.2% 11
Rosa Parks 4 1.2% 11
FDR 3 0.9% 12
Hilary Clinton 3 0.9% 12
Malcolm X 3 0.9% 12
Mitt Romney 3 0.9% 12
Albert Einstein 2 0.6% 13
Henry Ford 2 0.6% 13
Ben Franklin 2 0.6% 13
Thomas Jefferson 2 0.6% 13
Harry S. Truman 2 0.6% 13
Herbert Hoover 2 0.6% 13
Winston Churchill 2 0.6% 13
Malcolm X 2 0.6% 13
James Madison 2 0.6% 13
Roosevelt 2 0.6% 13

 I also asked students: 

Without thinking more than just a few seconds, please write the first ten names, excluding presidents, generals, politicians, etc., that pop into your head in response to the following prompt: “United States history from 1877 to the present.”

(Will save these results for another day.) and also asked: 

Without thinking more than just a few seconds, please write the first ten topics, themes, ideas, images, sounds, etc., that pop into your head in response to the following prompt: “United States history from 1877 to the present.”

For this question, looking at the first line, there were 38 responses with 28 (or 74%) unique answers. Results were as follows: 

Word Occurrences Frequency Rank
racism 5 13.2% 1
World War I 3 7.9% 2
war 3 7.9% 2
World War II 3 7.9% 2
jazz 1 2.6% 3
hippies 1 2.6% 3
segregation 1 2.6% 3
Roaring 20s 1 2.6% 3
slavery 1 2.6% 3
retro 1 2.6% 3
Civil Rights Movement 1 2.6% 3
social media 1 2.6% 3
Off Topic  1 2.6% 3
wars 1 2.6% 3
Industrial Revolution 1 2.6% 3
capitalism 1 2.6% 3
jazz and rock 1 2.6% 3
music 1 2.6% 3
emancipation 1 2.6% 3
Holocaust 1 2.6% 3
The Beatles  1 2.6% 3
gender inequality 1 2.6% 3
baby boom 1 2.6% 3
golden 1 2.6% 3
economic crisis 1 2.6% 3
agricultural plowing 1 2.6% 3
civil rights 1 2.6% 3
rush 1 2.6% 3

 I did the same survey, with the same questions the last day of class, too. For the first question (list ten names), there were 29 responses (unusual number of late/absent students this day!) and 19 (or 66%) unique answers for the first line. Top results were:

Word Occurrences Frequency Rank
Richard Nixon 5 17.2% 1
Martin Luther King, Jr. 3 10.3% 2
John F. Kennedy 3 10.3% 2
 Barack Obama 3 10.3% 2

Total results for all students top-ten answers included 229 responses with 107 (or 47%) unique answers. Specific results were: 

Word Occurrences Frequency Rank
Martin Luther King, Jr. 22 9.6% 1
John F. Kennedy 16 7% 2
Barack Obama 12 5.2% 3
Richard Nixon 11 4.8% 4
George Bush 8 3.5% 5
Off Topic 8 3.5% 5
Adolf Hitler 8 3.5% 5
FDR 8 3.5% 5
Anne Moody 8 3.5% 5
Bill Clinton 5 2.2% 6
Ronald Reagan 5 2.2% 6
Rosa Parks 5 2.2% 6
Dwight D. Eisenhower 4 1.7% 7
Hillary Clinton 4 1.7% 7
Charlie Chaplin 3 1.3% 8
Teddy Roosevelt 3 1.3% 8
Roosevelt 2 0.9% 9
George W. Bush 2 0.9% 9
Malcolm X 2 0.9% 9
Susan B. Anthony 2 0.9% 9
LBJ 2 0.9% 9
Harry S. Truman 2 0.9% 9
George Washington 2 0.9% 9
Thomas Jefferson 2 0.9% 9

