Reflections on an Undergraduate Public History Course

Ryan Gosling Sitting at a bar. Words written "Hey Girl, Combining my image with theory is an outstanding exercise in Public History praxis"

This fall I had the opportunity to teach “Select Topics in Community-Based Public History”, a third-year history course at Algoma University.  This was my first time designing and being the sole instructor for a course.  Now that the dust has settled and all my marks are in I thought I would use this post to reflect on how the course went.

As some background, I approached this course with the desire to provide students with a grounding in collaborative practice and community engagement, while introducing them to the range of possibilities within the public history field. This was only the second time this course has been offered at AlgomaU. I also had a really small class of under ten students.  The class was a mixture of history majors and folks who were taking this as an elective.  The class met twice a week for 1.5 hours each session in a standard classroom space on campus.  Some of the activities and approaches I took would likely have to be adjusted for a larger class size.

Planning the Course

When I found out that I was the selected as the instructor for this course I had a whole lot of squee and excitement (I may have actually jumped up and down). Once that initial excitement dulled I immediately dove into research mode. I looked at the syllabus from the 2015 iteration of this course and scoured the internet for undergraduate level public history syllabi. I also reached out to a couple of folks who I knew were teaching public history at the undergraduate level in Canada.  My goal was to see how other folks had structured their classes, while looking for Canadian specific public history content to create a syllabus around. I also wanted to use open access readings and avoid assigning a textbook.

I also started scoping out what topics I needed to know more about in order to effectively teach them in the classroom.  I had strong ideas about what I wanted to include in relation to archives, digital history, museums and oral history.  But, I was much less certain in how I would present material relating to Parks Canada, commemoration, and built heritage. One of the best parts of preparing for this class was that I got to embark on a public history reading binge.

For me public history is all about collaboration and community outreach. In each week I underpinned our discussion in relationship to public outreach, accessibility, and community facilitation. This meant that though we might be talking about archives one week and built heritage the next week there were underlying themes which were woven into the entire the course. For most classes I lectured for approximately 45 minutes and the remainder of the class was spent on either discussion or hands-on learning activities.  One of my goals of this class was to provide skill building opportunities for the students. This meant thinking creatively about how to engage students in activities where they could practice what they were learning.

Building Assignments

I included a couple of assignments that allowed students the opportunity to explore formats that weren’t a traditional essay.  The inclusion of these assignments went back to the idea that I wanted students to come away from the class with some hands-on skills and to have had the opportunity to think about public history critically. The short written assignment for this class focused on interpreting a local heritage plaque.  Students were required to pick a plaque from an approved list of Ontario Heritage Trust and Canadian Heritage Site plaques.  They were then required to analyze the plaque and come up with alternate wording for the plaque text.  The catch – they had to keep the plaque within 5 words of its current number.  This was a 2-4 double spaced assignment and I was impressed with the work the students put into developing new plaque language and researching the historical significance of their chosen marker.

The final assignment for the class allowed students the option of completing either a traditional research paper or creating a digital history exhibit.  The students were evenly split – with half of them deciding to do a paper and half opting to create an exhibit. I warned students that though the exhibit might seem like the easier of the options, the exhibit assignment actually required the use of a number of skillets including historical research, concise writing, digital history tools, and exhibit curation. The exhibit assignment required them to develop a historical narrative/argument, pick 10-15 images to illustrate their exhibit, and develop fulsome captions based on their research to accompany the images.  I was impressed by the creativity, research, and narrative building of the students who picked the exhibit option.  Many of the students picked Tumblr as their exhibit platform.  This worked okay but there are definitely other platforms that would have worked better for this project. If I was using this assignment again I might spend more time in class exposing students to open source CMS and exhibit software such as OMEKA. I might also consider moving the classes on digital history into a computer lab space so there could be more hands-on learning activities while walking through examples.

Collaboration in Practice

Most classes involved group work either in the form of small group discussions or working in pairs to complete a hands-on task.  Since collaboration is such an important part of public history work I wanted to make sure my students had multiple opportunities to build teamwork skills and work in groups, something that isn’t always emphasized in humanities education.  In addition to in-class activities students worked in small groups for a presentation assignment and our participation in the Canada-wide Wikipedia edit-a-thon helped foster a communal spirit.

I also took a collaborative approach to teaching the class.  I reached out to a number of local heritage professionals and invited them to collaborate on the course.  In some instances that involved us visiting their heritage space and working on a reflective activity there. See my Active History post for details on how we used Anarchist Museum tags to encourage students to critically think about heritage spaces. In other cases, professionals came into my class to speak with students or spoke to students by Skype. I had a couple of goals with this approach: I wanted students to meet local public history practitioners and expose them to some of the great work that is happening locally, I wanted to showcase the range of possibilities within the public history field, and I wanted to continue to build partnerships between AlgomaU and community organizations.

One of the best examples of how this collaboration worked out to enhance the course was when Miranda Bouchard of Thinking Rock Community Arts visited our class.  Prior to Miranda’s visit we had spent a couple of classes talking about community engagement and oral history.  During Miranda’s visit she talked about her role in the Rivers Speak Community Play, an initiative that based around gathering community memories of water and crafting them into a community created play.  Miranda’s work was an excellent example of public history skills used in practice and her work illustrated the potential of community engaged oral history practice.  We also used this opportunity to talk about some of the real struggles of community work – learning how to facilitate community dialogue, grant writing, ethics, and all the admin work.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

As with any course there were some weeks that went better than others.  There are definitely readings I would switch and a couple of lectures that missed the mark that I would approach from different angles. I talk to groups a lot as part of my day job, but getting up in front of a class on a regular basis has a different feel.  It took me a while to work my way through my feelings around the performative nature of teaching and I learned a lot about myself during this class.

If teaching this course again I would also build in a more structured participation model for the seminar portion of the course, as in many cases students desired a more concrete guidelines around how they were expected to participate in the classroom discussions. I might also consider running a workshop on how to cite sources for a public history assignment.  Many of the students in my class hasn’t cited archival photographs before. Providing in-class support or a written guide on how to do this would have been helpful when it came time to do their final assignment.

Photo Credit: Image from the Public History Ryan Gosling Project created by Rachel Boyle and Anne E. Culle.  Go check out their project. So many fantastic memes.

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