A cry for help: collegial syllabus revision

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By Berdea (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo credit: Berdea, via Wikimedia Commons

My public history courses are complicated.

Over the eight years since I took over as Director of Public History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I have found myself juggling and re-juggling course content, trying to achieve just the right mix of reading, discussion, research, and practice. I worry constantly about how to balance quality control and authority against student creativity and development. This worry manifests in every decision I make about each course: How much description of the assignment should I include? Which readings will be most effective for advancing students’ understanding of both the roots and the practice of core methodologies? How can I break assignments into manageable bites? What is the difference between graduate and undergraduate study in public history? What are the learning goals? What kinds of assignments will be enjoyable and meaningful for students?

This semester, rather than worry in isolation, I used social media to reach out to fellow public history educators. Through a series of public and private messages posted on Facebook and Twitter, I asked for advice about syllabus structure and assignments. To be honest, my first post was not much more than digital graffiti: Why did I think it was a good idea to completely reconstruct two courses just weeks before class began? I expected little more than a chorus of support in response. Instead, colleagues asked questions: Are there new readings? New topics? What’s the project this semester? I exchanged syllabi with several colleagues, asking specific questions about the level of detail in my syllabus, the logic of weekly readings, and the learning goals. We engaged in a collaborative reflection about what has worked and what has been unsuccessful in our courses. Based on these conversations, I reconfigured the syllabi for both my graduate and undergraduate introduction to public history courses.

Graduate Course Redesign: Simplify to Encourage Creativity

Although my approach to the graduate course has generally worked well, my description of the semester-long service learning project became increasingly detailed. While I hoped such detail would make the goals and parameters clear, it actually created anxiety for students. Ironically, they often asked for even more specific instructions and more information about my expectations. The collaborative process was lost.

I posted a status update: How much assignment description do you include in the syllabus? This opened up a conversation with colleagues in Washington State, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Together, they described the benefits of simplicity in project design. Less description in the syllabus gives students and the instructor the freedom to change the assignment. Empowered by knowing that public history educators across the country approach their assignments in this way, I allowed myself to let go of some control.

I dramatically reduced the amount of project description in the syllabus. This has given students more creative control over the assignment and empowered them to be more responsive to our community partner and less concerned about my expectations.

Graduate students on a walking tour of Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. Photo by Denise Meringolo.

Graduate students on a walking tour of Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. Photo by Denise Meringolo

Undergraduate Course Redesign: Public History across the Curriculum

My social media conversations led to more significant changes in my undergraduate introductory syllabus. Prior to my current redesign, the course had offered a general overview of public history’s subfields.

I posted a Facebook status update, asking colleagues to share their favorite undergraduate assignments. But what began as an inquiry about assignments led me to a much larger question: Who is the audience for my undergraduate course? For many of my colleagues, the undergraduate introduction to public history is intended for history majors exploring career options outside of teaching. But because undergraduate students at UMBC will enter the greater Baltimore-Washington metropolitan region job market, which is crowded with MA and PhD public historians, I was increasingly uncomfortable with the “introductions to careers” model. It seemed to me to make a promise of employment that I could not possibly keep. How, then, could I design a course that had value for both history and non-history majors?

Rather than a career development course, my redesigned undergraduate introduction to public history course helps students from a variety of disciplines become more analytical, more self-reflective, and more empathetic to people seeking a usable past. These skills are crucial for public historians. Thus, the course can serve to attract students to UMBC’s new undergraduate public history minor and recruit students to our graduate program. At the same time, the public history mode of inquiry and collaboration is applicable to a variety of professional environments. By emphasizing this, I have redesigned the course so that it has value for students regardless of major or disciplinary focus.

Through social media exchanges, I entered into a long conversation with colleagues who teach undergraduate courses in public history, and we discussed the learning goals and logical progression of assignments. Borrowing and adapting their ideas, I designed a course that takes students from self-reflection and analysis to a consideration of professionalism. First, we pull out analytical tools from readings on audience and commemoration, and I ask students to use them to think critically about an artifact or event that is meaningful to them. Next, we identify terms and processes related to collections and curation. Students use these to analyze popular approaches to history-making. Finally, we read a series of best practices documents and contemporary case studies, and students explore History@Work with an eye toward critical thinking about professionalism.

This process of collaborative syllabus revision reminded me that I am part of a large community of public history educators, many of whom feel isolated in their home departments. Through social media, we can practice what we preach:  to engage in a collaborative, self-reflective process that can foster a more dynamic and responsive learning environment for our students and for ourselves.

~ Denise Meringolo is Associate Professor of Public History at University of Maryland at Baltimore County.

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