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From the Classroom to the Front Lines: Reflections on Teaching Public History by Roger Sarty


Organizing and teaching Hi 346J ‘The Practice of Public History’ in the winter term of 2013 was a high point in my time at Laurier. In contrast to often solitary academic life, the course was very social – a chance to work closely with students and colleagues, connect with the broader Laurier community, and also to discover more about Waterloo Region. In fact, this social dimension was perhaps the most important aspect of the course. Teamwork and regular interaction with co-workers, many of whom may NOT be historians or even academics, is the very essence of ‘Public History.’ ‘Public History’ is essentially ‘applied history’ – the use of history in business, government, and not-for-profit organizations for special projects and day-to-day operations whose objectives are things quite different from the ivory tower’s quest for knowledge. Tourism (including museums of all types), government and private archives and libraries, media (internet, radio, television, and publishing for general audiences), and municipal, regional, provincial and federal planning for everything from urban development to national parks are just some examples.

Students told Laurier history profs that they’d like a chance for hands-on work in history jobs. The department wanted to make it happen, and Professor John Laband and Professor Chris Nighman took on the project with encouragement from Dean of Arts Mike Carroll. Dean Carroll brought in Laurier’s Community Service Learning office, which has long experience in placing Laurier students from many disciplines with organizations in the region. The essential goal of the program is mutual benefit: the organizations get the services of Laurier’s talented people, and those people get workplace experience.

Professor Laband asked me to run the course because I was, from 1981 to 2003, a public historian in the federal government. In fact, one of the first chances I had to get to know Laurier was when I was head of exhibits for the new Canadian War Museum. The exhibits team held workshops with Laurier history students and profs for advice on the types of presentations that would most effectively relate Canada’s military experience to (what we hoped!) would be very large audiences of wide-ranging age groups.

I had two reservations about taking on the course. First, I wondered how applicable my experience in Ottawa would be in the Waterloo region. Dean Carroll and Professor Laband overcame this worry by arranging for me to have assistance from local experts. Professor Sharon Jaeger, a prominent public historian, helped in all aspects of course development and ultimately co-taught the course. Professor Debra Nash-Chambers, another leader in public history in the region, generously pitched in with advice on course design, and contacts with institutions for student placements.

Second, having worked in community outreach programs in Ottawa, I knew there would be a great deal of administrative work in contacting host institutions for student placements, making sure clear agreements on duties were in place, and many other ‘human resource’ management details. In just one meeting, Shannon Pennington of Community Service Learning assured me that CSL would handle all that – and they did, superbly. The experience of working closely with Sharon, Deb, Shannon, and Michael Bernhard (the course design specialist at CSL) was a wonderful change from the usual lonely preparation of lectures and assignments. In fact, work with these experts, and the regular interaction with students captured the excitement and stimulation of good teamwork during the best of my Federal government days.

The essential part of the course was the placement experience. Each student worked for two hours a week at a local institution on a wide variety of projects. One student organized and catalogued artifacts at the Wellington County Museum; another researched the history of landing areas on the shores of the Grand River for the Grand River Conservation Authority. At The Museum in Kitchener, a student did research in support of programming for children, and several students developed school programs to promote use of the ‘Building Stories’ web project of the Heritage Resources Centre, University of Waterloo. Another group, placed at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, worked on the project to digitize and prepare for web distribution the Centre’s massive collection of Second World War aerial photographs of combat zones in North West Europe.

The central assignment was to submit a ‘reflective journal’ entry of two- or three-hundred words each week to report on experiences at the placement, significant points in readings and classroom discussions in the course, and the student’s thoughts about what was useful, or not, and why. The journal is a methodology developed by Community Service Learning, and Sharon and I quickly saw its particular value for public history, or indeed any kind of employment that involves membership in a project team. The key to success in many aspects of work in teams is getting into the habit of writing things down clearly and concisely. Most projects require regular reports, tracking of multiple tasks and their deadlines, and participation in team meetings in which organized comments and follow-up are essential. On all these scores (and at least several others) the reflective journal is excellent training.

We therefore structured the course to support the weekly reports, and to use them in other exercises. One of the basic operating principles in public history, or in any project oriented work, is economy of effort: don’t lose time reinventing things; rather build on what you have already expended work in developing. Thus we kept the reading load as light as possible, and focused on practical case studies that talked about successes and failures in particular projects. We regularly devoted classes to discussion of the case studies to help everyone place their own workplace experiences in a broader context. Both Sharon and I discussed our own experiences in different types of projects, endeavouring to highlight themes developed in the readings, and also suggested in the students’ reflective journals. The major paper in the course was designed to allow the students to draw on their reflective journals as a major source.

This blog is sort of my own ‘reflective journal.’ One final reflection is that the course was an unusual opportunity and challenge at the third year level. Most such community placement programs are at the graduate or fourth-year level. This offering was the direct result of the Faculty of Arts’ efforts under Dean Carroll’s leadership to encourage as many students as possible to undertake new endeavours as early as possible. In the course of the semester I became convinced of the wisdom of this approach. Most of the students more than met the challenge and, as their weekly reports showed, they had a very full work experience relevant to any field of employment.

Participation in the course convinced me more than ever that public history projects are no different from other types of projects. Success depends on good teamwork. That, in turn, makes considerable demands on members, such as well developed skills in organizing work, listening to others, researching and digesting information efficiently, and communicating effectively – in discussions and writing. Perhaps most fundamental of all is ‘emotional intelligence,’ the ability to get on productively with others who may have very different professional and personal backgrounds and expectations. My personal view is that a university education, enriched by these kinds of practical experiences, is the best way to hone these skills and qualities.

Roger Sarty is a Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, Research Director of LCMSDS, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Canadian Military History.

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Posted by:

Kellen Kurschinski

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