History Communication

A friend posted a link to this article about a course on History Communication put together by the National Council on Public History. Here’s the syllabus they proposed. So many thoughts about this article.

Timing

I haven’t spent much time looking at the syllabus yet, but apparently this all came about four years ago. FOUR YEARS????? Where have they been? Seriously? I’ve been doing “History Communication” for thirty years. The “National Council on Public History” just decided four years ago that this skill should be included in undergraduate education. Wow. Frankly, that seems far too late. We’ve done an amazing disservice to our young people.

Sharing

The syllabus has a byline, “Sharing Historical Scholarship with Non-Experts Across Multiple Media.”

I find this attitude incredibly hard to stomach. Just because someone isn’t an academic does not mean they aren’t an expert. It may be hard to believe, but there are people in the world who know a great deal about a topic, even history, but they do not work in in the field. And, really, who is to say the academic or museum professional view is the “expert” view? It’s one perspective, one knowledge base.

The other implied piece in this sentence: the academic “expert” is “sharing” their expertise and wisdom. Wow. Thanks. Did anyone ask for it? Does anyone care? This attitude is what gives academics and museums a bad rap. It’s this self-importance that knowledge comes from the institution. That the museum/university knows everything and legitimizes the content.

Library with old books and busts of men

Experts sharing with “non-experts” feels an awful lot like dead white man history. Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

This is far from true. In both museums and universities, the materials in collections are biased by the institution that collected them. Who’s stories are we telling? Who’s stories are we not telling? Why isn’t the community telling their own story?

I’m not saying the historian/professor/museum professional isn’t incredibly knowledgeable. They clearly are steeped in content, background, context. This doesn’t deny that. But this statement above just strongly implies that the academic/museum professional is better than those “non-experts.”

Course Content

I’ve just glanced through the syllabus but I will say it is still incredibly heavy on the academic and theoretical. I would love to design my own syllabus for this…. The concept of “History Communication” is brilliant, actually, and is a great way to frame the course.

Here are some of my points of confusion:

  • One activity is “Create a Department/Faculty Portfolio for non-Historian Audience.” What in the world does that mean? If I am even close to thinking what that is, why would you ever do that?
  • One activity has students writing a script for a podcast. This is an excellent activity. However….. they use the term, “Brevitizes”. OK – that’s obnoxious. It’s writing in a way that anyone can understand. It means taking out jargon that only a few people know. It means using terms and words that make sense to people who don’t spend their life studying these things. If you’re a historian, think about how you’d want to read something about, oh, nuclear physics, Russian literature, anatomy, auto mechanics, whatever. Don’t be condescending. Make it so people can understand what you’re saying.
  • One week on Digital Humanities? Oh please. That needs to be at least half the course.

My course would have the following:

  • a maximum of two “journal articles.” If even. Probably zero, except to compare/contrast language and writing styles.
  • no papers as assignments.
  • projects: grading would be on minimum of two major projects, at least one digital and one non-digital.
  • writing to analyze: social media from museums and other historians, newspaper articles, magazine articles, press releases, blogs, films and novels.
  • writing to produce: marketing materials, tweets and other social media, newspaper articles, mini-web exhibits
  • audience: every project would be for an audience outside of the instructor.
  • visuals: every single project would include visuals of some sort: maps, photos, infographics, objects, something.
  • teaching technology: the term “digital native” is a myth. Not everyone under 30 knows how to use technology, and we need to teach them.

I better get busy! More to come.

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