As a professor at a community college, I am typically absorbed in teaching, focused on my classes and students–as many as five classes and upwards of 120-150 students per semester. But recently, I’ve been increasingly engaged in public history by way of developing an associate’s degree program in the field and through involvement in other activities, including the utilization of a restored 1808 manor house on campus, which was the centerpiece of a horse farm when the region had a thriving thoroughbred racing and breeding industry. This investment has created an opportunity for faculty members, the library director, a program coordinator and others to involve students in the interpretation of local history.
I teach at Harford Community College, located in Harford County, Maryland, outside Baltimore and just below the Mason-Dixon Line. Harford has approximately 7,000 full-time students and many more part-time credit and non-credit students. The college is situated in a sprawling community with close economic ties to Aberdeen Proving Ground, an army base established during the Great War. Historically, Harford County was an agricultural and fishing region tied to Baltimore, with a significant horseracing and horse breeding industry. Increased defense spending and a good location along the upper Chesapeake Bay has led to growth and change in this community which was predominantly rural into the late 20th century. However, it has become quite suburban in recent years. Housing developments, office parks and shopping centers now dominate the landscape where fields and forests characterized the area just 30 years ago. Mostly, our students take classes to complete associate’s degrees and join the workforce in fields like nursing or business or they transfer with a degree or credits earned to regional colleges and universities.
Currently, HCC students can earn an associate’s degree in History and they take a variety of introductory and advanced History classes. Beginning in the 2013-2014 academic year, the College may also offer an option in Public History within the History degree for History majors interested in pursuing careers in Public History. These students will be able to work with staff and faculty involved in Hays-Heighe House programming, to develop and learn about preparing both physical and digital history exhibits. The degree option in Public History will primarily serve our students as a transfer program, allowing them to transfer to colleges and universities that have programs in the field for more advanced study and degrees. In the Baltimore region, Stevenson University, the University of Baltimore and University of Maryland Baltimore County all offer advanced training and coursework in Public History and would likely serve as the primary transfer institutions for our students. Our mission at Harford will be to offer our History majors an introductory experience to learn, engage in the field and allow them to develop or collaborate on projects for beginning to build professional portfolios.
After the Hays-Heighe House renovation was complete, the college’s head librarian organized an expanded advisory committee and hired a new part-time coordinator to help develop ideas and programs that could achieve the College’s educational function and develop a strategic public history mission for the region. Approximately two years into this work, we’ve managed to organize and hold a number of exhibits and programs that have added a new dimension to Harford County’s (Maryland) historical offerings. The Hays-Heighe House’s first exhibit was called “Made By Hand.” Coordinated by faculty member Sharon Stowers (an anthropologist), the exhibit carefully told the story of the house’s construction with physical artifacts and informational panels about the labor involved, including the probable use of slaves. Since the 2010 opening, Hays-Heighe has also developed an exhibit on the War of 1812 and held various events on student projects and events.
In early 2012, the Hay-Heighe house also hosted a Civil War book discussion series with a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities and the American Library Association for a “Let’s Talk About It” program. This project has been especially fulfilling as a public history initiative, involving a series of readings and community/student discussion groups, with the library’s director Carol Allen serving as the project director. I’ve been fortunate to lead the discussions as project scholar and they have been wonderfully enlightening for all of us. We have sunk our literary teeth into the historic novel “March,” and have read and talked at length about the war, slavery and emancipation, the battles of Shiloh and Antietam.
The Civil War project has also proven effective for connecting the house’s programming to the College’s primary educational mission. Students from my United States I history honors class have participated in all the discussions and are also completing digital public history projects related to the project, such as blogs and websites. The discussions have served an essential public history purpose by bringing together diverse individuals (in this case, mainly across age) to find meaning from mutually-relevant history. We’re hoping to have more events like this, such as salons, to engage students and others in various ways with a focus on the rich history of the upper Chesapeake region.
Amidst all the progress at Harford, we certainly face challenges in expanding public history. But, our efforts are off to a promising start and are certainly exciting for all of us involved!
~ James Karmel is Associate Professor of History at Harford Community College
Image: Hays-Heighe House, Harford Community College