Carl Robert Keyes is a newly tenured Associate Professor of History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is currently working on a book about advertising practices and consumer culture in eighteenth-century Philadelphia. An earlier version was delivered at the induction ceremony for the Phi Alpha Theta chapter at Framingham State University in April, 2014.
Earlier this month I finished teaching my first public history course. I’ve long been concerned about how professional historians, especially academic historians, (often don’t) communicate with the public and, in turn, the general public’s misunderstanding of the historian’s craft. Teaching a public history course made these apprehensions central to my work in the classroom. My students and I grappled with a different kind of historiography, a less formal historiography consisting of public opinion, incomplete recollections of elementary and secondary history education, and a “master narrative” that usually dominates stories of the American past told by many public figures, a narrative steeped in patriotism, heritage, and commemoration. More than ever, I found myself challenging my students (in all my classes, not just the public history course) to take a three-part approach in their studies: learn about the past, learn about how professional historians have interpreted the past, and learn about how the general public understands the past. This became yet another way to demonstrate that course content has relevance outside the classroom and beyond the semester.