History that Matters: Week 13 in History Beyond the Classroom

The view from Fort Michilimackinac, now Mackinaw City, Michigan. Or a view of Anishinaabewaki? Whose lands? Whose Perspective? Whose History? (Photo by author)
Our last formal meeting in HSTY 3902 History Beyond the Classroom took place on Monday, October 26. Students presented on their community work and major projects, reflected on their experiences, and we had a fun end-of-year party to cap it all off. In their presentations and reflections, the students once again impressed each other, me, as well as visiting colleagues from the History Department at Sydney University. Many thanks to all who came along to hear about their work.
Hannah Forsyth also joined us from ACU, where she has been coordinating a similar course. Hannah and I dreamed up this unit of study together several years ago while working on our Social Inclusion program. Teachers at the disadvantaged schools we worked with asked us to help get their students out of the local ‘bubble’ that they were in. Hannah and I also came to realise that our own Uni students (along with us) often seldom left the ‘bubble’ they were in. We were keen to think of a way to push students out of the comforts of the classroom and engage with communities and groups with whom they might not normally interact and to think of the challenges and opportunities of history from a different perspective than the traditional essay allows.
The origins of the class in our social inclusion efforts has meant, I think, that engagement has been central to what the students have been doing which, in turn, has meant the students are all doing local or community-engaged history as much as they are doing public history. The two do not necessarily always go together, but the students have convinced me that in combination, community-engaged public history makes for a more grounded, meaningful, and accountable approach to the past, one that challenges the hierarchies of academic history in many different ways – and often in ways that I did not foresee happening.
The blog posts written by students throughout this semester testify to the meaningfulness and transformative effect of doing community-engaged public history. This was only reinforced when Hannah asked students how their work this semester has enriched their sense of history, or made them think differently about the place of history in the world.
Students immediately noted that working with “real people” demonstrated how personal history could be, and how important it is to so many different kinds of people. They could also see how many different ways people use history, and just how different those ways could be from “academic history.” Indeed, many students said they understood now in a more tangible way the different roles of history and how it works in practice (and one or two noted that they could now see history as a career – they could finally answer that question “what will you do with a history degree!).
Some of the students working with organisations that didn’t have a specific historical focus also said they felt they were doing important work documenting these organisations and their activities, and that history could be about this history in the making, not just preserving sources or telling stories about the past. One noted how important it was to do this, because she felt that no one else would do so, and it could be lost. And even while it was frustrating at times, and not always historical in nature, students could see how our historical skills could be useful in non-historical settings, and with non-historical organisations.
The students’ work with different kinds of organisations also seemed to democratise their view of history. “History is everywhere,” they declared, and not just where historians (or archivists) say it is. One student noted that his work made him realise that this was a great opportunity to reclassify what constitutes history – to query what we normally value. Working with community groups helps us “decentralise historical importance and what we should consider important.” Additionally, “local history shows us what is important to generations of residents and how important their history is as well.”
Significantly, some students noted that they realised for different individuals and groups, history could be “therapeutic,” and they could see how people used history to “reshape themselves and their world.” One student said her community-engaged work made her feel like the course was helping her to help other people.
In the end, because they saw how seriously others took history, the students said they learned to take it seriously too. Indeed, many noted they had spent far more time on their work for this class than any others they had ever taken, that they “got involved more,” because they saw just how important their work was to other people – that it “mattered.” This was only reinforced as students realised that other students and non-students were interested in what they were doing, both inside and outside the University, and that unusually, they were also keen to talk about what they were doing in their history class! Suddenly, their work was not just about getting a good mark, “going through the motions” of writing an essay, or even developing skills. There was much more at stake, and several students noted that they came to realise that the history they were doing was about much more than themselves.
You can see why I’m more than a little sad about the course coming to an end. The students in HSTY 3902 have impressed, inspired and energised me from the start. I’m sure that many thought I was a little mad when I explained what we would be doing way back in Week One. Likely some still think so! But this group has persevered, thrown themselves into their work, and pioneered a way forward for future classes.
Along the way, they have not been the only ones learning. This course and the students’ work has made me think very differently about my own work, made me question my relevance as an academic historian, and forced me to acknowledge that we have much more work to do to make our work accessible, to think about our responsibilities as historians, and to be more accountable for the histories that we write.
The class might have ended, but I’m very much looking forward now to reading students’ reflective diaries, and seeing their major projects come to fruition. Stay-tuned…

2 thoughts on “History that Matters: Week 13 in History Beyond the Classroom”

  1. I echo what you’ve said, Mike. The students who presented during this final session, along with the five I’ve been working with for discrete projects, have impressed me enormously. They are both making history and taking their tasks seriously, finding ways to connect to the human past via places, events and people. I can’t wait to see what the final result of this mixture of enthusiasm, talent and personal reflection will be!

  2. I so enjoyed meeting these students, and they seemed just as turned on as you describe them. I hope I can transfer some of these inspiring possibilities back home (USA) to our new public history program at Penn State, Abington. Onward.

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