For the third question (the one about images/themes/etc), on the last day of class looking at just the first response, there were 27 responses with 22 (or 81%) unique answers. Looking at all ten blanks for each form, there were a total of 268 responses with 177 (or 66%) unique answers. The list is too good to not include everything. Results were as follows: 

Word Occurrences Frequency Rank
Great Depression 9 3.4% 1
racism 8 3% 2
war 7 2.6% 3
liberalism 6 2.2% 4
Civil rights 6 2.2% 4
WWII 5 1.9% 5
women’s rights 4 1.5% 6
postmodernism 4 1.5% 6
LGBT rights 4 1.5% 6
Vietnam 4 1.5% 6
Enlightenment 4 1.5% 6
conservatism 4 1.5% 6
Women’s suffrage 4 1.5% 6
lynching 3 1.1% 7
Manifest Destiny 3 1.1% 7
sexism 3 1.1% 7
White Privilege 3 1.1% 7
equal rights 3 1.1% 7
Neo-slavery 3 1.1% 7
slavery 2 0.7% 8
minority rights 2 0.7% 8
segregation 2 0.7% 8
immigration 2 0.7% 8
feminism 2 0.7% 8
“The Immigrant” 2 0.7% 8
imperialism 2 0.7% 8
Industrial revolution 2 0.7% 8
terrorism 2 0.7% 8
“Pie in the sky” 2 0.7% 8
antiwar 2 0.7% 8
Civil Rights Movement 2 0.7% 8
Conservation 2 0.7% 8
change 2 0.7% 8
industrialism 2 0.7% 8
Indians 2 0.7% 8
Roaring 20s 2 0.7% 8
WWI 2 0.7% 8
hopes and fears 2 0.7% 8
Birth control 2 0.7% 8
Military Industrial Complex 2 0.7% 8
Liberal Consensus 2 0.7% 8
“Aint No Bugs On Me” 2 0.7% 8
fear 1 0.4% 9
Femme fatale 1 0.4% 9
Macy 1 0.4% 9
Cold War 1 0.4% 9
economics 1 0.4% 9
Wealth inequality 1 0.4% 9
Police killing everyone 1 0.4% 9
White v Black 1 0.4% 9
Scientific Management 1 0.4% 9
freedom songs 1 0.4% 9
skyscrapers 1 0.4% 9
“The Bitch Manifesto” 1 0.4% 9
Normandy 1 0.4% 9
film noir 1 0.4% 9
assignations 1 0.4% 9
the power of media 1 0.4% 9
“Brother Can You Spare A Dime” 1 0.4% 9
factories 1 0.4% 9
communism 1 0.4% 9
MAD 1 0.4% 9
McDonald’s 1 0.4% 9
hope 1 0.4% 9
politics 1 0.4% 9
politics 1 0.4% 9
lynching 1 0.4% 9
dust 1 0.4% 9
Uncle Tom’s Cabin 1 0.4% 9
Vietnam War 1 0.4% 9
“Kill the Indian Save the Man” 1 0.4% 9
Second Industrial Revolution 1 0.4% 9
soldier song 1 0.4% 9
progress 1 0.4% 9
amendments 1 0.4% 9
anticommunism 1 0.4% 9
soul music 1 0.4% 9
Trail of Tears 1 0.4% 9
Constitution 1 0.4% 9
“Coming of Age in Mississippi” 1 0.4% 9
protests 1 0.4% 9
Men v Women 1 0.4% 9
schools and federal guards 1 0.4% 9
freedom 1 0.4% 9
poverty 1 0.4% 9
highways 1 0.4% 9
global power 1 0.4% 9
history 1 0.4% 9
evolution 1 0.4% 9
rebellion 1 0.4% 9
Civil Rights Revolution 1 0.4% 9
first electric chair execution 1 0.4% 9
Watergate 1 0.4% 9
economic problems 1 0.4% 9
tears 1 0.4% 9
Holocaust 1 0.4% 9
“Over There” 1 0.4% 9
war and peace 1 0.4% 9
Indian massacres 1 0.4% 9
suburbs 1 0.4% 9
Henry Ford 1 0.4% 9
new 1 0.4% 9
Whites v Indians 1 0.4% 9
prohibition 1 0.4% 9
communists 1 0.4% 9
military 1 0.4% 9
industrialism 1 0.4% 9
Wage gap differences 1 0.4% 9
modernism 1 0.4% 9
fears 1 0.4% 9
worker’s rights 1 0.4% 9
historiography 1 0.4% 9
Great War 1 0.4% 9
Depression 1 0.4% 9
voting rights 1 0.4% 9
“Strange Fruit” 1 0.4% 9
destruction 1 0.4% 9
cell phones 1 0.4% 9
telegraphs 1 0.4% 9
Roosevelt Corollary 1 0.4% 9
race 1 0.4% 9
Ghost Dance 1 0.4% 9
Mad World 1 0.4% 9
Great Depression 1 0.4% 9
Black Renaissance 1 0.4% 9
conservatism 1 0.4% 9
Civil Rights Movement 1 0.4% 9
hopes 1 0.4% 9
love 1 0.4% 9
internet 1 0.4% 9
Golden Age 1 0.4% 9
gender equality 1 0.4% 9
bayonets 1 0.4% 9
idealism 1 0.4% 9
Not so roaring 20s 1 0.4% 9
economy 1 0.4% 9
Victorianism 1 0.4% 9
happiness 1 0.4% 9
railroads 1 0.4% 9
patriarchy 1 0.4% 9
activism 1 0.4% 9
abolition 1 0.4% 9
“Cotton Mill Colic” 1 0.4% 9
13th Amendment 1 0.4% 9
Sit-ins 1 0.4% 9
Progressive Era 1 0.4% 9
Imperialism 1 0.4% 9
White Man’s Burden 1 0.4% 9
industrialism 1 0.4% 9
racial tension 1 0.4% 9
protest music 1 0.4% 9
capitalists 1 0.4% 9
Second Wave Feminism 1 0.4% 9
suffering 1 0.4% 9
environmentalism 1 0.4% 9
Victorianism 1 0.4% 9
the war 1 0.4% 9
hate 1 0.4% 9
Microsoft 1 0.4% 9
“Birth of a Nation” 1 0.4% 9
Moral Majority 1 0.4% 9
Great Society 1 0.4% 9
privilege 1 0.4% 9
white 1 0.4% 9
Rise of Conservatism 1 0.4% 9
feminism 1 0.4% 9
propaganda 1 0.4% 9

