Study Stateside: Teaching Lessons Beyond the Classroom

By History Faculty Member Sarah Ball

This past May, eight students and two faculty (Sarah Ball and Neil Lewis) members set out for the inaugural Northwest Vista College Study Stateside trip.

Students earned six course credit hours in History 1302 and Humanities 2319 as we toured the U.S., directly engaging in the cultural public history within our own borders.

On our first stop in New Orleans, LA, students toured the Whitney Plantation the only plantation museum in the United States that portrays the history of plantation life entirely from the enslaved perspective. Students were able to engage in this history, and discuss how including the voice of the enslaved helps to deconstruct the myth of a romanticized, idealistic plantation society that historically ignored the cruelty and degradation of slavery.

We usually discussed the reading materials (primary and secondary sources) that correlated with each monument or site before the visit so students would have a good understanding of the history behind each one before analyzing how that history is portrayed. After each visit (and during), we would hold an informal discussion to get everyone’s reaction and share views on the implications and social consequences of each.

From New Orleans, the group traveled to Montgomery, AL, where we looked at how Confederate history and Reconstruction were portrayed in public spaces. Montgomery offered students an interesting case-study because the community shares public space that honors both Confederates who fought to uphold white supremacy and slavery in the south. Montgomery is also home to the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors victims of racial terrorism in the era directly following emancipation.

The students examined and discussed the juxtaposition of these monuments that offer different perspectives on a painful history, particularly how this new lynching memorial offers people in the community and the nation a chance to understand this previously suppressed perspective on a shared history, and work toward reconciliation and peace-building in communities.

The students also visited Monticello and the Heather Heyer Memorial in Charlottesville, VA, and toured national memorials at the National Mall, as well as the Holocaust, American Indian, and African American museums in Washington D.C. before ending the trip in Chicago. One major theme of this two-week experiential learning opportunity was representation particularly in our nation public history. Students learned that the voices privileged in our historical narrative tell us a lot about who holds power in our communities and our country. The students on the trip came out of the experience enthusiastic about promoting diversity and inclusion in their own communities.

The significant thing about history is that it helps us understand our modern world. If we want to address problems in our current society, we have to look to history to get at the root of those problems. Studying public history (outside the textbook and classroom) is a good way to teach students about power structure. For history, most of the monuments and sites we have are from the perspective of the dominant culture, and ignore minority voices. This not only distorts the historical narrative to those visiting those monuments and sites, but it also sends a message about whose experience in history is valued. It’s important for students to witness this so they can see how representation matters — how including multiple perspectives in history can work to reconcile a painful past, and work to build peaceful communities.

Faculty received an Innovation Grant for the trip and the students paid most of the fee out of pocket, but the college gave each student $500 toward the total cost.

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