Publication Date

October 20, 2020

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

K–12 Education, Undergraduate Education


Public History

I began my undergraduate Introduction to Public History class last autumn with a tongue-in-cheek question: “So, why are all of you in this class?” Silence. Finally, one student spoke up with the correct answer. “Because it’s required.” “Yes!” I practically shouted in response. “So, does anyone know why this course is required for all history majors?” More silence. No one responded.

History majors at SUNY Cortland are required to spend time in public history’s

History majors at SUNY Cortland are required to spend time in public history’s “big tent,” learning skills as well as different ways to think about their professional futures. Laura Louise Grimley/Unsplash

Typically, departments offer public history courses as electives but rarely require them to graduate. In contrast, all history departments require some version of an introductory methods class where students learn the basics of history: how to research, interpret sources, engage historiography, write, and defend an argument. Public history teaches these skills too, but it takes a different approach.

Because public history demands that students practice history in collaboration with a wider community of people, it develops additional skills that history majors should master. Skills at the core of public history practice—teamwork, storytelling, simplifying complex data, problem solving, empathy, and demonstrating the relevance of history to everyday lives—can be applied to any number of vocations. By requiring that all of our history majors take public history, SUNY Cortland better equips graduates for the vast number of careers available to them and better prepares them to weather an unsteady job market.

At the beginning of the semester, the term “public history” confuses my students. They are not alone. For decades, public history has lacked an agreed-upon definition. In 2018, Jennifer Dickey (Kennesaw State Univ.) published an article in The Public Historian that outlined a “big tent” theory of public history. Rather than try to define the discipline, she wrote, we should embrace its diversity. Under that tent, we find a number of different formats, everything from classic museum exhibitions to oral histories, blogs, roadside markers, ghost tours, and more. Regardless of the format, public history projects involve sharing authority. Best practice requires that public historians collaborate with community partners to interpret history for a general audience through one or more of these mediums.

Before I arrived at SUNY Cortland in 2016, my department had spent a few years discussing a public history requirement. Many faculty members already participated in public history projects and had formed positive relationships with local museums and organizations across central New York. Over time, they came to understand how public history could serve as a means for students to fine-tune their skills in settings beyond academia. Despite evidence of its value, adding a new requirement to an already full curriculum can be tricky. Would students feel overloaded? Would faculty feel that this requirement complicated advising? What of faculty workload?

Skills at the core of public history practice can be applied to any number of vocations.

Despite these concerns, my colleagues decided that public history would be worthwhile because of its potential to attract new students, retain majors, and empower them with confidence that their history degree would be valuable and versatile. Adding this requirement meant the course would need to be offered every semester, a rationale that gave my colleagues a chance to make a convincing case to our dean for a new tenure line specializing in public history.

The public history requirement solved a problem specific to our department as well. In addition to the traditional BA in history, we offer a dual degree in history and adolescent education. Students who go this route earn their teaching certification alongside their degree. This can be a demanding program, and students sometimes drop the adolescent education component or decide they no longer want to be teachers. My colleagues felt that making public history a requirement would demonstrate to all our undergrads early on that their history degree offers more employment options than a career in K–12 education.

Four years ago, starting in fall 2016, all SUNY Cortland history majors had to take Introduction to Public History. We numbered it History 280, signaling its close relationship to our historical methods course, History 290, and capped enrollment at 30 to 35 students. It’s almost always full. Each semester, we survey topics under public history’s big tent, explore case studies, and, most importantly, conduct a group project in collaboration with a local organization.

Community projects form the backbone of the course. Through these projects, students put their historical training to use for the community, and by doing so, sharpen skills they can transfer to various careers. This past semester, we partnered with the Cortland County Historical Society and our county’s tourism bureau, Experience Cortland, to locate and map 50 roadside markers onto the digital history platform Clio. At the start of these projects, students experience a range of emotions. Some report feeling nervous and out of their comfort zones because they will have to work in groups and interact with people off campus. After completing their projects and having a chance to reflect on their accomplishments, they understand how public history pushed them to use their historical training in new ways, such as conducting oral history for a new exhibit or interpreting archival evidence into a user-friendly digital app.

