Thursday, July 30, 2015

To Educators: Keep it Real

Last summer I attended a cocktail reception at an academic conference. A point of discussion that came up was student engagement--or the lack thereof. I brought up the strategy of field trips as a means of connecting students with stories of the past. A fellow attendee quizzically looked at me and uttered, "What can you do outside that you can't do in a classroom?" This comment caught me off guard, just for a moment. I then realized this question fit within a much broader pattern of academia that fails to ask: "What do students want from a history course?" As it turns out, many do in fact have a desire to get their money's worth from a class but also occasionally enjoy having some fun (gasp) in a creative and educational manner.

As fellow blogger Kevin Levin alluded to earlier this year, professional historians rarely write historical bestsellers that are consumed by the masses. Why so? Academia has become embroiled by the notion that it cannot write for general audiences or trade publishers--that it is a lesser form of scholarship. As a result, journalists both good and bad have a greater control on historical literature than most real scholars.

My conversation with our wine-sipping professor mentioned earlier reveals a similar dilemma at a smaller level. Just as publishing outside a university press is considered a transgression, some professors seem equally skittish about taking the learning experience beyond the classroom. Luckily, there are a few ways to move beyond this mentality. Let's discuss a few of them.

One of my great joys of being a college educator is not only sharing my fascination of history in a scholarly setting but also actively reaching out to the local community--including the young and the old. A solid way to determine creative ways to teach history is to ask yourself, "How would I have liked to have learned about history when I was younger?" A prime way of me answering that question is through assisting with Penn State Altoona's Kids College--annual summer workshops that allow elementary and middle school-aged students to have a taste of the college experience. Not surprisingly, many learning strategies that work for them also work for my full time students who are ten years older. Field trips, immersive activities, and rare opportunities should be required for all students of any academic level. So, where do we start?

I worked with seven students in grades between sixth and ninth over the course of five days. Our first day was WWII themed. We learned why the war came and who the major players were, but also how the conflict affected everyday people. Students were (literally) placed in the shoes of American GIs. We drew our own cartoons of the scruffy Willie and Joe, allowing us to empathize with 1940s soldiers. We viewed some archival footage as well. Afterward, we conducted a Monuments Men scavenger hunt around campus using real historical clues and documents.

Field trips were also heavily incorporated into the week-long series of events. At the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, the students learned to physically cut stone, hew logs, twine rope, and work a railroad. These activities compliment, not override, the primary material learned in the classroom.

Ranger Doug Bosley shows the students around the historic Lemon House Tavern. At its face value, one could only learn about liquor in such a setting. But, through the power of contextualizing, an 1840s tavern becomes a platform for interpreting 19th century politics, the perils of the frontier, gender roles, hygiene, as well as the personal flaws and ambitions of patrons who frequented the establishment. The best thing about historic sites is they educate us without us even realizing it in many instances.

The same was true of our adventures at Fort Roberdeau Historic Site. The 1770s lead mine fort also includes a 19th century farmhouse and barn that are helpful tangibles in illustrating frontier life. The farmhouse becomes "Philadelphia" upon entry, where students distinguish the differences in lifestyle between the urbane Pennsylvania capital and the rough and tumble Allegheny Mountains. One can learn about class divides in places other than the writings of Gordon Wood or Eric Foner. Above, our pupils learn how to curtsy back and forth to one another in period garb.

What better way to discuss the daily life on the Pennsylvania wilderness than to experience a piece of it yourself? While it may seem juvenile at first, hands-on learning for a person of any age is frequently the best way of retaining the information one acquires.

A final day of activities included a special presentation by Don Freeburn, a former NASA engineer who was one of many scientists working on the Apollo Program in the 1960s and 1970s. With him he brought not only his years of expertise but also artifacts and mementos from his services (including his vintage slide rule, which was completely foreign to our youngsters seen above). Incorporating firsthand witnesses to historical events equally enlivens classroom discussion. I mean, come on. This guy knew Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

By now, we can easily see field excursions to places of historical, cultural, or scientific significance should not be a burden but rather an asset that makes people and ideals from books more relatable and interesting. Our students certainly thought this was the case.

Here's the real kicker: I take my college students to the very same places and conduct similar activities with them. Our desire to experience the past on a more personal level cannot and should not change with age or setting. Far too typical is it for some college professors (and even high school teachers) to perceive field trips beneath their pedigree as something infantile or lacking maturity. This could not be farther from the truth. Visiting places is as fundamental to an historian's work as digging out a rare manuscript from an archive. Others simply do not want to be bothered with the logistics of planning such expeditions. Regardless, do not belittle field trips, embrace them. In such settings, one can learn from younger people in order to become a better educator. In other words, do yourself and your students a favor and keep it real. The power of place is not easily replicated in the classroom.


  1. Jared, couldn't agree with you more. Studying history from a book does not give you a visual of what happened. Going on field trips.. seeing the ground on which events happened I believe only enhances the whole history experience

  2. A very refreshing and insightful read! It begs the question of where the tradition of stopping education in our twenties came from. You said it perfectly, "Our desire to experience the past on a more personal level cannot and should not change with age or setting." Once that desire is buried, it seems we're left with closed minds with a very limited capacity for critical thinking, empathy, and sense of our place in the wider world. Thanks for advocating to keep minds of all ages more open, it certainly helps motivate me to try to do the same.