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.
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.