From the Teaching column of the September 2009 issue of Perspectives on History
Forum on Capstone Courses: Capstone Course in History at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
Andrew Kersten, September 2009
Since 1998, I have been teaching the history program’s history seminar, the capstone course at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. I essentially inherited it from the outgoing department chair. Originally, I modeled the course after the research seminar that I had myself had as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I added to it a healthy dose of historiography, giving my students a taste of graduate school, or at least an idea of what I had experienced at the University of Cincinnati. Two semesters of course evaluations bluntly told me how I was doing. While my students appreciated my youthful exuberance, the seminar was not—to put it kindly and mildly—engaging. Thus, after a couple trying semesters, I altered the course dramatically. In direct response to the course evaluations, I changed the structure of the class—while maintaining rigorous historiographical and historical methods activities—to meet the professional needs of the students. For the last decade, through several course permutations, these have remained the general goals for my history seminar.
At the time of my first course redesign—late 1990s and early 2000s—two general groups of history majors populated the history seminar: those who planned to teach secondary education in Wisconsin and those who planned to go on to graduate school. I devised course assignments and course activities around them. Each term, I chose a historical theme in U.S. history, such as the Age of Franklin D. Roosevelt or the Cold War, for which there were plenty of primary sources. (I should note that University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Historical Society have an agreement to share archival materials in a system akin to interlibrary loan. So, my students have access to nearly all of the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society, one of the world’s premier historical libraries.) I then asked the pre-service teachers to create a series of interrelated classroom lesson plans based on an archival collection of their choosing. Using a web site design program, they crafted CD-ROM modules for classroom use. The students who planned to go to graduate school or to go onto careers for which writing and research were essential, selected a topic within the semester’s theme, and using a primary source collection, they wrote a 25-page research paper. What connected all this work was the historiography—in terms of both methods and interpretation—of the historical theme. For a time, this course was stunningly successful. The students found their projects challenging and extremely rewarding. The teachers-in-training found that their CD-ROMs were useful to help land their first jobs and to aid their own students in learning about U.S. history. Other students benefited from learning how to craft an extended historical essay and some found their essays useful for graduate school applications. My colleagues also valued the course, and I won a campus-wide teaching award for the redesign.
Recently, the professional prospects for my students—both those who want to teach history in the public schools as well as those who aspire to go to graduate school—have diminished. As a result, I have transformed the history seminar once again to meet their needs. This time, I turned the capstone into a laboratory for public history. During the spring 2007 semester, the history seminar students worked with the National Railroad Museum, which is located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on a comprehensive assessment of its exhibits, its membership, its research resources, and community interest. This work included a large survey of the museum’s members. The seminar students produced a 50-page report for the museum’s board of directors identifying the museum’s strengths and weaknesses. The report pointed out that the museum had a wealth of large and impressive museum objects (the locomotives and rolling stock) but little historical interpretation. The students who wrote the report called on the board of directors to endeavor to connect the history of railroads to the history of social and political movements in the United States. Indeed, the National Railroad Museum was already moving toward this new direction, but the seminar’s work gave the museum a decidedly strong push, hastening its work. The first fruits of this labor soon appeared: a major new exhibit focusing on Pullman Porters which integrates not only the story of Pullman’s workers with a newly restored Pullman passenger car but also renders a compelling interpretation of civil rights and labor movement history. The porter exhibit has met with critical acclaim and will become the cornerstone of other exhibits at the National Railroad Museum that will explore the relationship between railroad technology and those people who were affected by it and who used it to shape their own futures (see www.pullmanporters.org and www.nationalrrmuseum.org).
Building upon the accomplishments of the National Railroad Museum project, during the spring semester of 2008, I connected the students in the history seminar to another local museum, the Neville Public Museum. This time, students worked on a new exhibit concerning Wisconsin’s experiences during World War I. In particular, the students created a digital database of Brown County World War I soldiers for the exhibit. This database utilizes the little-known but extraordinarily important Records of the Brown County War History Commission. In 1919, the commission interviewed 1,700 soldiers from this region who served during the Great War. Their canvass not only yielded completed interview forms but also letters and photographs. In itself, the commission was quite typical. County commissions across the nation did similar work, often resulting in the publication of “roster of men in service” books. However, in Brown County, the commissioners never published their book; but by historical quirk, their records survived. They are extraordinarily difficult to use, because the files were organized not by the soldiers’ names, but by ward and by the sequential number of the interviews. By scanning the collection, the seminar students were able to pair the soldiers’ names to their file numbers, thus rendering the collection easily accessible and making it a wonderful resource to museum visitors, teachers, scholars, students, and genealogists. The seminar’s work can be seen at www.uwgb.edu/kerstena/firstworldwar/ [No longer available online] . Although successful, the history seminar students did not quite finish the scanning of the records. As a result, Trevor Jones, my colleague at the Neville Public Museum, and I applied for—and received—a History Channel “Save Our History” grant to complete the database work, to expand the usefulness of the database, and to create lesson plans for history teachers (and were also able to set up a new web page at www.uwgb.edu/kerstena/worldwarone).
Though the work is challenging, I’m quite passionate about teaching the history seminar. The redesigns and public history projects at times have been perplexing, but the end results have shown that the goals I established years ago have proven themselves several times over. Above all else, the seminar students have found value in the class. The capstone course can not only finish students’ preparation but also help propel them into the profession while making new connections in the community and with the community of professional historians.
—Andrew E. Kersten is professor of American history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is currently working on a biography of Clarence S. Darrow.