As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have my students do primary source analysis for homework assignments. They can then use these analyses as the basis for their short papers.
For these homework assignments, I require the students to use archives and databases that provide full-page scans of publications. Seeing texts on the page, as their initial readers saw them, can provide a richer sense of the texture of the past, its cultural style, the sensibilities of an era.
Though I'm generally a bit wary of Google Books and its voracious appetite for digitizing and monetizing texts (I have posted about that here , here, and here.), I don't hesitate to use the resources the service makes available. And for twentieth-century U.S. history, Google provides an outstanding resource indeed: full-page scans of major magazines and consumer publications, including LIFE, Jet and Ebony -- not to mention back issues of the one, the only, Weekly World News!
The LIFE archive is especially useful for introducing and interrogating the idea of the twentieth century as "the American century." Indeed, I assign Henry Luce's 1941 essay to my students as one of the required primary source readings for the class.
Besides analyzing Luce's argument, we also discuss its physical place in the magazine. I have taught the "U.S. since 1865" twice, and students in both classes picked up on what I think is a salient feature of the Luce piece: its lack of illustrations. In a magazine featuring photos and advertisements on almost every page, the Luce piece is notable for its logocentric textuality. So we talk about what that typographic presentation suggests about hierarchies of value and importance within the pages of LIFE – a conversation that comes up again later when we get to the postwar anxieties about conformity, masscult and midcult.
We also discuss the Luce essay in connection with the advertisement on the facing page – an ad for Texaco oil. This advertisement provides an interesting avenue of approach into significant themes of "the American century" -- the increasing importance of oil and other natural resources in American foreign policy in peace and in war, the place of American industrial production, the connections between capital and culture (note the reminder at the bottom of the ad that Texaco sponsored Metropolitan Opera broadcasts).
And of course the hurricane lamp that visually dominates the advertisement provides a perfect emblem for the century's rapid technological transformations, and a perfect marker to measure the cultural distance and difference between mid-century readers of LIFE and our twenty-first century world. Luce's essay was aimed at a readership for whom a life lit by kerosene lamps was still within memory. Nevertheless, he argued that "the promise of adequate production for all mankind, 'the more abundant life'… is a characteristically American promise." So I use the semiotics of the Texaco ad – the lamp still looms large, but the automobile is in the picture too – to foreshadow our discussion of the connection between America's wartime experience and its postwar economic boom, and how we can understand economic transformations in cultural terms. I ask my students to consider the ways in which technological and material innovations may or may not be adequate signifiers for "the more abundant life."
In any case, the online magazines available through Google Books abound in almost limitless possibilities for teaching U.S. cultural or intellectual history via a virtual trip through the glossies.