The Public-Facing History Laboratory has been a project that I have been thinking about for a long time. Public history is a well-established subfield within History. Rather than create a course that surveyed the greatest hits from Public History though, I wanted to create a course that was project-based, multidisciplinary, collaborative, and outward facing. The result, supported by a Humanities Engage Summer Stipend for Curricular Innovation, is a course that is skill-based with an emphasis on teamwork and community engagement.
So much of training within the humanities is oriented toward individual learning in an academic mode. While these courses emphasize important skills, such as critical reading and thinking as well as effective argumentation and written communication, in the Public-Facing History Laboratory I wanted to pivot to a different set of skills that focus on team building, collaborative project development and organization, oral communication, and the delivery of a public-facing product. Built into the plan for the Public-Facing History Laboratory are discussions of major issues that face Public Historians regarding their responsibilities, their sources, and their outcomes, but I decided to focus the course on how to coordinate a group project that is engaged with a community partner, how to conduct oral history, and how to create a digital history using a database content management system.
Learning how to define a project in conjunction with a community partner, how to develop a group into a team, and how to manage the production of a piece of public-facing history on a timetable are all fundamental skills for this kind of work. The first few weeks build this foundation.
There are many different skills that can be brought to public-facing history. I choose to train students in two: oral history and digital history. I chose oral history because I have been training community groups and students on how to conduct effective oral histories for 15 years. During that time, I have seen oral history act as a powerful means for communities to make their voices heard. Pittsburgh’s recent history is incredibly rich and will provide great subject matter for oral history work. I chose digital history, because we live in an increasingly digital world and we are fortunate to have amazing tools available for historical website development. Unlike physical exhibits, digital exhibits are much less expensive to produce and have the potential to reach a much wider public.
In preparation to offer the Public-Facing History Laboratory, I have been engaged in quite a bit of "behind the scenes work" with various Community Partners. For instance, I'm working with Dr. Andrew Masich of the Heinz History Center to offer Pitt students the opportunity to propose to develop part of a permanent exhibit on the civic education questions included as part of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service Citizenship Exam, especially those focused on voting rights and access. (I love the perspective that if we can ask new citizens to know about the history of voting rights and voting access that we ought to develop a resource for the entire public arena). I've also been in conversations with the Director of Rivers of Steel and am developing a possible project for graduate students to create a permanent exhibit at the Carrie Furnace Industrial Site that puts "steelworkers," especially African American steelworkers, back into the site itself. In addition, I've been working with Dr. Julie Beaulieu as part of the ongoing Pitt LGBTQ Archival Education Project to help craft a way for interested Graduate Students to help with the Oral History Collection related to the informal AIDS Hospice at the Brewer's Hotel in the 1980s.
The idea behind all these projects is to help students develop public-facing skills within a learning-by-doing model. The specific projects will change according to student interests and community interests but these offer a place to start thinking about how to make the Lab a resource that helps build skills and experience. The results, however, will extend beyond skill development to tangible products that communicate Pittsburgh’s history to the public.