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New certificate aims to make history relevant to general public

Walking around New Brunswick, creating documentary films, blogging and digital mapping are changing the face of history, representing different ways that students engage with the past on a daily basis.

Students are learning history without necessarily sitting in a classroom and conducting research, said Andrew Urban, an assistant professor in the Departments of American Studies and History at Rutgers.

This spring, Rutgers students will be able to earn a certificate in public history, which deals a lot with making history palatable and relevant to the general public as opposed to a university audience of academics, Urban said.

“The way public history differs [is] that you’re creating research and presenting history for anyone who might encounter or stumble upon the subject you’re addressing,” he said.

Urban plans to teach the introductory course for the 12-credit certificate. In addition to covering the basics of what public history is, he hopes to have students create an exhibit covering the lesser-known stories, events and incidents in Rutgers’ history.

“It’s the type of course where one of the goals will be for Rutgers students to learn more about the community they are a part of and how they can contribute to producing knowledge on their community’s past,” Urban said.

Johanna Schoen, vice chair for undergraduate education and associate professor in the Department of History, came up with the idea for the certificate.

For 20 years, Rutgers had a history internship funded by the New Jersey Historical Council. Last year, the council pulled funding because the University did not have a public history program.

“I took that kind of as a personal challenge,” Schoen said.

So she began approaching colleagues and asking them to develop courses for the certificate.

Another part of the motivation behind the certificate is to offer undergraduates a way of thinking about what they can do with a history degree other than graduate school or law school.

Students interested in the certificate will first have to take a class called “History Workshop,” which they will follow up with a number of electives. Courses on oral history will teach students how to interview people about their historic experiences and interpret that material.

Public history can open up a number of career options, including helping to develop exhibits at museums.

With technology, history has grown “so much,” Schoen said, mentioning the digitization of archives and online exhibits.

“I think [technology] has really exploded the field in terms of who can look and who can use materials and the way in which historical societies have tried to make things accessible to people who can’t necessarily come to them,” she said.

Toby Jones, associate professor in the Department of History, said the public history courses are designed to be interactive and collaborative.

Jones, a Middle East historian who has studied 20th century politics in Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Iraq, is also interested in the environmental history of New Jersey, paying special attention to environmental disaster sites and how they have been managed.

Jones suggested teaching a class on the topic and said Schoen was receptive.

History departments across the country are up against the pressure of declining enrollments, he said. With pressure from home, students are navigating toward “concrete science and engineering programs.”

“One way to get students into our classes is to be more innovative,” Jones said. “What’s going to interest students in not only subject matter, but how we teach the stuff.”

Urban, who most recently has worked on an exhibit with students looking at the history of the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is preparing to begin another project where students will research the Elizabeth Detention Center and Seabrook Farms. The project will center on the theme of mass incarceration.

They can curate content and present material as part of an exhibit that can travel the world, Urban said.

When people hear what public history is, they sometimes think there is a simplification process to package the history in order to make it palatable for the public.

That is not what will be done here, Urban said. The certificate is meant to encourage students to think about how they can present historical material to anyone who is not a part of the “university audience.”

“I think I’m excited in part because I think a lot of our students are already thinking about public history, whether they would call it that or not,” he said.

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