Public History (HST 367/667), Spring 2011

In the spring of 2011, Assistant Professor Lisa Blee offered Issues in Public History (HST 367/667) for the first time.  Over the course of the semester, students developed community-based research projects around several themes in local history.  At the conclusion of the course, the students presented their educational exhibits and documentary films at a public event at Krankies Coffee.

Public history is both a practice and approach; it is the investigation and interpretation of the past with and for non-academic audiences.  On visits to Old Salem, Bethabara Park, and Reynolda House, the students learned about the major challenges facing public history professionals as they seek to balance accessibility, entertainment, preservation, and interpretation.  The course also introduced students to the notion that public memory is everywhere – a fact just as evident in commemorative statues and buildings as highways and razed neighborhoods. “Public history,” explained student Emily Garcia, “can get students out of the classroom to local sites and requires them to think critically about their surroundings and ask questions like historians.” Indeed, social values can be read on the built environment; what we choose to preserve is a statement about what aspects of the past matter to us today. The task for students in this course was to investigate what Winston-Salem values and what we can learn about ourselves in the process.

To quote future educator Emily Garcia, “Learning by doing is the best kind of pedagogical practice.”  The twenty students in the class formed into six groups and conducted original research on different topics in local history: tobacco, art, gardening, historic preservation, and school desegregation.  Professor Blee provided the broad strokes of published regional history so the students could understand how their topic fit into larger trends – or had been ignored altogether in scholarly accounts.  From their interviews, students came to understand what long-time residents remember and believe to be important.  As Garcia wrote, “As I collected individuals’ stories, it was so interesting to piece their accounts together with newspaper articles and official narratives of secondary sources. As a public historian, I felt as though I had a responsibility to mesh these stories together and paint a larger picture.”  The groups worked through various public history issues as the semester progressed: finding knowledgeable people to interview, filling in gaps in official records, creating a coherent narrative from different or even conflicting accounts, paring down the information into a concise and interesting public format, and respectfully but responsibly interpreting controversial events and points of view.

Garcia reflected on interpretive choices her group made when their research uncovered unflattering aspects of the city: “Not many communities would be proud to be classified as a resegregated area. We combated this issue by simply presenting the facts. We did not make grand statements or assumptions.  Rather, we provided the numbers and maps and the viewer was able to make a conclusion.”

On April 30th, the students presented their findings before a public audience gathered in the performance space at Krankies Coffee.  The students’ projects encouraged Winston-Salem residents to learn, think, question, and discuss what art, tobacco, schools, preservation, and gardens have meant and should continue to mean to the community.  The exhibits will remain on display at Krankies for several weeks,but the impact for the students will be long-lasting.  Garcia reflected at the end of class: “As I continued to do research I began to feel a part of the community. Being a transient young person, this is one of the first times I felt a sense of belonging to a community… Even though Winston-Salem has its flaws, I feel a connection to the city and its history. It has made such an impact that I am seeking a job in the Winston-Salem Forysth County School system.”