Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily


Public History

As directors of public history programs, we rarely have the opportunity to teach full digital history courses to undergraduates. But our inner digital historians will not be silenced, so we each infused our Introduction to Public History courses with digital skills, particularly through an assignment we call (insert best announcer voice) “Public History in the Wild.” PH Wild asks students to view the world around them like one big public history canvas and then write about it as a public historian in training.

Drawing of a machine called the Label O Matic, with the word complexity going into the machine and the words “50-100 words,” coming out. The sentence, “I turn complicated ideas into tiny chunks of text,” is above the machine.

The Label-O-Matic, from “I Have to Write the Labels” by B. Erin Cole

How did we both come to teach the same successful assignment at separate institutions? We met in grad school via mutual friends in the Western History Association and grew in our friendship while competing for academic jobs. In our first years teaching at our respective institutions, we began swapping our Introduction to Public History syllabus. We fondly call this The Great Syllabus Swap (patent pending). Because we teach this course in alternating semesters, we make notes about what worked and what flopped in our classrooms, and then pass the syllabus back to the other to revise and teach, and have continued that cycle since 2018. Both the readings and assignments improve as we build upon the previous iterations and test new things together.

The origins of the PH Wild assignment trace back to Wieck’s first time teaching the class. She created a low-stakes blogging assignment in which students wrote 7 to 10 posts over the course of the semester. Wieck aimed for them to become comfortable using a blogging platform (WordPress) while thinking critically about the field of public history. Not only did Wieck get bogged down grading (perhaps even blogged down), but the students were equally overwhelmed with the amount of writing, which distracted them from honing crucial digital skills.

During Round 1 of The Great Syllabus Swap, Wieck explained this problem to Wingo, leaving it up to her to find a solution. Building upon the same learning outcomes from Wieck’s assignment, Wingo focused on quality over quantity. With a smaller number of assignments, shorter word counts, and more focused prompts, students could focus on sharpening their writing and refining their digital skills. Thus, “Public History in the Wild” was born.

PH Wild sends students out into the world to find history. For instance, why is that statue in the middle of campus and what does it represent? Who built that bell tower? Why does this neighborhood have a historic designation and this other one does not? Students learn to read their environments and focus on place-based storytelling—and they do it on a WordPress platform.

This is where we sneak in the digital history skills. This assignment requires students to:

  • Learn a content management system: Students will need this 21st-century skill for many jobs after college.
  • Develop a robust understanding of metadata: WordPress categories and tags teach students about the information architecture foundational to discoverability and searchability.
  • Consider accessibility: Using alt-text for images pushes students to consider accessibility and audience.

Other professors do similar assignments with Clio or History Pin, but learning WordPress is especially valuable because of its ubiquity across industries. This assignment gives students hands-on experience and the confidence to learn other content management systems or take a deeper dive into web development.

Public History in the Wild sends students out into the world to find history.

Simultaneously, their PH Wild posts are crucial practice for writing for a public audience, including exhibit and label text. We love showing them B. Erin Cole’s comic strip about their job as an exhibit developer called “I Have to Write the Labels.” They take complex history, put it through a machine called the Label-O-Matic, and it spits out 100 words. Writing labels is a hard job, one often underestimated by non–public history professionals and students alike.

There are other perks. The outward-facing assignment expands the audience, and students often share their posts with family and friends. Our students also appreciate the ability to add the project to their digital portfolios and resumes. They even add links to their PH Wild posts in their LinkedIn profiles.

A screenshot of “Integration, Post-Mortem” by Francesca Marcotte, featuring an image of various headstones in Wesleyan Cemetery with trees in the background.

Screenshot of “Integration, Post-Mortem” by Francesca Marcotte Rietz

Students love the project so much that we turned skills from PH Wild into the building blocks of their final course projects. Wieck’s students designed an Omeka site called Rattlers Remember. The students conducted archival research on campus, collected oral histories, and organized a History Harvest. Then they converted their copious research into miniature stories about places on campus, drawing equally on their archival work and their practice with accessibility and engaging writing. Wieck’s students translated their knowledge about WordPress into Omeka, demonstrating in real time the portability of their skills.

Wingo’s students also applied their PH Wild skills to their final projects. Inspired by a conversation on Twitter, she developed a final project called “InStall History,” where students tastefully exhibited their historical research about the university in bathroom stalls. They created single-page posters based on archival research, added QR codes that linked to the blog, and then plastered bathroom stalls across campus. The proof was in the pudding on how much her students absorbed from PH Wild. For example, they openly debated new categories and tags, and after a heated discussion over how many words they could use, students settled on 700. They graded themselves on accessibility too, as they replicated key parts of PH Wild in their collaborative rubric. Beyond skill-building, students also felt a camaraderie and shared ownership of their projects. One student wrote, “I felt like I was part of something.” Another was also clearly inspired. They wrote, “I didn’t dread coming to class.” And the project had measurable success: some of these “InStall History” posts received over 250 hits!

The outward-facing assignment expands the audience, and students often share their posts with family and friends.

Assignments like this provide students with marketable public history and digital skills. However, students do not always know how to market them. To help, Wingo hosts a “Resume Day” at the end of each semester. Students come to class with a resume draft based on a template from Career Services, which also introduces them to the services available on campus. Then she stands at the whiteboard and asks them to list the skills they gained in class. Wingo and her students collectively categorize them and convert them into project descriptions for their resumes. Faculty sometimes struggle to prove our relevance to students, and exercises like this help students learn to leverage humanities skills in the real world.

The Great Syllabus Swap has continued and expanded to our other undergraduate and graduate courses. We frequently send each other new assignments for review and have a growing cache of public history news items to keep the material fresh. We highly recommend finding a syllabus buddy and forming a club of your own. It expedites the maturation of syllabi, helps us keep our readings and activities up-to-date, and improves the students’ experience.

For sample student assignments, see the Wingo versionand the Wieck version. They also have prepared these instructions.

Rebecca S. Wingo is assistant professor of history and director of public history at the University of Cincinnati; she tweets @rebeccawingo. Lindsey Passenger Wieck is associate professor of history and director of the public history MA program at St. Mary's University; she tweets @LWieck.

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