I haven’t done this survey enough to have a true comparison to the original, but the idea is that we all have a very similar cluster of big names that come to mind. Looking at the results from my students, I mainly just enjoy looking at the data. The informal survey/assignment was fully anonymous, by the way. I’m not ready to really interpret it, but I thought I would put it out there and get some ideas and reactions. I was surprised in the post-survey at how different many of the names were and at how many names were included that we never discussed in class. Many of the names were very contemporary, too. In a number of cases, when only a last name was provided, we don’t know who the student was specifically thinking about. I also think it is really interesting how many more different types of answers came out when the question asked about images/sounds/etc. By not focusing on names specifically per se, we might realize there isn’t as much of a collective memory or a very different kind of collective memory. One thing the survey shows that I really like is that they learned because they mention things they would have only heard about in my class!  Special thanks to my mother for entering the first part of all of this data for me from the papers, so I could focus on other projects and just analyze and edit the data. Excel and Textalyser were also huge helps!  collectiveme



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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6 replies

  1. Something to be proud of. The third question end of term responses definitely show that your class had learned a great many topics from you that were never even on their historical radars before the class. ( oh and Moms are awesome aren’t they!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Can you email it to me.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, Andrew! Very interesting! So many individual responses! i’m not sure I could have even completed the assignment, so kudos for teaching your students difficult subjects, and to actually exercise thinking skills, not just memorization skills!

    Liked by 1 person

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