Usable Past Project Presentation Schedule

Here’s when each group will present their usable past project:

Friday 5/5: National Heritage; Religious Heritage

Monday 5/8: Escapist Past, Inspirational Past

Friday 5/12: Past as Engine of Change (followed by some final discussion of “usable pasts”)

Expect to attend even on days when you’re not presenting, since peer review will be a major component of each group’s grade and feedback.


Response Paper: Hollywood History

Another counter to the notion that Americans are disinterested in the past is the enduring appeal of historical movies and TV series. For example, one of last year’s biggest movies was Hidden Figures, about African American women who worked on the Space Race of the 1960s. It received a Best Picture nomination, as have recent historical films like Hacksaw RidgeSelmaBridge of SpiesThe Imitation Game, and 12 Years a Slave (the 2013 Academy Award winner). Two of the most popular drama series on cable TV are set in earlier time periods: The Americans (at the end of the Cold War) and Outlander (moving back and forth between 18th and 20th century Scotland).

Yet historians often have qualms about how such storytelling treats the past. For this week’s assignment, submit a 300-word response before noon on W 4/26 to the following questions:

How should we assess historical movies and TV series? Suggest two distinct criteria, illustrating them by discussing specific examples of movies or shows that either meet — or fail to meet — your standards.

I’ll put together two or three blog posts for Wednesday afternoon that share suggested criteria, then we’ll continue to discuss them here at the blog through Friday afternoon. Plan to share at least one blog comment by 5pm that day.

(I’ll also add my own two cents partway through the conversation, but I’ll try to stay out of it at first so that more of you feel free to weigh in.)

Response Paper: Interviewing a Bethel History Alum

Your last response paper isn’t due until the last week of classes (W 5/17, noon), but I’m going to give it to you now so that you can set things up in plenty of time. It will be a last chance to think through history as a calling before you write your final essay on that topic.


1. Start by identifying a Bethel alum who majored or minored in History and has since entered a career that you find intriguing. I’ve compiled a list of forty such alumni who are eager to interview our students. I’ll share that spreadsheet separately. Pick the person you want to interview as soon as possible, since I’ll only allow 1-2 students per alum. (You can pick an alum not on the list, but clear the choice with me first.)

2. Contact your chosen alum and schedule an informational interview for no later than M 5/15. Ideally, try to do the interview in person — better yet, at the alum’s workplace. But if you’ve picked someone who doesn’t live in the Twin Cities or otherwise isn’t able to meet in person, you can talk over phone, FaceTime, or Skype. (Don’t do this by email or texting.)

3. To prepare for the interview, read these guidelines (including sample questions) on informational interviews, courtesy of Will O’Brien in Bethel’s Office of Career Development and Calling.

4. Conduct your interview. Be on time, dressed appropriately, and take notes.

5. As a follow-up, send a sincere thank you to the alum.


By noon on Wednesday, May 17th, upload to Moodle a 300-400 word response paper in which you reflect on the interview in the process of answering at least two or three of the following questions:

How relevant is undergraduate study of history to the career you chose to explore? What connections between historical study and their professional work did the alum make in your interview? (Did they identify other benefits of studying history that may be less directly connected to job and career?) In what ways was a history major or minor by itself insufficient to prepare the alum for their career path? Did the interview largely confirm your sense of calling, or did it shift/challenge it in some way?

Note that you’ve answered similar questions before, on the basis of reading interviews with other History alumni. You might reach similar conclusions this time, but you should clearly be interacting with this particular interview; be sure to reflect on or respond to quotations or paraphrases from the alum.

Unlike most other response papers, this assignment will be worth 15 pts. After these papers are turned in, I’ll share some responses here for a final round of blog commenting before the last day of classes.

Usable Past Project Groups

Here are the five groups for the usable past projects:

  • ESCAPIST PAST: Andrew N., Andrew Z., Logan, Matt
  • INSPIRATIONAL PAST: Aidan, Dustin, Jake, Nelson
  • NATIONAL HERITAGE: Bonita, Collin, Haley, Lauren
  • PAST AS ENGINE OF CHANGE: Braeden, David, Omar, Shawn
  • RELIGIOUS HERITAGE: John, Mikalah, Sarah

Your only midweek assignment is to meet as a group for a good 45-50 minutes and start brainstorming and planning. We’ll next meet as a class on Friday afternoon in CC 120. Be sure to bring your copy of Why Study History? — we’ll be discussing chs. 3 and 7, and you should expect an open-book quiz.

