I can say with all honesty that teaching public history is the single most rewarding, educational, and fun experience I have had in my time as a PhD student at MTSU. Sure, studying abroad in Toronto was incredible and I got some great field work experience and great portfolio builders, classwork and time spent with my fellow graduate students is educational and fun, and it goes without saying that conferences provide some of the best networking opportunities, learning experiences from other professionals, and titillating giveaway contests in the hospitality suite. Teaching World Civilizations I was also a great experience, and imparting my knowledge of Ancient History to unsuspecting undergraduates was a learning experience for me as well as my students.
However, there is just something about teaching students who CARE about the subject, are passionate about public history, learning, and just the field in general that makes me look forward to teaching, planning, and going to class every week.
Here is some background information….
As a PhD Resident I was posed with the task of finding a residency that would fulfill the requirements of the department and also provide me with professional public history work that will inform my dissertation and eventually my career. I struggled and thought, schemed and fought – but I did NOT want to teach. I wanted to be “in the field.” In my time as a Masters student in Memphis, I was given the opportunity to work in a museum for my assistantship while also holding two other museum jobs – I missed working in those institutions directly with the public on a daily basis. Hello! PUBLIC historian! As things began to fell in to place, it seemed that teaching was going to be the best bet for me. I wasn’t convinced, because, hey – I want to be a public historian, not a teacher.
I had no idea what I was getting myself in to.
I have talked several times about teaching World Civilizations on this blog. I knew preparing for that class what my audience would be; generally students who take World Civilizations come from all colleges of the university and are not super enthused about history or taking a course about ancient, classical, and post-classical civilizations. I hope that in teaching that class I did make a difference to some students and get at least a few interested in the subject.
Coming in to the Spring semester, I knew that the students in Explorations in Public History would be a completely different audience. For one thing, the course is a 3000 level course, which means that many upper-division students are enrolled and also that many of my students are history majors. History majors have to love history, at least to some extent, right?
So what is this class I’m teaching?
Explorations in Public History is a course that basically serves as an introduction to the field of Public History for undergraduate students. In preparing for the class I knew that the first question most students, and people in general, would have is, what is this public history that you speak of? In writing this, I realize that perhaps this is something that I haven’t even really addressed on this blog. So let me explain to you, my readers, how I’m going about teaching this class.
The course meets twice a week, so each week I am presenting a different topic relate to Public History. The topics we are covering in class include: What is public history? Who owns history? Bias and POV, Audiences, Archaeology, Material Culture, Archives, Historic Preservation, Oral History, Cultural Resource Management, Historic Memory, Museums, Education, Public Programming, Exhibits, History in Unexpected Places, Popular Culture, Environmental Protection, National Parks, Media & Technology, jobs & Opportunities, Professional Development, Issues & Problems.
This is a TON of material. Some of these topics are combined, many overlap, and all are related in some way to the larger themes of the course and the public history program. Essentially, each week my students are assigned readings that relate to the week’s topic. For instance, the first topic was “What is Public History, and Who, if anyone OWNS the Past?” My students read the National Council on Public History Website article, What is Public History? (http://ncph.org/cms/what-is-public-history/). They also looked at James Cuno’s introduction to the book Who Owns Antiquity.
We had in class discussions about the readings, and we also explored other questions in discussions such as: What are some of the definitions of public history? How do YOU define public history? What is your favorite part of public history? If you don’t have one yet, what are you most interested in learning about? What do you expect to learn in this class? Who owns the past? What are some issues involved in believing someone can own the past? Can anyone own the past? What problems might historians, especially public historians have because of the idea that the past can belong to someone?
Additionally, I opened a forum on D2L for students to post responses to specific discussion questions so that they could interact virtually.
The first day of class I was extremely pleased to find that I had a class that would actually talk to me. Intelligently! With thought-out answers and questions! What a change from a group of general education students who aren’t necessarily interested in learning the finer details of Egyptian history or ancient Chinese civilizations. The discussions and discourse in class have really helped to make this class enjoyable for myself as a teacher, but also (I hope) for my students who don’t have to listen to my lecture from a powerpoint all day.
Most weeks, in addition to readings and in-class and online discussions, we have a guest speaker and/or a field trip. In public history, what can you really learn about your public and the field by sitting in a classroom listening to some graduate student expound on theory and ideas? In fields that I myself have not had a ton of personal experience in, I have been lucky enough to find willing experts at the university or in the community who are willing to take time out of their days and busy schedules to come speak to my students. This is something I am very grateful for, and I can’t begin to express the extent of my appreciation to those individuals and institutions.
In addition, my students are required to volunteer DOING public history for an organization in the community, and also to do hands-on individual projects. The project proposals I got had some really great and innovative ideas, and I can’t wait to see what my students produce. These things will go into their portfolio, and also give them experience in the field, and something to put on their resumes should they decide to pursue public history.
I recently created a website for the class as a place where student projects can “live” after completion. Some driving or tour guides, brochures, or informational tools might not otherwise get any exposure, so check out http://www.explorationsinpublichistory.wordpress.com for more information about the class, photos, and coming soon…. Student-written blogs! That’s right. I’ve offered extra credit to students who want to write about some aspect of public history on their class website. Again, this is a great opportunity to work on writing for the public, develop thoughts and ideas about aspects of public history, and also create a presence on the web.
Sorry to be so long-winded in this post, but I am so thrilled with this class that I had to share it with the world.
Essentially, I have ended up absolutely loving something that I never thought I wanted to do. This reminds me of another time in my life when I had preconceived or ill-thought out notions about my professional career. When I took the job as an Educator at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, my boss at the Sam Davis Home (after the first time I worked there…) laughed and could not believe that I, who was not the biggest fan of children at the time, was going to work in that exact field at a different museum. Who knew that those experiences would lead me to where I am now? – Writing a dissertation about education in museums.
And honestly, aren’t I doing something in the field of public history, through teaching? Oh Past-Katie… how little you knew then.
This is, of course, a lesson for all aspects of life, but particularly in academic or professional work – why not try something new? You never know where you might end up.
Are any of you readers teachers? What kinds of things get you excited about teaching? How do you share your enthusiasm with your students?