Thursdays, 11:45 am -2:25 pm in Battelle 248

Course Description

This course will explore how historians can work effectively with community groups to document their local history.  The class will examine how research projects can be designed from start to finish in a collaborative fashion.  We will utilize the “participatory research model,” and think carefully about how history can be relevant for grassroots community groups.   The class will work on a historical research project along with an organized group of homeless men and women throughout the semester.   Through this project we will put into practice the ideas we address in the classroom.

Course Objectives

On completion of the class, students will:

  • Have an understanding of the practical and ethical dimensions of doing collaborative local history
  • Have practical experience doing archival and oral history research
  • Be able to think carefully about how to present history to a non-academic audience
  • Have some basic fluency working with new media tools to facilitate collaboration and help create a final project
  • Have a clear grasp of the history of homelessness in Washington, DC since 1968

Required Books

Blair Ruble, Washington’s U Street: A Biography

Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities


Other course materials will be post on Blackboard or an emerging course blog

Evaluation and Grading

Classroom Participation: (20% undergraduates and 15% graduates)

1. Discussion (65% of Total Participation): This class will be conducted as a seminar. Students are expected to come to each class having read the material assigned for the day and prepared to analyze it. They are also expected to engage with our community partners in a thoughtful and respectful manner.  Where difficult issues, we can discuss them openly in our sessions held at American University.  Informed participation not only demands you speak, but that you actively listen to the issues that your classmates and our community partners raise.  Uninformed speaking coupled with an inability to listen will be graded just as harshly as if you choose not to speak at all. If you have problems speaking or listening in class, meet with Prof. Kerr as soon as possible to strategize about how you can effectively participate in discussions.

2. Outlining readings and course materials (20% of total participation).  Students will divide up the task of outlining course materials that are directly related to the content of the history we are exploring.  These materials will be marked in the syllabus.  A student will provide an outline of the author’s argument (two to three pages). Outlines should include page numbers in parenthesis and indicate chapters and subsections.  Outlines will be added to a course research library we create using Zotero (

3. Taking notes when we meet with our partners (15% of total participation).   Students will divide up the task of taking notes when we meet with our partners.  These notes will be uploaded to our Zotero library.

Archival Research (20% undergrads, 15% grads)

Students will be broken into two groups.  One group will work with census and other government reports, vertical clippings files, photographs, and maps at the Washingtoniana Collection at the Martin Luther King Jr. library downtown.  The other group will work with special collections at George Washington University looking at collections and materials related to homelessness and development in downtown DC.  Students will use phones or cameras to photograph relevant materials or use other equipment to scan it.  These materials will summarized and incorporated into our Zotero library and possibly into our final project.  You will need to document a clear trace on where the records were found in case we need to obtain better copies of photographs or documents for our final project.  Students are expected to do ten hours if they are undergrads and fifteen hours if they are grads of archival research over the course of the semester—five on site and five processing materials gathered on site.  You will maintain a log of your activity that will be turned in to Prof. Kerr when you are finished with the project.

Washington Post Dig (20% undergrads, 15% grads)

Using our online access to back issues of the Washington Post online, students will be divided into discrete time blocks and search for and summarize articles that address the larger historical questions we are exploring.  Students will collaboratively create a document that lays out useful search terms.  They will add summaries of twenty-five articles from their time period.   The summaries will be added to a course Zotero library.  The articles’ relevance to the class research project will be factored into the evaluation of your work.

Tools:  (Proquest) Washington Post Historical, 1877 – 1996; Lexis-Nexis Academic (includes articles up through the present)

Book Reviews: (15% graduates only)

Graduate students will prepare 2-3 page book reviews for an additional three books (or equivalent combination of articles) selected in consultation with the professor.  Use the book reviews in the American Historical Review and Journal of American History as models.  The books must relate in some way to the general course topic.  The reviews will be added to a course Zotero library.  The articles’ relevance to the class research project will be factored into the evaluation.

Oral History: (20%)

In teams of two, students will conduct and transcribe an approximately one hour-long interview with a project partner or someone recommended by our partners.  Students and partners will collaboratively refine an interview guide ahead of time.  Once this guide is complete, students will digitally record a one-hour interview, gather release forms from the interviewee, transcribe this interview, and prepare a cover page and summary for the transcript.  Students will split the transcribing responsibilities in half.  The material will be posted online and incorporated into the final project.

Final Project: (20%)

In consultation we will create a final public project that draws on our semester long research project.  The project will be housed largely online.  It will likely be a web exhibit using Omeka, but it may include a walking tour or podcast.  Students will be assigned discrete tasks related to the larger group whole.  Graduate students will be charged with editing the work and managing the labor.  More details to come.


Assignments for this class must come in on the deadlines.  Late work will receive a 10-point penalty.

Attendance.  All students can miss one class with no questions asked.  However, missing more than one class without permission will lower the final grade by one letter.  If you must miss class because of a religious holiday or if you’re sick, please let me know as soon as possible. Please let me know if you require accommodation of a disability.

Plagiarism.  It goes without saying that plagiarism is unacceptable.  Using the ideas and words of others’ without citation will result in a failing grade.  But how do you credit ideas in a new media format or forum?  The answer will vary based on the platform.  Depending on the tool and the context, consider adding footnotes, in text parenthetical notes, or bibliographic essays.

History Department Learning Objectives

This course will meet the following learning objectives of the History Department:

Undergraduates Students:

1. Critical Thinking: Students will learn to apply historical methods to critically evaluate the record of the past and how historians and others have interpreted it.

3. Research Skills: Students will acquire basic historical research skills, including (as appropriate) the effective use of libraries, archives, and databases.

4. Communication Skills: Students will learn to organize and express their thoughts clearly and coherently both in writing and orally.

5. Writing & Intellectual: Students will demonstrate their mastery of the knowledge and skills

6. Integration: involved in historical practice by conceptualizing and executing a significant piece of original research.

Graduate Students:

1. Students will be able to deploy skills of critical analysis, including formulating persuasive arguments, evaluating evidence and critiquing claims in the literature, and interpreting a variety of primary sources.

2. Students will be able to conduct research that makes an original contribution to knowledge.

Please Note:  Due to the collaborative nature of this course, the syllabus will be a living document that will inevitably evolve over the course of the semester.   Assignments, readings, and guest speakers will be added and also changed.  In order to be more adaptable, the syllabus will be transferred to a course blog by the second week of class.  When it is up and running, please consult the blog as you prepare for class.  As a general policy, readings and assignments will be defined and set at least a week before the class when they will discussed and engaged.


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