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 New public history program at SRU expands student learning 



Oct. 30, 2008
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:


New public history program at SRU expands student learning


SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The history department at Slippery Rock University has launched a public history program that will prepare graduates for employment with museums, historical societies, archiving groups and agencies involved with grants and public policy.

            Aaron Cowan, SRU assistant professor of history, is the coordinator. The University will introduce a "Public History" class in January and has approved a partnership with the Lawrence County Historical Society to give students field experience.

             "The concept is we have a lot of history majors who love the subject of history, but they don't want to teach," Cowan said.  "Public history is really about getting students out into the community for hands-on work with museum exhibits, oral histories, archiving and cataloging. It will give them valuable career preparation."

            The partnership with the Lawrence County Historical Society will give students a number of educational and research opportunities. The program will help meet shortfalls because many historical agencies are underfunded and understaffed, Cowan said. 

            Students will learn to catalog documents and photographs, manage events and write grants to help the society obtain funding. The society also has a unique collection of Shenango Pottery items, some of which were used in the White House.

            By examining hundreds of documents and photographs and consulting with Cowan, students will learn to identify what items have historical value and to categorize items in the bigger narrative of the past. For instance, a letter written by a World War II solider to his family would have sentimental value to loved ones but not much broader application unless it references a unique event, person or fact that needs verification, Cohen said.

            Students will also learn to mount displays and research family genealogies.

            "The historical society provides a real treasure trove of opportunities for students, not only to learn about the operation of historical societies, but also basic principles of archival practice, museum exhibit design, and grant applications," Cowan said.  "These concepts can be introduced in a classroom setting, but can only truly be learned through hands-on experience."

            The second component of the program involves community engagement. 

            Students will participate in special events to engage the public in history. The department also hopes to partner with other academic departments such as art, theatre and communication to enhance students' skills.

            "There is a real demand and desire from the public for history that is presented in a way that is engaging and exciting," Cowan said. "Public historians are historians first, but they do also need design and display skills in order to communicate history to a broader audience."

            Cowan, whose academic specialty is restoration and interpretation of historic buildings, joined SRU this past fall. He received his doctorate in history from the University of Cincinnati, where he also earned a graduate certificate in historic preservation. While in Cincinnati, Cowan worked several years for a private historic resource consulting firm, assessing and documenting historic resources for corporate, state and federal projects. 

            The SRU history department currently has 85 undergraduate majors and 29 graduate students, as well as 300 education majors studying to teach history.


\           Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.

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