As we sat in the packed room at the 2013 annual meeting Plenary Session, “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age,” sifting through the various conversational strands, our ears suddenly pricked up when we heard our name mentioned. Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, was onstage, discussing his plans to bring Perspectives on History into his undergraduate classroom as a way of showing his students what historians do and discuss. We were intrigued: What would students think of Perspectives? What articles would they read and find most useful? How would Ayers use Perspectives as a pedagogical tool?
When we approached him about writing about the experience for Perspectives, Ayers was positive but uncertain what the results might be. What he found, and wrote about in “An Assignment from Our Students: An Undergraduate View of the Historical Profession,” is now available in the September issue of Perspectives Online. In his undergraduate seminar, Touching the Past: The Purposes and Strategies of American History, Ayers asked a series of questions: “[H]ow does history live within our culture, beyond the college gates? What is it like to learn history in elementary and high school in the early 21st century, to grow up playing video games based on history, to be taken to local historic sites and museums, to absorb history through television and movies, to figure out where you and your family fit in the flow of space and time? What meaning might history have for digital natives, for young people for whom technology is not a disruptive force but simply a part of life?”
The answers were at first surprising and in some cases disheartening, but he was ultimately able to guide his students to a nuanced understanding of what history is for and what historians do, though with a decidedly 21st-century digital and social media twist. But the newly empowered historian-students then turned the tables, urging Ayers to “encourage my fellow historians to be bolder in our aspirations for our work,” and to embrace change—to see history as they do.
We’ve already received one thoughtful letter from an undergraduate reader about Ayers’s essay, and we invite teachers and students to read and comment on it on Perspectives Online or in the new AHA Communities discussion board for Perspectives.