Your Second Group Project… How Americans Use the Past

For the rest of April into May you’ll be working on your second group project. Working with three other students, you’ll prepare a 20-minute oral, multi-media presentation to be delivered in early May, on how Americans use the past.

We’ll form groups over the Easter Break using a Google Doc that I’ll send separately. (You need to join a group no later than 5pm on Easter Monday.) You have five options to pick from, each a “usable past” from ch. 2 in Why Study History?

  • How do Americans “use the past… as a source of inspiration”? (pp. 30-33)
  • How do Americans use the past as “an escape from the pressures and anxieties of modern life”? (pp. 33-35)
  • Two on identity/heritage (pp. 39-42): How do Americans use the past to promote “a particular understanding of… national identity”? Or how do Christians and other religious Americans use the past to promote “a particular understanding of… religion”?
  • How do Americans use the past to promote social reform or political change? (pp. 43-45)

You’ll then spend the rest of the month looking for examples of your chosen “usable past,” looking to popular culture (movies, TV, music, video games, advertising), public history (museums, monuments, memorials), social media and blogging, politics, hobbies… any “past-related activities” that go beyond the academic discipline of history. I’ll leave it to each group to determine how best to conduct this research, but I’ll expect you to get started by meeting as a group during the middle of next week. (You don’t have class, reading, or a response paper, so you should have plenty of time available for initial planning and brainstorming.)

We’ll have three days of presentations: M 5/1, F 5/5, and M 5/8. For now, plan to go on May 1st, with the final schedule to be set later this month.


Your grade (50 pts) in the presentation will be based on a mix of instructor and peer evaluation. Both will use the speaking criteria laid out in the Course Expectations section of the syllabus. I’ll just add a few elaborating comments here.

Command: My general expectation here is that when you give an oral presentation, “You should come off as being knowledgeable about your topic (both specific details and the bigger picture).” For this assignment, it means two things. First, that you should have a handle on the nature of the “usable past” and how the examples chosen illustrate it. Second, that you should demonstrate the ability to think critically about this kind of engagement with the past — and to compare and contrast it with the academic discipline of history (or what McKenzie has called “thinking historically”).

I fully expect each member of the group to demonstrate this command, even if the 20 minutes aren’t divided into perfectly equal segments.

Collaboration: “It should be clear that you can work well with others in the group” is how I framed this in the syllabus. Specifically, what that means for this presentation is two-fold: (1) that each team member should do their fair share of research and planning for the presentation; and (2) that during the presentation itself, each team member should know when they’re supposed to speak and for how long, that individual segments should feel interconnected, not detached, and that there shouldn’t be drastic variation in quality within the presentation.

To be sure, some people are more naturally comfortable speaking in front of a crowd — so if you’re one of those people, do what you can to help your teammates who are nervous about it. Conversely, if you’re an introvert who’s great at research, help your extroverted teammate who’s struggling to find good examples from pop culture.

(Next week I’ll post a faculty video conversation about oral communication, and you already have one up about working as part of a team. So while there’s no response paper this week or next, it’s well worth your time to watch those conversations and pick up some pointers.)

Preparation, Delivery, and Use of Multiple Media: Beyond what I say in the syllabus on these expectations, let me just emphasize:

  1. That I do expect you to use multiple examples of popular uses of history. The best presentations will incorporate examples from multiple genres.
  2. While the use of media should help make for a more dynamic presentation, make sure that your own voice is coming through — don’t just line up fifteen minutes of ads, TV clips, and photos and leave almost no room for your own voice to add commentary.
  3. Be sure to rehearse. You should be familiar with the computer and classroom A/V equipment in CC120 before you use it.

Response Paper: Public History

One of the burgeoning fields in our discipline is called public history. It aims to straddle the divide between academic history and various “publics.” Before Easter you’re going to explore how public history is applied: first, through your visit to the Minnesota History Center or another public history site; second, by hearing from History Center exhibit designer Randal Dietrich when he joins our class on M 4/10. Then by noon on W 4/12, write a response paper offering your take on this field.


1. Start by reading a couple of definitions of public history, courtesy of the National Council on Public History. How is it different from academic history? Where did it come from? (In other words, what’s the history of public history?)

