Sunday, April 10, 2011

Teaching the Practicum Course: A Discussion Regarding Best Practices

Public historians’ most important skills cannot be learned by reading a book or listening to a lecture. In recognition of that, most public history programs require students to take at least one practicum course. Like an internship, a practicum course provides students with an opportunity to learn by praxis. It differs from an internship by enabling students to engage in dynamic, collaborative work under the guidance --indeed the sense of security—provided by a university course.

Perhaps because a practicum attempts to balance classroom learning and hands on experience, it is often difficult to find just the right ingredients for a satisfying and successful course. The National Council on Public History’s Curriculum and Training Committee is dedicated to working with public history educators to help establish useful guidelines for creating and running essential courses. Thus, on Friday morning, the committee sponsored a roundtable discussion on teaching the practicum course.

Session participants and audience members engaged in a lively and candid discussion that helped quantify the specific challenges of the teaching practicum.

The semester or quarter model for university can work against success in a practicum course for several reasons. First, students have been trained to believe the end of a semester is the exit point for a given learning experience. Most practicum experiences do not, however, fit neatly into a 9 week or 15 week session. Second, university professors are expected –even required—to craft a course syllabus that includes measurable goals and outcomes, establishes a calendar of readings and assignments, and identifies a clear class project. Yet, most practicum environments are fluid, requiring instructors to be flexible and class planning to remain open-ended.

Many practicum courses are based on partnerships with museums, preservation entities, historical societies and other external. On the one hand, these partnerships mean that students are engaged in real world work and they have the opportunity to develop relationships with professionals in the field. On the other hand, sometimes external partners define project parameters in ways that challenge public history educators and their more conservative colleagues to rethink the nature of scholarship and intellectual rigor. At its most basic level, this challenge means students are worried about how the class work will be counted and how they are assigned grades. At a more philosophical level, this challenge leads to another, pressing problem for public history educators.

The practicum courses are extremely labor intensive. They require instructors to build, nurture, and maintain partnerships; to become active participants in the learning process; and to carry on projects over the course of multiple semesters and multiple years. In departments that do not recognize collaborative work as scholarship or the maintenance of external relationships as departmental service, then, teaching practicum courses is often done in addition to meeting the terms of tenure and promotion.

Despite these daunting issues, session participants reinforced the idea that the practicum is a worthwhile and necessary educational tool. They identified several key ingredients that seem related to course success:

1.     A well designed project that can be accomplished in finite pieces over several semesters.
2.    A collegial partnership between like-minded individuals and complementary institutions
3.    Applying reflexive practice to the classroom
a.       Requiring students to think critically and candidly about their work process
b.      Revising assignments and readings in response to student needs
c.       Working with external partners to revise project goals as necessary
4.    Confronting departmental reluctance to recognize collaborative work as scholarly
5.      Participating in conversations about the nature of intellectual work and the value of a multi-disciplinary, complex learning environment in shaping students’ approach to research and their disposition toward public engagement.
6.      Educating colleagues about the labor required in designing and implementing public history courses and making sure that such courses are adequately accounted for in workload measurements
7.      Capitalizing on departmental and institutional commitments to civic engagement, service learning, and/or social entrepreneurship to help legitimize practicum courses, student work, and collaboration

This conversation is just beginning, and the summary in this blog entry is entirely my own. I likely have missed some issues that other session attendees believe are essential. My goal is to use this blog entry as the starting point for a longer and broader discussion about pedagogy, administration, and balance for public history educators. Please join me on the educators listserv or email me directly at if you are interested in taking the next steps for developing best practices guidelines for the practicum course.

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