Working with College Students

Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship” notes that college students do not know their American history very well. Studies like this come along quite often, so this suggestion was not very new. One of the recommendations is to make institutions of higher education more accountable to their “fundamental responsibility” to educate its students in American history. How are Minnesota’s historical organizations working with college students, or with colleges and universities?

Read the report, and also feel free to comment on the report’s findings and recommendations.

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12 Responses to Working with College Students

  1. Debbie Miller says:

    The MHS Reference Library works with college students in a couple of ways: by assisting individuals who come to the library with their research for course assignments and research papers, and by offering classes that introduce an entire college class and its professor to some of the holdings of the MHS library that pertain to the topic of the class.

    The first way is less formal and requires no appointment. The second requires that the professor work with reference staff, who set up a time when the class can come, reserve a room, and often pre-register the students. The reference staffer then pulls examples from the collection that relate to the topic of the class (US history to 1865, Gender in 20th-century US history, MN ethnic history, History of Medicine, History of Photography, the Civil War, and Minnesota history are a few examples) that also demonstrate the many formats available in the library: books, microfilm, electronic databases, photos, videos, oral histories, newspapers, government records.

    Benefits of a class for college students are that they learn both the basics of how to do research in the MHS library and examples of collections that they can use to research their topic. All college students can benefit from the History Topics on the library’s web pages, as do History Day students:

    I’d be very interested to hear about how county and local societies have worked with college students.


  2. Mike Worcester says:

    To me there are two parts to David’s original posting that require discussion. The first is the dearth of knowledge about history in the brains of college students. A big part of that stems from the lack of quality social studies education in high schools. Now I will probably get lots of flame mail from teachers on this, but sorry folks, our curriculum in history just does not cut it. Read anything by James Lowen (Lies My Teacher Told Me) and you will see the answers.

    Dealing with college students is another matter. Since the teaching of local history is pretty much the function of secondary schools, esp. at the late elem. and ms levels, colleges typically do not touch that. So where do we as local history agencies come into play?

    Well, for one, helping with research papers that can include a local angle. Many elem ed majors have class projects that deal with local history–makes sense that this will be a part of their curriculum. So I have helped many of them do projects so they can properly aid their future students in that regard.

    Another is for grad students in their thesis work. A few years back now, when I was working on my thesis, I was able to use the archival resources of Morrison County, Hennepin County, and Brown County in addition to MHS.

    So there are options, but how to market our resources to colleges and universities is another question, esp. for small and medium institutions situated in communities where there is not a college or university.



  3. Mary Warner says:

    We, the Morrison County Historical Society, also assist college students when they arrive to work on research papers. Some seem well prepared for the task, while others appear to flounder, not knowing what questions to ask or where to start. With those who flounder, I wonder if they missed something in class, or if they simply weren’t informed about how to do historical research.

    Here is the heart of the problem. When it comes to history, how do we decide what to teach or learn? I’ve been working in county history for over 10 years – one small geographical area – and I still don’t know everything there is to know about the county. How are students at every level supposed to pack all of national and world history into their brains? How do those teaching decide which historical events to discuss?

    I looked at the ISI’s report summary, and the news isn’t really news to me. Students are lacking in historical knowledge. When I was in high school, I learned about the major U.S. wars, but only up to World War II – and not much else. We got no world history whatsoever. It wasn’t until my college art history classes that the historical timeline made any sense to me, and that happened because I had a visual representation of events and periods via the art work.

    I’m not sure anyone will ever be able to pinpoint which history is the most critical to convey to students. My suggestion is that no matter what else is taught, students should learn how to conduct historical research – how to ask questions, how to find the resources they need, how to analyze those resources (for accuracy, legitimacy, and in relation to their topics), how to see the effects of the past on the present, and how to synthesize everything into a research paper, or into appropriate action, if that’s called for.


  4. Claudia Nicholson says:

    The only way that we have worked with college students so far is through internships. Boy, is that a sword that cuts both ways! I had two students last spring: one was a wonder, did everything that we asked, and more–she was great. The other started out enthusiastic, but because of a difficult schedule (and a big over-commitment) was unable to complete her project. The worst thing was she lied about how much time was was putting in to me.

    I learned a great deal. Aside from having a defined job expectations, you need to supervise them fairly closely. The one young lady felt like she could get away with lying to me about her time because she was working at our storage facility, weekends, without me around. My bad–my really bad there. Her professor-advisor was much more forgiving than me of her lapses. What you get from working with college-age students for years, I guess.

