Explorations: Class Reflections

Read a personal blog I wrote on my professional website about teaching this class by clicking this link.

Historiography and Explorations in Public History

Historiography was of particular interest in teaching Explorations in Public History.  In the introductory class, I posed the question, “what is public history?” to my students; responses were varied and complicated, so as an introduction to the course I gave a historiographical presentation to the class.  The introductory lecture featured questions such as, “how old is public history,” “is public history a new phenomenon,” and “what exactly is public history.”   I then explained to the class that perhaps public history as a field goes all the way back to the first archivists at the Library of Alexandria, the first archaeologists of Egypt and Mesopotamia, ancient and possibly even prehistoric art, and the first oral historians.  This led to a lively discussion about who the public is, what a “valid” history is, and many more questions.

For the first week of class my students read several selections to give them an idea or ideas about what public history is and also helped them foster their own definitions of the field.  The first selection was the National Council on Public History Website article, “What is Public History?”[1]  This article includes definitions, and a redux article by Cathy Stanton.  Additionally, students were encouraged to look at NCPH discussion boards to see what other public historians were saying about the issues.  Students were also required to come up with their own interpretation of what public history is.

Students also read James Cuno’s “The Crux of the Matter from the introduction of Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage.[2] This article was of particular interest and sparked such questions as 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?  Of particular interest in this article is the historiography of archeology and public history as they relate to cultural repatriation and cultural heritage.

Lastly, students read Ronald J. Grele’s,  “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?” from The Public Historian.[3]   This article is a bit older being written in 1981 when the field of public history was first being introduced.  The students were able to pick up on this and realize the historiographical essence of the article as relates to the field today.  Additionally, the students realized that public history and public historians still have a long way to go to reach all of the goals and ideals set forth in the article.

                [1] National Council on Public History Website,  “What is Public History?”, accessed 3/29/2012.

                [2]  James Cuno, “The Crux of the Matter in Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage.  (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2008).

                  [3] Ronald J. Grele – “Whose Public? Whose History? What Is the Goal of a Public Historian?”  The Public Historian, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), pp. 40-48.

History and Contemporary Society

The learning outcomes for Explorations in Public History are a bit more optimistic and courageous than those of World Civilizations 1.  The students are learning critical thinking and research skills that are invaluable, but I hope that they also take away from the course that there are many opportunities for people who hold a history degree and that they understand and appreciate the intricacies of public history institutions and public history practitioners.

Contemporary society as a whole seems to tend to appreciate history in waves and crests.  Popular culture and other sources indicate that people do have some interest in the past.  However, the means taken to that end are many times questionable.  My hope is that these sources will spark an inspiration for that person to learn more through visiting museums, archives, or other cultural organizations.

Residency Dynamics: Self and Mentor

Dr. Brenden Martin was my professional mentor during the Spring 2012 semester.  Dr. Martin has taught public history and museums studies at MTSU since 2001.  He previously served as the Director of Public History at MTSU and has also taught HIST 3110 in the past.  As my mentor he helped construct the course framework and syllabus and answer questions and concerns I had throughout the process.  We worked on this throughout the fall semester and continued to meet while I taught Explorations in Public History.  Dr. Martin observed my class lectures and discussions, and our meetings afterwards gave me confidence that I was making a difference and teaching these students valuable skills and lessons.   He also gave me tips on making the lectures more interactive and bringing more students into the conversations.

Most importantly throughout this process, I learned that teaching is fun.  I also gained more of a love for different aspects of world history and public history.  Teaching an introduction to the Public History field gave me more knowledge about archives, historic preservation and cultural resources management than I had previously.  I also learned that organization is key to success, and one can never prepare for everything.  One of the hardest lessons for me was beginning to tell people, “no.”  College students come to the table with a lot of baggage and problems, and sometimes it is hard to tell them that they are not quite meeting expectations.  Standing my ground with students my age or older, and not falling victim to tears or threats taught me a lot about myself as a professional and students as a group.

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