Top Gun "Introduction to Public History" for general education?

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By Kucingbiru13 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A ‘top gun’ introduction to public history course for general education might be simpler than you’d think.

In 2006, when I arrived as “the public history hire” at DePaul University, in Chicago, my charge was to create an undergraduate public history concentration for history majors. At the time, the only public history course actively being taught was “Introduction to Public History,” a lower division course that served the university’s general education requirements. I decided that this course should stay on the books and that it would be one of two required courses (along with the internship) for would-be public history concentrators.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure my decision to keep this course on the books was a result of my being a bit overwhelmed. Not being native to Chicago and as a new tenure-line Assistant Professor with this public history charge, much of my time was absorbed with the business of forging new community connections while also designing (and getting approval for) an entirely new repertoire of public history courses. What? The “Introduction to Public History” has already been approved? Great! More time to develop internship prospects!

Within a few quarters, I resurrected the public history internship and developed a bevy of other courses: “Doing Local and Community History;” “Oral History Project;” “Women, Gender, and Public History;” “Living History and Historical Interpretation: American Historical Memory” (among others)–all courses for history majors and minors. Evaluations tended to be strong, but the “Introduction to Public History” course? I just couldn’t seem to ever get it quite right.

In Winter 2012–eager to finally “get it right” (and admittedly eager to boast about my revamp of the course for my forthcoming tenure application that fall), I embarked on a near total revision of the course. I mined the NCPH’s (National Council on Public History’s) “Recommended Readings for Public History Courses.” I turned to my university’s service learning center to arrange a community-led field trip and to introduce a new service-learning component to this particular course. I also arranged for us to tour the award-winning “Out in Chicago” exhibit on GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) Chicago history at the Chicago History Museum, and we read an advanced-copy of a Radical History Review essay written about the exhibit by its curators (I had co-edited the issue).

Though I usually approached this course with some measure of dread, this time would be different. I was brimming with enthusiasm and buoyant with confidence. Then the quarter started. I was teaching two sections, with both filled to 40. Of those 80 undergraduates, a minority were history majors. No matter, this course was sure to be the “Top Gun” of undergraduate “Introduction to Public History” courses–and I was Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the best of the best.

While I did manage to gain a couple of public history concentrators out of the mix, at quarter’s end, my quantitative evaluations were uncharacteristically low, and some of my qualitative evaluations biting. Like Maverick in the 1986 film, I crashed and burned–my confidence shaken. Why did this happen?

In previous quarters, I chose readings that tended to focus on professions and practical skills of public historians (archivists, oral historians, museum curators, etc.), which tended to bore students even while they readily connected the readings to course assignments, such as the final project, which had asked students to write exhibit labels about local neighborhood history. The readings I chose for Winter 2012, however, largely focused on controversies surrounding the production of history at historic sites. Feedback suggested not only that some students found these new readings (alas, many mined from the NCPH recommended list) too difficult but also that I needed to better convey how controversies over historical production are central to inquiry into the field of public history. I admit that initially my reaction to this failure was defensive. Surely this was a problem of audience?! Maybe, I thought, it’s just not possible to effectively teach a general education class that is also supposed to speak to future public historians at the undergraduate level?

Ultimately I was grateful for this feedback because it afforded me the opportunity to rethink how best to introduce non-majors and future public historians to public history. True, I could have decided to just trash the course at this point, to redesign an “Introduction to Public History” course just for majors, but, honestly, I’ve since come to see this general education course as meaningful public history work in and of itself. Although most of the students who take this class will not go on to public history careers, they will go on to be public history consumers. I see now that a fatal flaw to previous iterations of this course was that I was asking students to cast a critical eye on public historical exhibits, interpretations, etc.–but casting this critical eye proved to be a significant roadblock if they weren’t first grounded in history. So how does one pitch an “Introduction to Public History” course in the service of general education?

My revised goals for this course are simple: I want students (1) to gain some grounding in particular histories (in my case, in modern US cultural history), and (2) to have opportunities to critically analyze and thoughtfully engage with a range of public historical interpretations of the eras/ideas that we study. My most recent syllabus explains it like this:

In each class session, we will focus on the history of a particular era in US history (roughly the 1890s to the present).  We will survey the historical time period at hand by engaging with lecture materials, textbook selections, and primary sources (i.e., original sources from the time period). We will then examine an example of a public historical project that interprets the era/topic at hand. For example, in a class session about westward expansion in the late 19th century, we will first survey the historical context. Then we will examine an exhibit titled “The West as America”–a widely contested public exhibit from 1991 that cast a critical eye on artistic representations of 19th-century Westward expansion.

It’s one part “US history survey” and one part “Introduction to Public History” and that balance seems to be working for this audience. Evaluations are once again pleasing to administrators, and my students–history and non-history majors–are (generally) quite engaged. For this course, at least, I don’t try to be Maverick anymore, but I’m pretty sure that’s okay with everyone.

-Amy Tyson is Associate Professor of History at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. She also serves as Director of the Public History Concentration and Director of the Program in American Studies. 




  1. Jim Mackay says:

    Interesting. To step back a bit, to the really “101” aspects of this issue . . . to what extent do you think there’s a basic disconnect or misunderstanding among the students of the differences between public history and other forms of historical scholarship? I try to detect this sort of confusion every time we have interns here (small city history museum just south of DC) . . . their perception of what historians do is broadened by the experience, and they find that it’s a lot more than doing research and putting stuff in cases, then waiting for tourists to show up. I like the approach, though, of studying content and then seeing that content reflected in an exhibit. Have you ever asked them to study content and then do their OWN exhibit?

  2. Amy M Tyson says:

    Hi Jim,

    Yes (kind of)! One of the main assignments for this course is the old fashioned exhibit review followed by an exhibit label.

    For the exhibit review students are required to do extra research one historical topic in the exhibit so that they can feel more sure-footed in their analyses. Then, students must locate a meaningful primary source on that historical topic — one that is not in the exhibit.

    Students then submit a nomination form (providing rationale for where and why this source should be included) and exhibit label text (I instruct them on principles of interpretation and Label Writing 101). It’s not a full blown exhibit in its own right, but it is a meaningful exercise that requires them to do original research, to think about interpretive exhibits, and to consider audience.

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