Pandemic-necessitated scheduling changes this fall divided the academic calendar into two blocks, one ten-week and one four-week block. And given the shortened nature of this fall’s Introduction to Public History course, HIST 285, Elliott Professor of History Caroline Emmons likened it to speed dating. Students explored the five main sub-fields that make up public history—oral history, archaeology, historic preservation, archives, and museum exhibition and design—and engaged with each of these disciplines through unique experiential learning activities. Class members explored the old College campus using ground-penetrating radar with archaeologist Charles Pierson, engaged with primary source material in the archives with Archival and Digital Projects Librarian Sarah Almond, and designed and presented a museum-style display now exhibited in the Pannill Center for Rhetoric and Communication.
“Hampden-Sydney students are in the middle of a giant laboratory for public history work,” Emmons says. “We use our historic campus and surrounding region as a way to both indulge the students’ love of history and teach practical skills.”
And in an increasingly reflective time in our country’s history, those practical skills appropriately include learning how to study and communicate about controversial topics. “Public history is the interpretation of history for a public, not an academic, audience,” Emmons explains. “So it requires teaching students to consider the diverse stakeholders who will be interacting with the information and their unique experiences and expectations. In doing this, we are training them to converse effectively about controversial topics, which has never been more important.”
For the final project of the course, students gained firsthand experience navigating historical complexity as they created a museum-style exhibit detailing the history of the plaque that marked the location of the now fallen “Constitution Oak,” an oak tree that was planted to commemorate the service of Richard McIlwaine, H-SC’s 11th president, as a delegate to the controversial Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1902, which enacted Jim Crow policies and resulted in widespread voter disenfranchisement for people of color.
“One of the goals of Compass is to encourage students to engage in a reflective practice across all disciplines to ask them not only to perform a set of academic tasks but also to dig a little deeper by thinking about the broader context of what they are studying,” Emmons says. “Students are learning how to tell stories about themselves and their communities and to do it not only honestly and rigorously but also with empathy and civility.”