Thursday, April 24, 2014

A New Kind of History Department

Yesterday morning I was part of a team that presented the Digital Harrisburg Project to senior administrators at Messiah CollegeDavid Pettegrew, my colleague in the History Department and director of the Digital Harrisburg Project, and Peter Powers, the Dean of the School of Humanities, did most of the heavy lifting, but I was asked to frame the project within the larger mission of the Messiah College History Department.  Here are some my thoughts:

"A New Kind of History Department"

As I was preparing these thoughts I realized that people in the blogosphere may know more about what has been happening in the Messiah College History Department than the people in this room.  We have been actively promoting our Public History concentration via my blog, History on the Bridge, the Digital Harrisburg blog, Facebook, and Twitter.  I also wrote about my vision for a liberal arts history department in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  My thoughts in this book have led to some formal and informal consulting work and I know that several history departments around the country are assigning the book in their classes and using it in faculty reading groups. (This list includes Bethel and Wheaton).

At Messiah we want our students to be producing history rather than just passively consuming it.  In addition, we want students to be doing history as a form of public and civic engagement because we believe that the historical thinking skills we are teaching them can contribute to a better society. This past weekend, at a history conference in Atlanta, I tried to connect the public work of the historian to Ernie Boyer's "scholarship of engagement."  This is the idea that academic expertise (in our case, the study of the past and historical thinking skills) can be used to strengthen our communities.

By moving toward a "scholarship of engagement" we are in no way abandoning the core ideas that have always informed what we do in the Messiah College History Department.  We still teach our students how to evaluate arguments, read critically, understand the past and the present in context, see the complexity of the human experience, empathize with those who are different, and grasp the concept of change over time.  But we also want to equip our students with a set of skills  These include, but are not limited to:

Digital Skills: We want our students to develop a proficiency in presenting history online through digital exhibits.  We want them to feel comfortable using GIS and other forms of mapping technology. We think it is important that they learn how to design a website.  We want them to think about how to present history creatively through social media.

Oral History Skills:  We want our students to listen to voices that are different from their own and do so in a methodologically responsible way.  We want them to learn how to conduct an oral history interview and in the process expand on what we know about the past.  We want our students to make meaning out of these recordings.

Local History Skills:  We want our students to learn the ins and outs of exploring the history of communities and towns and connect this local history to larger narratives.

Teaching Skills:  While we do a good job of training public school history educators, we want those who are not pursuing a teaching certification to be effective communicators to public audiences.

So some of us in the department went back to the drawing board to revamp what we believed to be an already strong public history concentration.  Let's call it Public History 2.0.  We developed a course in Digital History  We re-purposed our Pennsylvania History course to include work in the creation of digital exhibits, oral history, and local history.  We opened up our "Teaching History" course to non-certification students. And we brought local history into an already existing course on history and archaeology that was originally focused solely on the ancient world.

But we also needed a laboratory in which to work.  After much discussion, we decided that Harrisburg, a medium-sized capitol city located fifteen minutes up the road, would be the perfect place to do this kind of applied history.  Thus far the Digital Harrisburg Project has been driven entirely by history courses.  This semester we have used David's Digital History course and my Pennsylvania History course to get the Digital Harrisburg Project off the ground. (David will focus on the specifics in his presentation). The project has created a sense of excitement among the students who are involved.  We are also featuring the project at our admissions open house presentations for prospective students. Recently we secured a small amount of funding from the Diversity Affairs Office and the Center for Public Humanities to hire students to continue working on this project well after the semester is over. In the Fall, we expect Jim LaGrand's Urban History and David's Public Archaeology course to continue the work of the project.  I will be teaching Pennsylvania History again in Spring 2015.

My brief framing presentation was followed by David Pettegrew's more specific presentation about Digital Harrisburg.  I believe that there are plans to put David's talk on the Digital Harrisburg blog.  Stay tuned.