2. Then visit the History Center or another public history site with this definition in mind. As you tour, think about how the exhibits were designed: to what end? with what audience in mind? How do they reflect academic scholarship, but presented in a very different way than a monograph or journal article?

3. Then bring your questions to class on Monday, when you’ll get the chance to go inside the design process with Randal.


By noon on Wednesday, upload to Moodle a 300-400 word response paper in which you draw on this preparation in order to answer the following questions:

What are the most important opportunities and challenges facing public historians? How well did the site you visited overcome such challenges or realize the potential of such opportunities?

Provide specific supporting examples, from your site visit and from Randal’s presentation.

Note: unlike other response papers, this assignment will be worth 15 points. Ten will reflect the typical categories for response papers; to earn the remaining five, you need to demonstrate that you did indeed visit a public history site this week (either by accompanying me to the MN History Center, or by providing me with documentation of your visit to an alternative site). It is not sufficient to reflect on a site you visited months or years ago; I want you to enter one of these spaces with these questions in mind and look at them with fresh eyes.

Response Paper: History and Society

In Why Study History? John Fea contends that “one small way of cultivating the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy is through the study of history” (p. 117). After reading ch. 6 in Fea’s text and listening to Prof. Rivera’s talk on “History for a Multi-Cultural Society,” write a 300-word response paper by noon on Wednesday 4/5, in response to the following broad question:

Do you agree with Fea’s assessment of the role that history and historians have to play in American society? Why or why not?

You should engage with an idea or two from Fea’s chapter, but also incorporate some reflection on (a) Prof. Rivera’s talk and (b) your own experience/perceptions of American politics and society. Some further questions to consider: Do you agree with Fea’s diagnosis of the problems of American democracy? In light of what you heard from Prof. Rivera, do you agree with Fea’s emphasis on history cultivating certain virtues — or his chapter-ending critique of progressive activism detached from historical study?

We’ll continue this conversation via blog comments and then at the beginning of class on Friday.

Response Paper: The Usable Past

In Why Study History? John Fea contends that most Americans, far from being disinterested in the past, are actually obsessed with it. “The past,” however, “must be relevant. It must be usable. Or at the very least, it cannot be useless” (p. 30). During the week, I want you to explore several versions of “the usable past” and write a response to this way of engaging the past. You’ll have a response paper due by noon on W 3/29, then continue the conversation up till class on Friday afternoon by commenting on blog posts.


1. Read ch. 2 in Why Study History?, in which Fea suggests different kinds of “usable pasts” that are common in American culture.

2. Then read ch. 7 in The First Thanksgiving, in which Tracy McKenzie explores the “cultural usefulness” (and, at times, “uselessness”) of the Pilgrims’ story — and why historical revisionism challenges such usable pasts.

3. Finally, spend some time thinking of where you see versions of “the usable past” showing up in present-day America. (Or in your family, church, college, or other communities.)


By noon on Wednesday, upload to Moodle a 300-word response paper in which you draw on this preparation in order to answer the following questions: (however you answer them, it should be clear that you understand the idea of “usable past” and at least two of its particular manifestations)

On balance, what do you think of the notion that the past ought to be “useful”? Why or why not? Are you particularly drawn to any one of Fea’s reasons for using the past? Which of those approaches do you find most problematic?

Provide supporting examples, from the reading (Fea and/or McKenzie) and from your own observation and experience.

NOTE: This is another response paper that’s meant to help you scout ahead for a future assignment. After Easter Break, your second group project will give you a chance to dive more deeply into one of Fea’s “usable pasts,” using examples from American popular culture.

Debates about Historical Commemoration

In the past couple of years, what Americans commemorate from the past — and how they do it — has become a significant political question for cities, states, organizations, and the nation. To prepare for our in-class discussion of this topic on Monday afternoon, spend an hour this weekend reading up on at least one commemoration debate.

Whichever article(s) you read, make you’re sure familiar with the controversy and the arguments made on both sides.

Confederate “Heritage”

When a young white supremacist murdered nine African Americans at a church Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, it reopened a long-running debate about how the Confederacy is commemorated. While critics called for the removal of Confederate flags and statues dedicated to Confederate leaders, others defended them as symbols of Confederate “heritage,” not white supremacy.

