Teaching Making History “Popular”: Challenges and Opportunities in the College Classroom

AHA Session 51
Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Sutton Center (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Polly Beals, Southern Connecticut State University
Comparing Accounts: Using Popular Culture in History Pedagogy
Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, Eastern Illinois University
The Promises and Perils of Teaching the History of Fun
Kathleen Casey, Virginia Wesleyan College
Pirates in the College Classroom
Samantha Meigs, University of Indianapolis

Session Abstract

We propose this interdisciplinary roundtable as a means of thinking about the role of “popular” history in pedagogy. This panel takes as its underlying assumption that popular history—for example, history of popular culture, cultural responses to political, social, or economic changes, or popular cultural modes of engaging with the past is at the center of historical pedagogy across all disciplines, and indeed, is inherently interdisciplinary: that is, the serious study of cultural forms necessitates approaches from History, Literature, Media Studies, Anthropology, and other disciplines. It recognizes that historical knowledge and meaning is reflected and articulated through these channels—precisely those that are understudied and undervalued. There are myriad definitions and approaches to the “popular” aspects of historical thinking and historically-based cultural productions; it is our intention to begin a conversation that allows us to reflect upon and improve our own pedagogical practices.

Including the popular in history pedagogy is important because it creates connections for students, meeting them on their own ground.  It also allows for the discussion of different registers of historical change and development, and allows students experience with primary sources in many different media. Finally, examining popular accounts of the past helps students to consider how historical narratives are formed and how the interplay between history, memory, and culture is expressed in various forms of popular culture. But an approach that foregrounds popular history is not without its challenges: following larger designations between the “high” and the “low,” students often resist taking cultural forms seriously that they think of as mere entertainment. In this panel we will discuss both the opportunities and challenges; the perils and promises of a history pedagogy that both emphasizes and interrogates the popular.

Examples of the relationship between the popular and the historical include, but are not limited to:

  • The use of popular cultural ephemera (music, images) as a means of building skills in close reading and source analysis, and in creating connections between and understandings of other forms of more “academic” (political, cultural, social) history.
  • Histories of popular culture, leisure, entertainment that make connections to other registers of change
  • The study of popular representations of the past: films, novels, television programs, graphic novels and comics and other endeavors that themselves influence our understandings of particular time periods.
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