Students at SUNY Cortland worked with the Cortland County Historical Society and Experience Cortland, the county’s tourism bureau, to locate and map 50 roadside markers onto the digital history platform Clio.

Students at SUNY Cortland worked with the Cortland County Historical Society and Experience Cortland, the county’s tourism bureau, to locate and map 50 roadside markers onto the digital history platform Clio. Courtesy Cortland County Historical Society

Adding a public history requirement has paid off in five specific ways—both for our department and for individual students.

First, public history helped our department improve recruitment and retention. In 2016, we had 160 majors. Two years later, we had 218. Public history cannot take all the credit for this trend, but it has helped. Students have responded positively to the public history requirement in course evaluations, class discussions, final reflection essays, and informal conversations. Even their parents are coming around. Twice a semester, our university hosts an open house for potential students and their families to visit and ask questions. Now, when we discuss career options with skeptical parents, we describe how our public history requirement prepares graduates for a versatile future. We share specific stories of our graduates going on to careers in education, museums, nonprofit work, and the National Park Service. Public history helps us market the utility of a history degree.

Second, our mandatory public history class has strengthened bonds between Cortland and the university, as well as among students themselves. By doing sustained historical work with organizations throughout the county, our department has trained students to serve their communities. The ongoing nature of this work means that the department has built lasting connections with organizations outside the university system. As an instructor, it is rewarding to watch my students develop close relationships with each other through this class because of the demand for intense, cooperative work. According to research summarized by Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center, these kinds of personal connections between students help form social bonds that, in turn, contribute to retention in our department.

Third, the course emphasizes career diversity—and not just in public history. Museum and other public humanities jobs have been competitive for years, and the COVID-19 crisis will only make them scarcer. The purpose of this course, however, is not to train students for specific public history jobs but to use public history as a vehicle through which students can practice historical skills in diverse settings. Though we talk about it throughout the semester, I structure the final class sessions around skills that students have honed in class, as well as how they can position those skills when they apply for jobs. For most students, this comes as a revelation. By articulating how their work in this class prepared them for numerous vocational options, students grasp the full range of their history degree. I remind them that public history is not a panacea to the jobs crisis, but by learning the skills of public history, undergrads visualize the accessibility of multiple career paths.

By requiring public history, my department has molded undergrads into better historians.

Fourth, public history develops two critical skills: collaboration and the ability to simplify complex research for a general audience. In the process, our students improve their digital literacy, communication, collaborative ability, and intellectual self-confidence—four of the five skills for career diversity the AHA promotes for graduate students. For example, on the Clio project (digital literacy), students worked in teams (collaborative ability) to figure out why those locations and short blurbs on roadside markers matter for today (intellectual self-confidence), and they translated their research for a general audience (communication). And by working on a community-based group project where unanticipated problems almost always happen, students have overcome significant challenges. I tell my students that when they are asked about a challenge they have faced in a future job interview, instead of offering a general or vague answer, they can detail their group project.

Finally, by requiring public history, my department has molded undergrads into better historians. Public history is the other side of the historical methods coin—it asks students to take history further by thinking beyond in-class assignments and toward public-facing projects. By raising the stakes, we push students to demonstrate why history matters in the world today.

After a semester of learning about public history’s big tent and working on a collaborative project, I revisited my opening question on the last day of class. “So, do you all now understand why this course is required for all history majors?” This time, instead of silence, students enthusiastically spoke up about how the course improved their historical skill set and helped them think about their future. They have become better historians, and our department has grown stronger.

Evan Faulkenbury is associate professor of history at SUNY Cortland. He tweets at @evanfaulkenbury.

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