The Center for Historical Interpretation is the intellectual heart of the history department at UIUC. Each year, the director of the CHI, together with history faculty colleagues and the CHI steering committee, chooses a theme and undertakes programming around that theme. Programming includes public lectures, including by off-campus speakers, local faculty, and—as an annual tradition—a “historian among us,” which is to say a UIUC faculty colleague from a department other than history whose work is historical in some way. The CHI also sponsors a teacher-training workshop for local grade and secondary school teachers, usually folded in with the theme of the year’s programming. Finally, in addition to these highly visible and public-facing components, CHI programming also includes a monthly history department reading group again focused on some aspect of the theme.
In past years, the CHI theme has been a broad topic, designed to appeal to the diverse intellectual interests of our history faculty and students. For instance, in recent years themes have included “Utopia,” “Revolutions,” “Global History from Below,” and, most recently, “Environmental Histories.” In 2017-2019, the CHI programming will be folded into the “Placing Illinois in History” initiative, and our theme for 2017-2018 will revolve around the Sesquicentennial of the University. Like in previous years, we will host invited speakers, guest lectures, and organize a teacher training, with Bob Morrissey taking lead. We have partnered with the University Archives to organize a speaker series, and we have other initiatives also supported by the CHI, including public history initiatives and etc. Our initiative is detailed at http://history.illinois.edu/placingillinois.
For the reading group portion of our programming, our plan this year is slightly different than in years past. Rather than our traditional reading/discussion style program, our “reading group” instead will be a kind of seminar focused on the topic of “Teaching the History of the University of Illinois.” In other words, we will learn and explore opportunities, resources, best practices, and planning for mounting courses on various aspects of local university history. We will meet monthly, each time visiting another campus resource (e.g. Archives, Spurlock, Prairie Research Institute, etc., the new UIUC Welcome Center). We will have discussions/tours/ show and tells about how to design classes and lessons around aspects of University history and in general we will share best practices. We will discuss past experiences teaching the history of the University, and we will explore opportunities with the Ethnography of the University Program (http://www.eui.illinois.edu/). Over the course of the year, we will also work on connecting interested faculty members with the resources and ideas that might help them in developing new courses. Finally, our program will feature one and possibly two outside speakers from campuses with robust courses in the history of the university, in particular Jay Gitlin of Yale University, who regularly teaches a highly popular history course called Yale in the World.
Our program will meet many objectives. Most importantly, in a moment when humanities courses need reimagining and new energy, the initiative is based on the conviction that local, hands-on research opportunities are a great way to inspire students and reinvigorate our course offerings. Secondly, the initiative will focus on networking and collaborating with others on campus. Ideally, our initiative will be an “incubator” for new ideas and new relationships. Thirdly, there will be a practical dimension to our sessions; not only will we visit local resources like the archives, we will visit other pedagogical resources on campus where we can learn new ideas for course design, as well as assignments and coursework that allow students to share their research about the university, producing digital products/ podcasts/ etc. One exciting aspect of teaching the history of the University is that we have a built-in audience, an interested public, and possibly even “clients” in the form of interested parties and entities on campus who might want to discover (and allow us to research) aspects of their history. This insight—the core of the ethnography of the university program over many years—is a key reason to teach UIUC history, and a major objective of this year’s work.
In addition to what our program WILL do is what it won’t. Our monthly sessions will require little burdensome reading. They will instead feature field trips to resources on campus, and networking with prospective collaborators that too few of us know well.