    I do think that internships for college students have real value in teaching them history. We hold history at its most elemental–the stuff that was there. This gives them a whole different way of looking at national and world events–local history reverses the telescope, and allows them to look at national history from the local perspective, rather than the other way around (if that perspective gets taught at all–national events don’t seem to have any relevance in individual communities–not the way it is generally taught, anyway).

    My great intern did an exhibit for us on a local camp. She had to do some very untraditional types of research, including actually walking the ground at the camp to get a sense of place. Oral history had a part in this, as did research in objects (o.k., opening boxes and seeing what was in them that related . . .). When time came to put together her exhibit, she had to think differently than if she were writing a paper–it’s a different kind of storytelling. In fact, her labels were way too long–and as we edited them together, she was both distressed and in awe of how I pared down her prose to something one could read while standing. All around very good for her–especially as a future teacher of history!

    Of course, this teaches better history to students one student at a time. I try to let college professors know that my door is always open to students who want to do research projects with us, and I hope that as I get an actual handle on my collection, the opportunities will be both interesting, and important.



  5. Brian Vroman says:

    I work at the Itasca County Historical Society, as well as being a part-time instructor at Itasca Community College. If the question we are asking is something like "Why are Americans (and it isn’t just young Americans) ignorant of history?" the problem, as well as the solution, lies with the education community (and while we in the museum world are part of that community, for purposes of this missive, I will use the term "education community" to refer to teachers and professors at all levels). To start with, as one commentor mentioned, much of what students are taught in high school is bunk. Further, it is often not well presented. I cannot count the number of students whom I have encountered, fresh out of high school, that are absolutely convinced that history is boring. This is because they have been forced to memorize names, dates, etc, rather than discussing interpetive matters, the relevance of history, and so forth.

    When students get to college, in most instances (in Minnesota at least) history is no longer required. Funny — undergraduates have to take physical education credits, but not history. So, in light of their high school experience, it is no wonder most students choose not to take history courses.

    We must ask ourselves the question — what is it that we want to achieve in terms of history education (this relates to the museum/archive world as well)? Do we want them to learn how to look up information? Or do we want them to become excited about history so that they will actually WANT to look up information?

    In terms of what museum professionals, archivists, and others can do to alleviate the problem, other than offer our services, I don’t really know. Perhaps, (just to brainstorm here) working with schools, symposia can be offered on various historical topics; or other events, following the model of the NEA’s "big read" program, though on a local scale, would be a possibility.

    But the reality is that until problems in the K-12 and higher education systems are addressed (and underfunding is a big part of the problem) Americans will remain ignorant of history.


  6. Tim Glines, Minnesota Historical Society says:

    Like Mike Worcester, I believe Davids question has two aspects. The first question about college students familiarity with American history is not new. Perhaps people have always lamented that young people didnt sufficiently understand history. And the ISI report is not just about the lack of historical knowledge. It is about civic education. A study the puts these issues into a larger context is the Organization of American Historians 2004 report, History, Democracy, and Citizenship: The Debate over Historys Role in Teaching Citizenship and Patriotism, ( The OAH report offers more food for thought for public historians than does the ICI study, which focuses on college and university history programs.
    The second aspect of the question is how historical organizations work with college and university students. Its a very different question, and I look forward to hearing from others. What Ive heard from the county and local historical organizations that do work with college students is that results are very positive. If your organization has an institution of higher education nearby, you should certainly explore possible ways you might work with students.


  7. Mary Warner says:

    Brian & Tim – You’ve launched the discussion in a new direction. If you’re wondering why kids aren’t engaged in civics, it’s because the entire K-12 school system is set up to discourage discourse and disagreement. Students aren’t allowed to "talk back." The logistical nightmare teachers have with simply keeping order causes them to want students who are sheep. We also have to thank the larger society for reinforcing this system. We are enamored with authority figures (government, employment, healthcare, entertainment, education, etc.) and those in authority certainly want to keep their position, so they’re going to do everything in their power to squelch dissent. We’re fighting an uphill battle if we think we can easily change this system. I know this from direct experience. If I make a suggestion or complain about something happening in our local school district, I am met with dead silence, derision or a patronizing attitude more often than not.

