Where have I been? Well, let me tell you ALL about teaching Public History…

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.

True story.

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.

A relevant Ryan Gosling Meme

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.

Not my students (most days... that I notice..)

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.

It's true: I owned this book. BUT NOT ANYMORE!

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 me now - just add public. BTW - You can buy me this shirt by clicking the picture. I wear a small.

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?

Facebook in the classroom: How can we effectively use social media to teach?

I’ve talked about facebook in the classroom before, as a way to provide funny snipets of history from historical figures.  I wanted to try to find a way to integrate the social media that students (and myself!) use on an almost every day basis into the classroom as a teaching/learning tool.

As an optional extra credit homework assignment (full assignment and rubric available here) I challenged students to think creatively as an historical figure.  Their assignment was:

1. Chose a historical figure that we have studied or a person from one of the civilizations we have covered in this class.

not an accurate representation of me

2. Create a profile page for this character.

3. The next page has a checklist of all the information that must be included.  Use this sheet to complete your research before you begin constructing the page and finding pictures. Make sure you check off each item as you do it to get full credit!

4. This page does not literally have to be an online account.  You can produce a mock-up through Word, Photoshop, Powerpoint, or with magic markers or colored pencils depending on your level of creativity.

5. This assignment does require research.  You may use your textbook or other academic books.  You may go online to find information, but please remember that WIKIPEDIA IS NOT A VALID SOURCE.  NEITHER ARE NON-ACADEMIC WEBPAGES.  If you are unclear on what an “academic webpage” is email me.  Use websites with .edu or.gov for valid information.

6. You must, as always, properly cite your sources and include a works cited page.  I prefer footnotes for this assignment since it needs to be aesthetically pleasing.  Since this assignment requires more research I expect your citations to be correct.  If you have questions, email me or visit the writing center.

7. To get full credit you must have information for every category listed below.  This may require you to be creative but also be historically accurate.

8. Extra extra credit (1 point each):

  • Prepare a presentation for the class on your historical figure, your page, and your process of creating this page for an extra point.
  • Create an actual facebook page published using the information you have compiled here.
Students then had to fill in the worksheet with the following information:

Since this was an optional homework assignment for extra credit it did involve a lot more work and research than previous projects.  I wasn’t sure how students would react, or how many would take the time  and effort to fully develop the assignment.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have as many students participate in this as I would have liked!  In the future I hope to make this a required homework assignment instead of extra credit.

One creative idea was to do a page for Cleopatra using the Shakespearean play for the wall facts and conversations among the Pharaoh and her lovers.

I also had another Cleopatra, Achilles, and Jesus. Surprisingly, they all love watching Ancient Aliens!  Clever, students. Very clever.

Achilles’ page was great.  He has some pretty awesome lines; his last status update was, “taking a dip in the Styx River!”  This was after he met with Homer to give him some info on the Illiad and complained that Lycomedes made him dress like a girl.  His interests include working out, sailing, and traveling, while his favorite movies are 300 and Antigone.  Also, for all you Achilles stalkers, he lives at 1345 Hellenistic Drive, Athens, Greece.

My second Cleopatra got very creative, as well.  Her last status was, “…will not let Rome control me!  My Antony is dead and I can not live without him!” dated 30 B.C.E.   Her relationship is “It’s complicated” with Julius Caesar.  Her statuses also complain about having to marry her brother Ptolemy XIII, but she is quite happy to take the throne and rule Egypt.

She also talks about running off to learn Egyptian language and culture to try to gain respect of Egyptians.  Her favorite music includes the sistrum and Walk Like an Egyptian, and she enjoys watching the Style network.  And for any Cleopatra stalkers, you can email her at isislover@ptolemy.com   Her political view is divine rule, and she included several pictures of herself on her facebook page.  She included photos from Egyptian papyrus, Renaissance paintings, 1920s film, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Kim Kardashian as Cleopatra, Angelina Jolie as Cleopatra, and also a Greek bust and a coin that may show the “real” Cleopatra.   Another album was also posted of herself and her Ptolemy family members.

