Writing for Aunt Marilyn: Involving Students in Public Humanities

In class today, I gave students my regular spiel about writing for their Aunt Marilyn. The gender and name of this interested relative changes from time to time, but the theory, based on my memories as a college student, is this: Many of us have a relative interested in what we’re doing and learning.  They’re interested because they love us but they’re also interested because they like to talk and learn about interesting things.  Said relative wants to know what that history paper was on, what books we read in literature classes, what kind of science we’re studying. The relative is well enough informed to understand the answers, but not if they are laced with jargon or only half formed.   She knows there was an American Revolution, but if you wrote your paper about the Stamp Act, she’s going to need to be reminded what that was, and legitimately so.  That’s beyond the level of detail we expect outside of Trivial Pursuit or the National History Bee.

Aunt Marilyn, in other words, is a stand-in for the general public. A few years ago, I found myself asking students to write for Aunt Marilyn as way to get around the chronic problem in student writing of having the student leave out major parts of the argument because he/she felt the paper was only for me: the professor who knew all the answers by definition. Writing for the professor means grabbing the few factoids you thought you were supposed to remember (The Quebec Act had something to do with anti-catholicism!) as opposed to explaining why those factoids mattered: (The Quebec Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1774, organized a huge newly-acquired territory that included lots of Catholics, and it gave those Catholics some political rights, including the right to stay Catholic. This infuriated those in the older colonies who perceived the measure as giving power to “papists,” their sworn enemies.) Okay – that might be too text booky for some, but my aunts all know I’m a professor now.  The point is that the good papers give the context too, and thus explain why the factoid matters.

As we’re working on this web project, Aunt Marilyn has taken on a new role. By writing a blog assignment, instead of a regular paper, the students are being asked to move into a new kind of writing. It’s more personal and exploratory; the first person is fine, and a less linear organization is theoretically acceptable. But my hope is that I’m building in my students not just the sense of accomplishment that they’ve learned something new about history – and a particularly important part of our history at that – but also that they’re able to communicate this to their peers and to their families. Public humanities, in other words, is the process of getting detailed and close humanistic research, mostly done in universities, out into the public realm. My students are in a perfect position to do that – even better than I am, since I’m the kind of historian who really loves the deep research and the scholarly communication more than anything else. (Thankfully, I have lots of partners in this conversation, as Karin Wulf described here.  Lots of my colleagues, still outstanding scholars, have found a different path, as one can see in John Fea’s reflections here.) But I do believe that our society depends on that wider conversation, on finding ways for the nation as a whole to think deeply about its history and purpose.  The best thing I can do as a teacher is to help my students gain the skills to participate in both parts of that conversation – to interpret historical information and claims, and to talk to those who lack that information about it.  This is, at root, why I’m happy to move away from teaching traditional papers in favor of blog posts and digital humanities.

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