Public History in a Socially Distant World

27 March 2020

By Susannah Ottaway, Professor of History and Co-Director of Public Works, Carleton College

Thursday, March 12th, 8:37 a.m., about to drive out of the Northfield Middle School parking lot. I had just dropped off one of my Carleton sophomores who needed a ride to our 8th grade community history partners at the SCOPE program, and I saw the email: Carleton faculty would be teaching online for the foreseeable future. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I guess I won’t be doing *this* for a while.” And my next regretful thought was that I would have to cancel spring term’s “Historians for Hire” course. The public history practicum course has community partnerships at its core; classes are woven completely around the project-based learning that my students do for and with non-profits and cultural institutions with whom Carleton has developed deep relationships. How could I replicate that experience in an online environment?

I spent the next few days (when I wasn’t in a blind panic sitting in workshops to learn online teaching tools… Zoom-Pro? Hypothesis?? Panopto???) delaying the inevitable. My community partners reached out with characteristic kindness and regrets; my students asked what would happen to the course, and I procrastinated from pulling the plug, hyperventilating over the CDC website, spending way too much time on email. A note popped up on the National Council on Public History (NCPH) list-serve: “What should I do with my public history interns?” And the response within minutes from Mark Tebeau of Arizona State University: “The #Covid19Archive, which went live on Friday, would be delighted to accept interns whose job was to help build the collection in their own communities (or by working with under-represented communities — under-represented thought of broadly to include non-digital natives and communities of color.)” The email chain exploded for a minute, as I sat there thinking hard. Could contributing to an online archive replace the projects normally pursued in my class?

This thought drove me back to the core questions I always ask when I think about teaching the humanities at a liberal arts college: How can deep, critical reflection about human history shape my students’ development as ethical, thoughtful global citizens? Are there ways to ensure that my classes force students to deepen their empathy with those profoundly different from themselves, while confronting their own historically-derived position in the world? And, increasingly, with my growing commitment to the public humanities: How can I leverage community-engaged history projects to accomplish those goals, while also building “real world” skills?

A conference call (yes, we all Zoom now…) with Mark Tebeau and Carleton colleagues helped me engage those questions on the new terrain of the online teaching world we all now inhabit. I heard that the Covid19 Archive team centers its work around the concept of the shared authority that academic historians have with the communities whose pasts they study and whose present they help to represent and shape. Contributors charged with building a historical archive for the future must think through questions about whose voices and experiences are represented, and the role and position of the collectors and curators of those experiences. If my students take on those roles for the online archive, they will have to work in virtual communities at a social distance this spring, but, my conversation with Mark Tebeau assured me, they will still be faced with the same essential questions about representation and positionality that form the core of my “normal” public history class.

After that conference call, I stayed on the line with Emily Oliver, Associate Director for Academic Civic Engagement at Carleton, and Elizabeth Budd, the Educational Associate for Carleton’s Public Arts and Humanities Initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation. Emily pushed for me to articulate precisely how I would ensure that my students’ work would remain consistent with the mission of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE): that students “deepen their learning, broaden their knowledge, and create reciprocal partnerships by engaging with local, national, and global communities.” Elizabeth helped me to understand the way digital platforms could assure and enhance the students’ experiences: a new blog to capture students’ reflections on their work in a public forum; a local instance of the Archive, to allow students to practice new digital skills and deepen their understanding of archival practices before presenting polished work that would be beneficial for the Covid19 Archive team.

The minute I left the conference call, I started re-working my spring term syllabus. Five days earlier, I had been ready to abandon “Historians for Hire,” and now, here I was, regretting the two-week delay of spring break before my students could get started. Key to that shift was the way my own community engagements shaped my response to the current crisis. Faced with new questions and challenges, I turned to the online community of the NCPH, and to my Carleton colleagues for help. The national community of practice helped me see the ways in which our shared values and goals as historians could be re-centered on a project that focused on the present. Colleagues helped me figure out how I could replicate classroom experiences in a digital environment. I will miss working face to face with my local community partners this spring, but I am relentlessly optimistic about the work that my students will do, and I am grateful to the virtual communities I can pull towards me, even as I keep everyone around me at a safe social distance.