Fall 2018

Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant
Adjunct Associate Professor of History and American Studies, UNC-Chapel Hill

Mondays, 3:35-6:05 pm
Dey Hall 313

Fall 2018 course flyer

What Is Public History?

This course introduces selected topics in the history, theory, and practice of public history.  There are many definitions of public history, but we’ll think of it broadly encompassing historical work that:

  • Is conducted or encountered in public settings;
  • Is fundamentally engaged with public audiences or communities;
  • Addresses itself explicitly to current public issues or problems; or
  • Mediates between the specialized knowledge of professional historians and the historically-oriented preferences, expectations, and needs of various publics.

To elaborate, public history is a vast and diverse field that can embrace all of the following components:

History in public: the many arenas where historians work and where historians and various public(s) are in dialogue about history, including online; in museums, archives, and libraries; at historic sites, national parks, battlefields, and historic houses; in corporations, historical societies or organizations; and in and with government agencies.

History developed for and with public audiences: historical works directed primarily at public audiences (e.g. historical exhibits mounted in any of the above venues, as well as documentary films, trade or popular historical books, historical dramas or festivals, and historical novels); historical projects co-created with, and responsive to, various publics.

History on the public’s behalf: historical work done for public benefit or at public expense (e.g. to measure or certify compliance with public statutes concerning historic preservation, cultural resources management, or planning; or to undergird policy decisions); done within government agencies by professional historians or contractors; or produced as part of a dialogue about current political, social, or cultural issues (e.g. historically-oriented analysis of current policy debates appearing in the public media).

The public and history: what the public wants and seeks from its encounters with history. Topics engaged here include history and “heritage”; history and “memory”; the relationship of history and tourism; grass-roots historical projects and local history; participatory history through such mechanisms as re-enactments or crowdsourced projects; regional or national controversies over history; and general issues of “shared authority” between professional historians and the public.

A Topical Approach

A single introductory course cannot possibly cover the full range of professional practice and scholarly activity that constitutes public history. Furthermore, since this course is not part of a sequence within a larger public history curriculum, it functions as an introduction appropriate either for future practicing public historians or for people who may become part of the historically-interested citizenry–seeking and encountering history in many settings. This course will introduce concepts that will be valuable in either case.

We’ll explore public history through a topical approach that weaves together two major strands:

  1. Reading and discussing some of the best public history scholarship engaging questions of:
  • who is “the public” and what do they want or need from history?
  • how parts of the past are remembered or forgotten
  • how historical narratives are constructed and why “history” is inevitably dynamic
  • how to be a thoughtful, critical participant in public conversations about history
  • the historical development of and varied areas of practice within the public history field
  • how public history can and does deal with difficult topics and painful episodes in the past.

2. Practicing public history by contributing original research to a public history project in which the instructor is currently engaged, and by developing preliminary ideas for a public history project of your own. Doing these two things, we will . . .

  • begin to understand some specific types of public history projects that real practitioners do
  • undertake some original, primary source-based research in sources related to African American history
  • consider the planning steps involved in creating a public history project

Key Skills

Through the approach outlined above, this course will expand your knowledge of some key ideas and issues in public history while building some specific skills:

Practicing critical reading and discussion of other historians’ work

  • Reading complicated texts carefully to understand the nuances of historical arguments
  • Thinking critically and analytically about what you’ve read
  • Learning to have an informed, grounded, and authentic discussion of what you’ve read

Conducting original historical research

  • Doing historical research, including asking historical questions and finding pertinent primary and secondary source materials in archival collections (both physical and online)
  • Evaluating, assessing, and drawing meaning from primary sources and historical evidence
  • Keeping track of your research in a way that allows proper citation and tracking of your sources

Planning for public history

  • Identifying a topic that would benefit from a public history intervention
  • Considering possible audiences and communities that would care about that topic
  • Planning an appropriate way to engage relevant publics in discussion of that topic
  • Articulating goals and steps to reach them
  • Speaking clearly and persuasively to other about your idea

Working with digital history tools

  • We’ll use Google Drive and online databases of digitized historical materials.
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