The highlight of my time attending the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s undergraduate program at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) has been completing a minor in Public History. Many people have never heard of public history before, but it essentially means any work people or organizations do to make historical information more available to ordinary people instead of just academic historians. This could be anything from designing a museum exhibit to creating interactive websites about history to leading history-themed summer camps for kids.
The neat thing about public history is that it allows you to combine other interests or skill sets you might have – theater, writing, designing, programming, working with kids, music, cooking, etc. – with history. There are so many creative avenues to use to study and share history with other people. Public history is also great in that it aims to bring more diversity and depth to the study of history, and a big focus of our program is trying to represent more people in the history we tell.
The public history minor is open to anyone who is enrolled in UMBC’s program at USG. It’s only 18 credits, so it’s really easy to complete in addition to your major. The professor in charge of the public history minor, Dr. Melissa Blair, is not only a great teacher who is extremely knowledgeable, but also so helpful and approachable when it comes to getting advice about your future career. The classes I’ve taken for public history have been my favorite – really interesting, thought-provoking, and helpful in planning what I want to do after I leave Shady Grove.
Something I often hear when I tell people I’m a history major is, “You’re going to have a hard time getting a job with that!” The Public History minor allows you to explore the different career options available to people who are interested in doing work related to history. A major element of the Introduction to Public History course is learning about the huge variety of careers related to history, which can intersect with other areas of interest too. I like to think of public history as a chance to get your hands dirty and think about how you would use the things you read in your textbooks in other classes in the real world. If you’re a person like me who likes to get out and do projects, not just study things, this is a great program.
One really exciting opportunity the public history minor provides in this regard is the Service Learning in Public History course, which is offered every spring to people who have taken Intro to Public History. Each year, the class works with a local African American historic site, Pleasant View, about ten minutes from campus, which has a church, school, and cemetery that was crucial to the African American community in the Gaithersburg area after the Civil War and into the Civil Rights era. Each class has a central project they work on to help preserve the site and educate the public about its history.
This semester, we have been working on researching more about Pleasant View’s history and nominating it to be on the National Register of historic places. We also created designs for signs telling about the site that will hopefully be put up in the future to raise awareness about the site. With schoolwork, we don’t often get to make an impact on the community around us, so it’s been exciting to do work that is so meaningful.
One last major element of the public history minor is doing an internship. I completed mine last summer and fall and learned so much from it. It also gave me inspiration for my senior thesis paper topic, a requirement for all of us history majors. You can read about the internships UMBC public history students have done on our blog Retrieving the Past.
If you’re interested in the public history minor, consider signing up for Intro to Public History (History 300) this fall and seeing what this is all about! It’s a fun class (and includes field trips!) and is open to any major.