Pedagogy

Making Headlines at the University of Pittsburgh

Rachel Kranson

While everything else fell apart during the pandemic, the University of Pittsburgh library blossomed and thrived. I returned to campus in 2022 to discover a remodeled library building flush with interactive exhibit screens, sparkling vitrine cases, multiple maker spaces, and a “Text and Context” lab devoted to historical bookmaking and printmaking technologies. While it all impressed me, as a historian and bibliophile I was utterly blown away by the Text and Context lab and its equipment for calligraphy, bookbinding, papermaking, and – be still my heart! – a working 1890s printing press and multiple sets of movable print type. I couldn’t wait to bring my students to the space.

I knew exactly which of my students would benefit most from a visit to the Text and Context lab. Jews and the City, a course I frequently teach at the University of Pittsburgh, follows the turn of the twentieth century migration of Jewish people from the shtetlach of Eastern Europe to urban areas around the world. Whenever I teach Jews and the City, we spend considerable time thinking about the Yiddish-language press and its transformative impact on the lives of immigrant urban Jews. My students read and analyze articles in English translation, and think about what this rich primary source can tell us about the lives, hopes, fears, and challenges of Yiddish-speaking Jews as they adapted to urban environments. I was eager to discover what else my students — and I — could learn by engaging with the physical equipment Yiddish-speaking immigrants used to produce their newspapers.

The Yiddish press was on my mind even more than usual in the spring semester of 2023. Eve Wider, our wonderful Jewish studies liaison librarian, had been communicating with Chana Pollack, the archivist at the venerable Forward/Forverts newspaper. Chana told her about Pressed/Ayndruk, an exhibit she curated in collaboration with the Museum at Eldridge Street, which used original, metal plates — the tools used to produce photographs in the Forverts — to relay the history of this venerable newspaper. Noting the expanse of bare white walls in the new, renovated library building, Eve and I thought it would be fantastic to bring this exhibit to Pittsburgh. Pooling the resources of the library and the Jewish Studies program, Pressed was installed in the first floor of the Hillman library building in February of 2023. Eric Lidji, Director of Pittsburgh’s Rauh Jewish Archives, brought a local component to the exhibit by creating additional panels shared information about the Pittsburgh office of the Forverts and featured images from Pittsburgh’s Jewish press.

My Jews and the City students created the final element of this exhibition. After learning about Jewish life on New York’s Lower East Side and reading selections from Isaac Metzger’s English translations of the Bintl Brief advice column, we visited the Text and Context lab. My students created six-word headlines to highlight what they felt were the most moving and resonant aspects of the Bintl Brief columns. Working with the staff at the Text and Context Lab, they set the type for their headlines and printed them out using the 1890s printing press, exactly the kind of equipment that the creators of the Forverts would have worked with when they first began printing in 1897. Finally, we compiled their work into another mini-exhibit – entitled Making Headlines – which the library staff displayed next to Pressed.

The students and I found ourselves continually surprised and delighted as we put this exhibit together. The students were particularly struck by just how much labor went in to producing a newspaper at the turn of the twentieth century, something that never occurred to a generation so accustomed to instantaneous, digital publishing. Even using large headline-sized font, it took my students about forty-five minutes to typeset their six word headlines. They developed a newfound appreciation for the work of the skilled typesetters who prepared thousands of words daily, using tiny newsprint-standard font. I had one student, for instance, who used particularly long words in his headline (Female Immigrant Workers Experience Exploitation, Harassment). If he knew beforehand how difficult it would be to set the type, he informed us, he would have chosen shorter words. We then discussed the ways in which technology may influence writing style, a possibility that they had never previously considered.

I was also charmed by how my students’ mishaps during this painstaking, labor-intensive process generated their own unintended meanings. In one headline, the phrase “Jewish faith” — inadvertently set in a bolder font — seemed to bear the weight of thousands of years of Jewish heritage. An “O” in the word “growing,” mistakenly capitalized, looked like it had actually grown. The headline “Sad woman deals with bad greenhorn,” with its garbled spelling and orientation, made one consider whether the greenhorn in question was really “bad,” or whether he was being judged negatively for a lack of literacy in English.

This project was one of the most invigorating experiences I’ve had as a professor, and a powerful reminder of how effective experiential, hands-on learning can be in the college classroom, enabling us to make unexpected intellectual connections, exercise creative thinking, and foster a different kind of engagement with our historical subjects. While the Pressed exhibit was a one-time treat, I will certainly make headlines with my Jews and the City students again, every time I have the chance.

MLA STYLE
Kranson, Rachel. “Making Headlines at the University of Pittsburgh.” In geveb, February 2024: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/making-headlines-at-the-university-of-pittsburgh.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kranson, Rachel. “Making Headlines at the University of Pittsburgh.” In geveb (February 2024): Accessed Apr 24, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Kranson

Rachel Kranson is the Director of Jewish Studies and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.