Teaching History Communication: Early results (History@Work)

This piece originally appeared on the National Council on Public History's History@Work. Read it here.


Readers of History@Work may recall that four years ago in this space a group of historians introduced the concepts of “History Communication” and “History Communicators.” Inspired by the investments that the sciences made in science communication, the group theorized that investing in, and strengthening, media skills and communications strategies among historians might prove beneficial to the profession’s future.

Meetings and workshops were held to flesh out the idea and bring it to fruition. That included a syllabus for a course in history communication, envisioned to be adaptable at universities and colleges nationwide. To date, two such History Communication courses have been successfully enacted—the first led by Dr. Marla Miller at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the second led by Dr. Jennifer Hart at Wayne State University. A third course, “History and Public Engagement,” which draws on History Communication’s ideas, is currently being taught at Purdue University by Dr. Kathryn Brownell. Here are five key takeaways, as cited by the instructors themselves:

        *History Communication excites students. It is a class that generates buzz, even if not all students interested in the course wind up taking it.
        *History Communication has the potential to increase enrollments. It can help make a graduate or undergraduate history program attractive to current and future students.
        *History Communication holds potential for new interdisciplinary collaborations—though those collaborations also bring challenges.
        *History Communication forces students and faculty to step outside of comfort zones and integrate new assignments. This helps inculcate new skills and also creates challenges when faculty may not have the expertise to evaluate assignments (e.g., video).
        *Like any new course, History Communication faces sustainability issues. Investment from departmental leadership and supportive faculty are essential to ensuring the course can perpetuate.


First, the good news: Dr. Miller and Dr. Hart both reported that the course seemed to generate a lot of excitement. In an era where undergraduate history degrees are near all-time lows, excitement for course offerings within history departments has great value. Dr. Hart writes that at Wayne State, word about the course spread quickly among students, faculty, and administrators. Buzz spread to other institutions as well, which expressed keen interest to see how the course unfolded. At UMass Amherst, Dr. Miller experienced a similar phenomenon; applicants to the graduate program at UMass now cite the History Communication course as a primary reason they apply.  “I do concur,” Dr. Miller stated, “that history communication has potential to increase interest, majors, and minors in history at the undergraduate level.”


Dr. Miller and Dr. Hart both also cited collaborations across campus and beyond as a major source of strength for the course. By integrating aspects of history, journalism, communications, media, film production and more, the course offers regular opportunities for guest speakers and the showcasing of colleagues’ expertise. At Wayne State, Dr. Hart invited historian Kidada Williams to speak about her experiences with the Op-Ed Project; philosopher John Corvino to speak about video technology; historian Dave Eaton to speak about podcasting; and professor Trevor Getz to speak about graphic history. At UMass Amherst, Dr. Miller’s first iteration of the course included music historian Steve Waksman; historian and podcaster Ed O’Donnell, host of In the Past Lane; and Audrey Altstadt, a historian who regularly advises federal and international agencies and commissions, to speak about writing history for policy-makers; and colleagues in the departments of journalism and communication. As Dr. Brownell wrote, history faculty do not have to be experts in these areas; rather, the course creates opportunities to develop relationships and partnerships across campus with departments and faculty looking for collaborative projects, even within existing courses. At Purdue, history students teamed up with students in video production to use the C-SPAN video library and create mini-documentaries. The films aired on campus during the midterm elections.

These collaborations highlight one of the central tenets of history communication since its inception: that many scholars are doing this type of work, and that synthesizing it into a course for students exposes students to new assignments, new challenges, and new directions for historical study and careers. As Dr. Hart wrote, “students working with faculty as ‘clients’ demystified the work of professors to a degree and generated interesting and important conversations about the limits of academic training, the expectations for academic work, the organizational logics of departments, and the extent to which funding limits programming and departmental growth.”

At Wayne State, the History Communication course also coincided with the opening of a History Communication lab. This lab includes software and equipment to facilitate student projects. These technologies already existed on Wayne State’s campus, but they were spread around various parts of the university and not always accessible. The lab gave history students ready access to new technologies to facilitate work in the course. The University of Michigan has also developed its own “history lab” that draws on some of these ideas, resulting in a recent discussion between the two institutions around public-facing scholarship.

The course is not without challenges, however. Enrollments the first time around were good but not great, in part because the courses are new and in part because students were not entirely sure what the course entailed. Some students thought the course entailed too much work and were intimidated by it. Other students were intimidated by the high focus on technology, a good reminder that not all students are fluent in the latest tech tools. History Communication pushes liberal arts students beyond their traditional assignments of writing papers and doing research. In places without a lab, access to digital tools can be a challenge and can limit assignments. For faculty, evaluation can be difficult, especially when working in media forms that are unfamiliar. And some faculty remain skeptical or even overwhelmed by these new ways of thinking about history education, which can lead to culture clashes within departments.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing History Communication is sustainability. Success depends on embedding the course within larger initiatives and program priorities. At Wayne State, Dr. Hart has stated that the support of the department and the dean has been critical to the course’s success. Because of the focus on Public History and Public Humanities in her department, the course was designed to align with those initiatives. Her department chair agreed that it should be a “service” course, considered a critical part of teaching responsibilities. UMass Amherst has been committed for many years to its “Writing History” course. While colleagues will continue to offer Writing History, focusing on long-form genres, “History Communication,” Dr. Miller says, “offers a better frame for what I’ve been trying to do in this class.” At UMass, they have settled on a plan to offer History Communication in alternate spring semesters, when Writing History is not offered. However, there may not be enough professors in rotation to teach the course to ensure it remains a consistent part of the curriculum.

Four years after its launch, “History Communication” remains a successful, yet still-evolving concept. Early returns indicate that the course that emerged from this movement has value, though there are also unanswered questions. Dozens of historians, media scholars, science communicators, and others worked on this course, and its integration has been a major accomplishment for all involved. It does not exist in isolation, but rather within broader conversations within the profession regarding history education, history degrees, expanded skill sets, career diversity, and the opportunities for historical work in a wide range of contexts. “In other words,” Dr. Hart stated, “offering a History Communication course has been an important part of a broader conversation about what a twenty-first-century history curriculum should look like at multiple levels and about how we communicate with students.”

Let the conversation continue.

The History Communication conversation continues on Twitter at #histcomm, on LinkedIn, and at conferences such as the NCPH annual meeting.


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