My students used (for the most part) valid educational websites or books for this research project.  It seems that they enjoyed themselves and the opportunity to be creative in a history class, which may not always be the case.

It also seems that the students learned quite a bit from this project.  Not only did students learn a lot about a specific person from history (or mythology), but they also learned a lot about creative thinking, the historical context and the world of that person, and how to do proper research and citations.

Have any of you used Facebook in the classroom, or other social media?  How can it be used effectively?  I encourage you to try this with your students either as an extra credit assignment or as an alternative homework assignment.  I believe in my future classes it will be a very beneficial learning tool.

What can you learn from watching History’s “Ancient Aliens”?

I often wondered about this very question while watching this show (before I gave up watching because it almost gave me a stroke to watch it).  I decided to assign my students in World Civilizations 1 a homework assignment revolving around this very question.

The assignment was basically this:

Watch an episode of Ancient Aliens either on the History Channel or online. ***Be sure to watch an episode that is about ANCIENT aliens (despite their name, they have had shows on about the American Founding Fathers and the Third Reich). I would prefer you watch something from Season 1

1. Choose three claims or ideas that are presented in the show.

2. Using critical thinking and deductive reasoning, and some research if needed, come up with an explanation for these claims using historical sources and what you have learned in class or from the book about ancient civilizations.  CITE YOUR SOURCES!

3. What things did we talk about in class that are also discussed in this show?

4. Do you think this show fairly represents history?

5. Why do you think the history channel would show this?

6. Is this a show about history?

7. Who are the “experts” that present the evidence, and what are their backgrounds?

8. What are alternate explanations to theories presented in this show?

9. What is your opinion of this show? (Honesty is fine, as always!)

I hoped that this would help spark some ideas about questioning sources, thinking both critically and historically, and questioning bias and motives that are always present in historians and all people.

I was pleased to get plenty of well thought out and reasoned papers!

Students brought up ideas such as:

–          Maybe the “radioactive bones” at Mohenjo-Daro were exposed to the sun for a prolonged period of time.

–          Even if there are aliens, why do we give them credit for everything?

–          We can’t assume aliens exist from something like a cave drawing that is similar to another one on the other side of the world.

–          Aliens didn’t build massive structures for us – today we are too lazy to imagine something like that being possible.  Instead the ingenuity of ancient man isn’t given enough credit.

–          The show is just an opinionated crazy idea that the History Channel shows to make money and get more viewers.

–          Just because a god or spirit is shown in a different way than we think they may have looked doesn’t mean it was an alien – that’s just how followers depicted them

–          More time is spent on the ancient astronaut theorists’ ideas than those with historical research backgrounds – this shows an obvious bias.

–          People looking for alien evidence are not objective and are just trying to find the most simple explanation without using their brains.

–          Why is it so hard for us to give ancient ancestors credit for what they accomplished? This insults those ancient people and also people today.

Today we had a follow-up discussion about the assignment, and we talked about what they got out of the assignment and I also shared with them what I hoped they learned.

We talked about art and artistic representations of people.  Several students wrote about the artistic and physical representations of Akhenaten and Tutankamun.  Ancient Aliens claims that the reasoning behind this is that they were aliens.  Obviously.  We argued

Alien or artistic representation?

instead that oftentimes art is just that – a person’s own visualization of what they think.  A great modern example is Francis Bacon’s representation shown here.  Might someone in the future think that there was a person who looked like that?  Will they immediately come to the conclusion of “alien?”

Additionally, we discussed the idealization in art that is sometimes used.  Almost everyone recognizes the golden mummy mask of Tutankamun, but did he really look like?  He certainly wasn’t gold, and his features are more of a uniform look used to show Egyptian Pharaohs throughout much of the New Kingdom.   In reality, his mummy shows that he had protruding teeth, a slight cleft palate, and a slightly elongated skull.

