Published on Oct 13, 2020
This winter and spring, graduate students will have the chance to put their historical skills to work outside the walls of the university. Professor Leora Auslander will be offering a practicum, HIST 67603, designed to introduce graduate students to the theory and practice of public history. Students in the course will work with partner organizations in Chicago and beyond, including Forensic Architecture, Bellingcat, the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project, and the Newberry Library, to design and carry out public history projects. All projects will be adapted to virtual learning.
Professor Auslander first taught the public history practicum in 2017. That version of the course was a joint initiative of the American Historical Association and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “Their motivation was to try to give PhD students in history an imaginary of alternative careers not in academia that would make good use of their training in history,” says Auslander. Students in the course worked with museums affiliated with the Chicago Cultural Alliance, including the Haitian American Museum of Chicago, the Polish Museum of America, Dank Haus German American Cultural Center, and Open Center for the Arts, a Latinx-focused arts collective.
At the Haitian American Museum, students supported a temporary exhibit, Vwa Yo Apre Matye (Voices After Matthew), which dealt with the effect of Hurricane Matthew on the city of Les Cayes, Haiti. It featured oral interviews with Haitians who experienced the disaster coupled with paintings by Haitian artists. Students collaborated with the Polish Museum, Dank Haus, and Open Center on a joint exhibit called “Our Legends,” in which each heritage museum highlighted a legend from their culture and curators put them in dialog with each other. UChicago students conducted archival research and oral history interviews to create a virtual component of “Our Legends.” The final group of students helped develop a Chicago-specific component of the Smithsonian’s traveling “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit, which made a stop at the Field Museum.
The public history practicum was revived for this year thanks to the efforts of Professor Emily Osborn and the UChicago Grad PATHS program, and with continued financial support from the Mellon Foundation. Celeste Cruz-Carandang, the coordinator of PATHS, points out that the course is a good deal for partner organizations, too: “I always tell them, think of something that you’ve always wanted to do but you haven’t been able to. The whole point of this class is showing the versatility of the PhD.”
This year the course will be broader in scope. Partner organizations span from local South Side groups to international NGOs, and many of the organizations have an activist orientation. It will be open to graduate students in history and throughout the Humanities and Social Science Divisions and Divinity School who work with a historical disposition. It is open to all graduate students, regardless of their stage in the program. Students beyond the first two years of coursework are encouraged to enroll. Students will work in small groups of four to five to execute a project with one of the partner organizations, which they will choose according to their interest. The organizers hope to make the public history practicum a permanent course offering in the Department and to foster ongoing relationships with partner organizations.
“One of the things we discovered last time was that the timeline was really too compressed,” says Auslander. To fix that, this year the course will be broken into two parts. During winter quarter, the class will meet five times to discuss readings on the theory and history of public history. In the spring, participants will meet five more times to focus on hands-on fieldwork and collectively brainstorm solutions to their projects’ challenges. Alex Jania, a PhD candidate in history and course intern helping develop the practicum, emphasized its collaborative nature: “The point is to give you work experience that will be valuable if you go into a sector that’s not academia, and to do that with team members rather than just by yourself.”
At the end of the practicum students will have an example of their intellectual work in a genre other than the academic paper—such as a website, a database, a bike tour, or a podcast—to demonstrate their versatility as researchers and communicators. This, the organizers hope, will be useful to students as they apply for academic and nonacademic jobs alike. Tahel Goldsmith, a PhD student in history and the course’s other intern, says that for her, designing the course is helping answer some deep questions: “I think that the pandemic has aroused many existential questions, and I’ve been thinking very hard about what it means to get a PhD in history. Participating in designing this class has opened up a window for me to examine how can history be useful as a body of knowledge.” Goldsmith points out that although some of the partner organizations do not do explicitly historical work, UChicago students will complement their projects with historical skills—they will do archival research to locate, record, and classify incidents of police brutality against protestors during last summer’s racial justice protests with Forensic Architecture and Bellingcat, for example. In this way, public history can extend even beyond museums.
For more information about the public history practicum, contact Alex Jania (firstname.lastname@example.org), Tahel Goldsmith (email@example.com), Leora Auslander (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Celeste Cruz-Carandang (email@example.com).