Introduction to Public History

Course Description:
“‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

“‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,”’ the Queen remarked.”

This is going to be a full semester during which I hope you will get a better feel for the challenge of interpreting the past for the public and begin to explore ways in which you might fit into this endeavor. We will begin the semester by reading about the theoretical and practical considerations undergirding public history, which will help us to consider: What role does history and the historical profession play in our society? What responsibilities do we bear ethically and professionally as we work to interpret the past? Can we identify central myths and traditions that define (perhaps confine) us as historians? How has interpretation of our history changed over time? How do those changes affect the ways we understand ourselves and our world both as citizens and as historians?

Toward the midpoint of the semester, we will turn to the practice of public history, looking at how these debates have played out in museums, archives, historic preservation endeavors, heritage tourism and memorials.

Required Readings:
Most of our readings will come from scholarly articles and chapters from other books. I will upload PDFs of these to the course website. PRINT THESE and bring them with you to class.

Second, there will be documentaries and primary documents, all of which are available online. I have included the URLs for these for each assignment. I have checked each of these before composing this syllabus. If for some reason the link does not work when you attempt to complete your assignment, please email me to let me know.

Course Structure:
This class will be heavily discussion based. Though I have been a student of history for more years than you (probably) have been, I value your insights and the perspective that each of you will bring to the material. As a result, most of our class time will be devoted to discussions of the materials we have read (this along with the reading schedule you will need to keep will also help prepare you should you choose to go to graduate school). So that you can participate in the conversations, please come to class having read the materials. Some weeks, this may be a challenge. Plan ahead. I do not have an attendance policy, but participation is 30% of your grade. You cannot participate if you are not in class.

There will be four reflection papers due. Each of these papers should be three to four pages long. Though I will not ask you a specific question for them, they ought to be meditations on what we have read since the previous paper was due. For each reflection paper, choose one of the course’s recurring themes and put the readings and primary documents into dialogue. These are not journal entries: be sure that each paper you turn in makes an argument and then cites evidence from the readings completed in the course thus far to support your point.

You will also be required to shadow a public history professional for a day. At some point during that day, you should also set aside some time (30 minutes to an hour) to speak with that person about why s/he chose to enter the field of public history, what training and back ground s/he has, what s/he likes best and least about the job, where s/he sees the field heading, etc. If you know of someone you would like to shadow, great! Ask them! If not, let me know by the end of the second week, and I will try to help facilitate that for you. I will do my best to match you with someone who fits your interests. A five to six page report on that experience will be due at the beginning of class on October 8. More details on the report to come …

For the final project, you will be expected to take one aspect, theory or theme of our class, do further research into that topic and write a seven to ten page research paper on it. Schedule a time to meet with me during Week 6 to discuss one-on-one what topic you have chosen and what form each of your projects will take. The full paper will be due on December 15, which is during finals week, but you will have to give a short in class presentation of it during the last week of school.


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