To explore this topic, you might start with my own July 2015 blog post on Confederate memorials, which links to a wide range of other essays. Or try NPR reporter Jessica Taylor’s overview of “The Complicated Political History of the Confederate Flag.”

The debate flared up again last February when the governor of Mississippi proclaimed April to be “Confederate Heritage Month,” prompting criticism from Mississippians like Timothy Abram, an African American history teacher who “agree[d] that it is important that we analyze our past to avoid mistakes in the future” but “simply [couldn’t] find anything to celebrate about the Confederacy.”

Just last week, an editorial writer in New Orleans suggested that “Germany has much to teach us about Confederate memorials,” since that country has also had to wrestle with how to commemorate an ugly chapter in its national history.

(On the larger notion of “heritage,” see Fea, pp. 39-40. It’s one of the “usable pasts” that you might explore and critique in your second group project.)


The larger debate over Confederate heritage helped feed controversies on two Ivy League campuses: Yale University, where students protested that one residential college was named after John C. Calhoun, a Yale alum who became one of the leading advocates of slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War; and Princeton University, where a college and a program are named for Woodrow Wilson, the former Princeton and U.S. president who has since been fiercely criticized for resegregating the federal government during his time in office.

Princeton ultimately decided to keep the Wilson name, but Yale reversed an earlier decision and decided to rename Calhoun College after Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneering mathematician.

Closer to Home…

Calhoun also figured in a naming controversy closer to home, as he’s the namesake of one of Minneapolis’ most popular lakes. In 2015 the Charleston shooting prompted a petition (one of many in the lake’s history) to rename it after someone other than Calhoun. In this case, matters are complicated by the fact that Lake Calhoun was itself a renaming — the Lakota “Bde Maka Ska” was replaced when European settlers took over the land that became Minneapolis. In the end, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board compromised: it kept the Calhoun name, but added Bde Maka Ska to park signs.

Public History Sites and Tours (for April)

As I mentioned in class on Monday, in a couple weeks we’ll be doing a unit on public history. As part of that unit you’ll need to have completed a site visit to a museum, historical society, or other public history space in time to write a response paper due at noon on W 4/12.

Here keep in mind that one of the reasons we give you Wednesdays off is to let you “engage in more experiential learning, doing an activity on- or off-campus that helps fulfill our course objectives in a different way…. Giving up the third class hour each week creates plenty of space for you to arrange those activities in a way that fits your schedule.”

One pre-arranged option that I’ve also communicated is that you’re invited to join a larger Bethel group in visiting the Minnesota History Center on Saturday morning, April 8 — the day that the new “WW1 America” exhibit opens to the public. If you’d like to take this option, sign up by Friday at noon (using the Google Doc link I sent you on Monday).

If, however, you’re not interested in visiting the MN History Center or not available on the morning of 4/8, here are a few of the alternative sites you can visit on your own. (I’ll just require that you provide photos or some other evidence that you’ve actually visited the site.)

Other MNHS Sites

The state historical society owns and operates 25 sites in addition to the History Center in St. Paul. Just in the metro area, that list includes Historic Fort Snelling, the James J. Hill House, the Mill City Museum, and the Oliver Kelley Farm. Three others aren’t open until May, or only for special events and group visits. Wherever you plan to go, be sure to check hours and admission costs ahead of time.

Other Historical Societies, Museums, and LIVING HISTORY SITES

The metro area is home to several smaller, but well-run historical societies, several of which operate their own museums and living history sites. Here’s a fairly complete list. (It doesn’t include Eidem Homestead in Brooklyn Park, whose coordinator is Bethel History alum Eve Burlingame ’08. I’m not sure of Eidem’s hours this time of year, but you could try contacting Eve to arrange a visit. In the past she’s also had one of our students work as an intern, in case that interests you…)

Archives and libraries can also work, but clear them with me first. And I’ll remove our own archive from the list, since that’s already been the subject of an extra credit assignment.

Walking Tours

Another way to fulfill this assignment is to take a walking tour of historical interest. I’ll lead one of my own on Saturday afternoon, April 8th — if you’d like to join students from HIS231L World War II in touring local war/veterans memorials, let me know.

Or take one of the self-guided Minneapolis Historical or Saint Paul Historical walking tours. You can download them as apps for your mobile device, or use the web-based versions to plan your route.