Teaching Public History to Sophomores

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Postcard of the Wickwire Factory. Image credit: The 1890 House Museum.

In my undergraduate public history course at the State University of New York at Cortland, sophomores usually make up the majority of students. Several of these students have not yet taken our “welcome-to-the-history-major” historical methods class. Our history department requires all our majors to take Introduction to Public History (HIS 280) in order to graduate, and students only need one history survey course before they sign up for this class. That means I get a lot of history major newbies who sign up for my class without a clue as to what “public history” means. I like it that way. I have an opportunity—right off the bat as they enter our program—to shape how they understand the usefulness and power of public history.

This semester, to make that lesson click, my class of 31 students partnered with the 1890 House Museum to conduct oral history interviews. Our project centered on the Wickwire factory in Cortland, New York, an industrial mill that closed in the early 1970s after nearly a century of manufacturing mesh wire, metal screens, and hardware products. This factory that once dominated our small town economically and physically has long since been demolished, leaving few traces of its existence or history, except in local memory.

In groups, students interviewed ten locals about their memories of the Wickwire factory and Cortland when the industry was still alive. They learned oral and public history by interviewing, recording, processing, analyzing, and sharing with the wider public.

During the interviews, narrators shared memories of family members who worked at the factory. Donald Ferris, who lived in a neighborhood close to the factory, recalled, “My grandfather, sometimes he worked a double shift, he worked from seven or eight in the morning, and then he was working the second shift, without a break he’d have another eight-hour shift, and one of us kids would take a lunch pail up and leave it at the yard shack for him.” Sue Guido remembered visiting the factory as a child with her sister to see her father: “We went in and up these old, old stairways, and it was all greased and oiled, you know, it was a factory. Old wooden steps, you would have to be careful, and we would go up in the dye room. My dad would take—my sister’s name is Chopper—he would take Chop and I down to the cafeteria, and we would get chocolate milk or an ice cream sundae.”

These memories will reveal more complex histories at the 1890 House Museum. By interviewing Cortland residents, students realized how studying and producing local history could also make a difference in the community. Since the 1970s, the 1890 House Museum, the former Wickwire family home converted into a historic house museum, concentrated on the private lives of the factory owners, not on the factory itself or its thousands of former workers, like Donald Ferris’s grandfather and Sue Guido’s father.

The former home of the Wickwire family. It is now the 1890 House Museum. Photo credit: The 1890 House Museum.

New leadership at the 1890 House Museum wants to update an older exhibit to tell that story of the factory and its employees, those whose labor created the wealth to construct the 1890 House. When we decided to conduct oral histories to help in this effort, students gravitated to the idea that their class work would not only live on after the semester, but could also help reshape historical interpretation at a museum.

Even without a lengthy foregrounding in historical research, students sensed that their work would be significant. Instead of designing exhibits or overhauling the 1890 House Museum’s approach—projects that would be too advanced for introductory-level students—they provided museum staff with the raw materials of oral histories for future use in crafting new narratives about the Wickwire factory.

But, oh, did we struggle. Potential narrators pulled out, causing us to scramble to find others willing to share their memories. Many students were nervous to meet their narrator and ask questions. Recorders malfunctioned, audio files corrupted, and deadlines blurred. Most groups of three to four students worked well together, but, as often happens, a few did not pull their weight, causing intergroup friction. To keep an eye on group dynamics, I had each student write a short essay twice in the semester for my eyes only to evaluate their personal and group effort, allowing me to intervene when necessary. In the end, students sent ten oral histories to the 1890 House Museum, and they blogged, created pages in WordPress, edited transcripts, cut audio clips, and gave public presentations on their research.

Several times during the semester, I walked into class sure I would face a mutiny. Requiring students to produce a public oral history project without a stronger foundation in historical methods seemed, at times, like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. As we spent our time learning the ins and outs of public history and primary sources, I privately questioned whether we could complete this project. We did finish (barely!), and their work will live on at the 1890 House Museum and on our department’s Cortland Public History website, where students begin to develop their historical thinking and publication skills for wider audiences.

Next time, taking lessons learned from this semester, I’d like to scale down our lessons in class in favor of more community engagement. Our campus sits a few blocks from downtown Cortland, and if I can design assignments for students to share their research with our town, whether through public talks, temporary exhibit installations, or digital content, we can better apply lessons on how public history can make a difference. I also want to develop more relationships with local institutions to bridge town and gown. Having a large class work with a museum can be cumbersome for all parties, but not if everyone enters into it with a mutual spirit of collaboration. Museum staff trusted the students, and a high majority of students took their responsibilities seriously, knowing their work would live on long after their semester ended.

Student Presentations about the Oral History Project. Photo credit: Evan Faulkenbury.

From what I can tell by surveying public history courses at other institutions, many tend to be upper-level, or only offered at the graduate level. I have no problem with that, as such students tend to be better prepared and able to create more complex, public-facing projects. But just as we expect students to struggle with grasping the concepts of what it means to study history in our introductory historical methods classes, we can anticipate something similar in sophomore-level, undergraduate public history classes, too. Will projects be messy? Oh, yeah. But at an earlier stage during their college careers, they learn firsthand about the significance and possibilities of public history.

~Evan Faulkenbury is an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Cortland. Follow him on Twitter @evanfaulkebury.

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