Perhaps most importantly we discussed the idea of questioning sources and biases.  Throughout Ancient Aliens many “experts” are interviewed.  The name card graphic tells their name and part of their credentials, such as author or Ph.D.  Some of my students went the extra mile to actually look up these people, their curriculum vitaes, and their personal websites (without using Wikipedia!!!).  Most pleasing to me was the student who looked up Giorgio Tsoukalos (http://legendarytimes.com/giorgio ).  This website claims that he is the world’s leading Ancient Astronaut theory expert.  Exactly what does this mean?  Wouldn’t you think that someone who makes a living talking about ANCIENT history would have at least a minimal background in history to have the proper context to discuss this?  One would think.  Tsoukalos DOES have a college degree – in Sports Management. His website also explains, “Until 2005, Tsoukalos also functioned as a professional bodybuilding promoter; for 6 consecutive years he promoted, produced and directed the IFBB San Francisco Pro Grand Prix, an annual cornerstone event in professional bodybuilding.”  Additionally, “Giorgio enjoys a good and relaxed sit-down meal with friends, weight lifting, listening to motion picture scores, classic jazz standards, classical opera, sailing, going to the beach and the movies, and hanging out at the Legendary Times Clubhouse in Southern California” and “ 2 more things: (1) Giorgio loves listening to talk radio. Both at home, the office and in his car. Please don’t ask him to turn it off. Ever. (2) Giorgio loves to sit front and center at the movie theater (5th or 6th row). Movies are meant to be seen like this, that’s why they are shown on the silver screen first. If you want to sit in the back of the movie theater, go right ahead, but you’ll both watch the movie alone cuz’ he won’t join you in the back, and you might as well just wait until the movie comes out on DVD so you can watch it on TV.”  No further comment needed.

Additionally, a student astutely pointed out that this show DOES have some historians that appear – to give historical context and explain various stories and historical happenings.  The way this show is edited almost makes it seem that those actual historians agree with the “ancient astronaut theorists.”  Whether or not they DO agree is never addressed, but tricky editing gives that appearance.

Everyone should understand: you don’t have to have a PhD to be an expert.  Conversely, having a PhD doesn’t necessarily make you an expert.   Is a person with a PhD in 19th century American Literature necessarily an expert on chemical reactions?

OBVIOUSLY aliens are the explanation.

Another great product of this assignment was that I got my students to think critically.  Rather than just saying, “I don’t know – therefore, aliens” they started to think back to lecture and things they have read in their books to come up with other explanations than just aliens.  They also did some outside research to find out what historians think about such “mysterious” things as the building pyramids or moving huge stones for monuments.

I was pleased that many of my students were highly offended by the show’s idea that ancestors were too stupid or incapable of doing great things.  My lectures and enthusiasm for ancient and classical peoples and their abilities seems to have rubbed off on them.  Rather than giving credit to outside extraterrestrials, my students gave explanations that included our ancestor’s ingenuity and ability.

An expert on Ancient Aliens

Lastly, we discussed the dangers of talking in absolutes.  Many times the “experts” say words like “obviously” or “of course” without hard evidence.  Even historians may not have the absolute facts or evidence, but many times they say “possibly” or “maybe” – not fact – in those situations.  We may not know either way, but using absolutes can lead to the wrong impression.

Several people have alerted me to the South Park episode about the History Channel.  It is available to watch online at: http://www.tv-links.eu/tv-shows/South-Park_8958/season_15/episode_13/.  The synopsis is: “After watching a Thanksgiving special on The History Channel, the boys believe that aliens were involved in the original feast. But, questions remain… was the first Thanksgiving haunted? Is alien technology responsible for stuffing? The truth could change Thanksgiving for everyone.”  I personally can’t wait to watch it, and I’m glad the show’s creators are tackling this issue as well, on a level that many people may understand.  Have you seen this episode?  If so, what did you think?

Whether or not you believe in aliens is beside the point.  Why can’t we give ancient people credit for the things they did?

Now you, the reader.  I would love for you to try this assignment yourself!  I want to get more feedback from people about this show, sources, “experts”, etc.  Have you done a similar assignment in your classroom?  What do YOU think about the show?