By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
STAFF WRITER, THE COURIER (Findlay, Ohio)
Students in the University of Findlay’s contemporary rhetorical theory class found themselves working outside the box for their final project this semester.
The 11 graduate students worked in four groups to apply the theory they’ve learned about to an item from the archives of the Hancock Historical Museum.
Projects ranged from the history of dolls in Hancock County to a set of samurai armor that dates back more than 250 years to the Edo/Tokugawa period in Japan.
Presentations on the projects were given, and one or more of the projects will be the focus for an exhibit and a lunchtime lecture at the museum in 2016, according to executive director Sarah Sisser.
Professor Christine Denecker, chair of the English department at the university, explained that the study of rhetoric is “basically the study of persuasion and communication and how we use words.”
“Although the course is called contemporary rhetoric, it actually started in the Renaissance, and so the question of what is rhetoric, it goes all the way back to Plato, Aristotle and so on,” she said.
The first time Denecker taught the class, the students did research on different aspects of the concepts of rhetoric for their final project.
“It was good. They did very good work,” she said. “But I just felt like something was lacking.”
Since she had previously collaborated with Sisser on other projects, Denecker got the idea to have her students work with items at the museum.
“What if they worked in the archives and they had to explore the rhetoric of whatever,” she said.
“So they got to pick something from the archives that needs researched, and then they apply their rhetorical theory.”
She said the students were receptive to the idea and in October visited the museum for the first time to meet with Sisser and archivist Joy Bennett.
The museum has more than 70,000 items in its collection.
“I think we mentioned a few things that were packed away that might be of interest. They had a few questions and they came up with their ideas,” said Bennett.
Denecker said the class met four times at the museum to work on their projects.
Sisser said everyone got excited as the project developed.
A group comprised of students Meri Marsh, Kristen Hudson, Jenne Cairns and Jacob Tooley presented the topic “Coming Off the Bench: Grant ‘Home Run’ Johnson and the Findlay Sluggers in the Last Inning of the 19th Century.”
“We talked to Joy and Sarah and asked them if they had any particular area that they would like to be further researched for the museum, and they mentioned the Negro Baseball League, and that there was a possibility that Findlay actually had fostered its own team,” Marsh said during the presentation.
The group found that Findlay did not have a team, but there were several semi-professional and minority league baseball teams here.
Findlay had a racially integrated team in the late 1800s known as the Findlay Sluggers, Marsh said.
The 1894 team included Grant “Home Run” Johnson, a Findlay native and African-American, she said.
“When he played for Findlay, he put up incredible statistics. He was an incredible player,” said Marsh.
Johnson was a shortstop and second baseman. Although no official records exist from the 1894 season, it’s said he hit 60 home runs, earning him the nickname “Home Run.”
“He went on from Findlay to be an extremely good baseball player in a Negro Baseball League and have a very illustrious baseball career,” Marsh said. “We were surprised there wasn’t a lot of information about his role in Findlay. We knew he deserved more recognition for his accomplishments, as did the Findlay Sluggers of 1894, that’s why we decided to document this.”
Hudson said John “Bud” Fowler also played on the team in 1894. Although Fowler wasn’t a native of Findlay, the group decided he was worth mentioning because he’s noted as a pioneer in baseball at the turn of the century, she said.
According to their research, Fowler and Johnson wanted to try and form their own independent Negro League team in Findlay.
“They needed the start-up money and they were searching in Findlay for that money so the team could be right here. They were unable to find the funds so when the financial backing fell through, they moved their idea to Adrian, Michigan and found funding there and formed the Page Fence Giants,” said Hudson.
Fowler continued to play baseball for many years and also managed semi-professional and professional teams. He was considered for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Johnson continued to play baseball and manage teams until he was 58. After retiring, he worked for the New York Central Railroad. Little else is known about his life, said Cairns. His obituary listed no children or spouse, just a surviving niece, she said.
He died in 1963 at age 90. His grave in Buffalo, New York, remained unmarked for 50 years until a plaque was dedicated there in April, said Tooley.
“In essence we sought to give voice through Johnson to this marginalized group of African American baseball players,” said Marsh. “There has been some recent interest in giving Johnson recognition on a national level, but there are currently no memorials or exhibits about him in Hancock County.”
An exhibit could change the way future generations view Findlay’s sports’ history, she said, and also encourage people to question why some athletes are praised while others are forgotten.
“We feel as students of rhetoric and writing we should encourage this discourse. At the very least, such an exhibit could start conversation about the marginalized group of African American baseball players in the late 1800s,” said Marsh.
The samurai armor was another item in the museum’s collection that had relatively little known information. Students Bailey Poland and Troylin Banks took on the project for their presentation, “The Rhetoric of Samurai Armor.”
Poland said all they knew about the armor was that it came to Findlay, probably in the 1950s, and probably with a missionary.
“It was at Findlay College at their museum and it came here in the 1970s,” she said. “There was no paper trail.”
The duo said it’s a semi-complete set of samurai armor dating to the Edo Period, most likely between 1650 and 1750. They also surmise it was more likely ceremonial rather than intended for battlefield use.
“Which explains why it’s so well preserved,” Poland said.
The chest plate features a dragon insignia.
“I thought the samurai folks did a really nice job of explaining of how they ‘listened’ to the story that the armor wanted to tell,” said Denecker.
“We have preconceived notions maybe about Japanese culture and so on because we’re from the Western world. So they had to try and get beyond that and listen to the story that maybe they didn’t know was there,” she said. “And that was the notion of the project, getting them in there and trying to discover the rhetoric of something that they weren’t that familiar with.”
University of Findlay Japanese professor Hiro Kawamura also worked with the students.
The other presentations were “The Rhetoric of Dolls: Teaching Girls How to be Women,” presented by Tabatha Clawson, Brianna Doyle and Chase Troxell; and “Night at the Museum: The Rhetoric of Audio and Visual Technology during the 1930s, 1950s and Present Day,” by Abigail Linhardt and Andrew Lewis.
Denecker said everyone is happy with the results of the project.
“I think we’ll probably do something again,” she said. “I thought the nice thing was at the end of the presentations that night, one of the students asked, are you going to do this in (course) 505 again? I turned it back on them and said, you tell me. And it was overwhelmingly, yes,” she said.
“To me the most gratifying part was hearing them say they wanted to continue working on the projects even though the semester’s over,” she said. “That’s the best type of learning.”
Email Jeannie Wolf at email@example.com