    This is what we have to work with and it’s no wonder so many people think history is boring. What we need to do, as museum professionals, is take every opportunity we get to bring out the stories in history and show people how those stories relate to them. If we’re giving a presentation, we need to be excited about our topic. If we create an exhibit or a publication, we need to make it attractive. My children are enthralled with programs on the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. So are a lot of other people, and these are weighty programs. If these channels can get people excited about history, we need to analyze what they are doing and figure out how to recreate this in our museums. A good place to start is the book, "Made to Stick" by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. It’s about how to make ideas and information memorable.


  8. Patty Dean says:

    Not only should college students be familiar with history, they should also be aware of the dynamics of history: "revisionism" is not a dirty word as some currently (but hopefully not TOO much longer) in the public arena would have us believe. One of my undergrad history professors always said that the historiography courses were the ones he enjoyed teaching the most due to their fulsomeness & dual levels, i.e. "Historian X espoused Perspective Y, why did she believe *this*?". Rather than just have an intern do a new exhibit from scratch, assigning her/him to revise or critique a current exhibit and incorporate new perspectives and recent research might be a very valuable learning experience.


  9. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Well, I have always maintained that what history museums are about is citizenship–a well-informed populace being critical to maintaining democracy. But we are fighting an uphill battle here, people, no doubt about it.

    And until things change in the "education community", we’re going to have to do it one kid (and one adult) at a time. If I can hold the attention of 8 6-year-olds for 30 minutes and get them to think about just two things I’ve said, then I think I’ve done my work. Since I generally see little kids, my fondest hope is that I’ll get them engaged with the IDEA of history, so that as they grow, then will actually be interested in it, despite the dismal way it is sometimes taught.

    I think that the other thing that we can do just about better than anyone else is provide some *context* to history–having young people understand the relationships between events is critical to good historical understanding –nothing occurs in a vacuum.

    But I really can’t wait to get students in to actually study all of the stuff that we have saved . . .


  10. Karen Schlenker says:

    I’m a little late coming to this discussion, but it’s hit several buttons. The Milaca Area Historical Society is small (and all-volunteer), and both our research facility and museum are evolving and trying to figure out how best to serve our community. We’ve found it very difficult to interact with our local school system–it’s so insular, and doesn’t seem to see any need to use local "real" stuff in educating the kids. For years I contacted people teaching history to the appropriate grades about our interest in being a resource for History Day projects, and got zero response. I couldn’t even get prior notice about when they were holding the local History Day so we could get a contingent together to go "Oooo" and "Aaah". Anyway, it seems that the schools are finally doing some family/community outreach around literacy and reading, there being national buzz around that. Is there any way historical organizations can generate that kind of interest and understanding around history, so that the schools can’t avoid their community resources as they currently do? Is there something in the History Day program that could be tied to mining local resources? (It seems to me that it’s already there, but our results hereabouts don’t indicate that it’s being picked up on…)

    There’s got to be a handle on this thing somewhere…


  11. Cheryl Finnegan says:

    We worked with college students to design our military museum building interior and an exhibit for the museum. We also worked with three high school students to create an exhibit about Youth in WWII. Both projects provided excellent experience and resume builders for the students. The results were also terrific. We have not, at this point, physically created the military museum interior or exhibit. But the project definitely inspired our organization to move along on the military museum project.

    One educational advantage to the Youth in WWII exhibit is that the students got inspired about history in general. The exhibit was a direct connection between generations. In addition, we can show younger children how young people were involved in WWII and how they can be involved in the History Center in the future. It also helped our History Center meet the challenge of changing exhibits despite an overwhelmed staff and financial challenges.


  12. Mary Warner says:

    When I got home from work yesterday, my sixth-grade son asked me if I’d help him with his social studies homework. With the slightest smirk he said, "Mom, we’re studying Nathan Richardson." After having worked on a history of Nathan Richardson for the past three years, I think he figured I’d know the answers. When I looked at his informational handout, I recognized it as the history curriculum our society created a few years ago in conjunction with the Little Falls Heritage Preservation Commission. We placed classroom boxes of these curriculum books in all of the schools. The third grade teachers in the district use them often because they study local history as part of the Profiles of Learning. We didn’t think the books were getting any use at the Middle School because they study state and national history through these grades. What a pleasant surprise to find our curriculum in use in later grades.

    This nice story aside, we have also had trouble getting through to the school. My suggestion is to talk to the third grade teachers because the Profiles of Learning are fairly rigid and third grade is when students are taught local history. If they don’t have actual local history resources, they’ll study the local history of some other area. Before we completed the curriculum, our district was teaching third graders about Yuma, AZ.


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