Some professors take their undergraduates on day-long outings or extended field trips to historical sites. Julie Mujic, assistant professor of history at Sacred Heart University (along with her colleague Jennifer McLaughlin) has been experimenting with a different kind of trip for students, one that combines visits to historic sites and attendance at academic conferences. Last week, we talked about these trips and their significance for her students.
MKN: Your first trip with undergraduates was in March 2013; you took the students to a conference at Gettysburg called “The Future of Civil War History.” What inspired you to introduce students to the world of scholarly panels and roundtables?
JAM: I wanted to go to the conference! Then I thought about what a great opportunity it would be to show students a variety of career options for history majors – the conference integrated academic historians and National Park Service employees on the panels and on the tours. In our department, and I’m guessing in others, it was clear that many parents discouraged students from majoring in history because they could not answer the “what will you do with a history major?” question. The conference was a perfect way to expose students to several paths and explore new research and the battlefield at the same time. Luckily, the Dean agreed, and offered to pay for the trip.
MKN: What are the challenges of planning and leading trips like these, with 5-10 students?
JAM: The biggest challenge is finding a conference that also offers historic sites nearby to tour, within a reasonable driving distance from our university. We are located in Connecticut, which is quite a drive from most Civil War battlefields/sites, but we have managed to put together several excellent trips within 8 hours of our campus. Other challenges include recruiting students (which also requires making the trip enticing) and coordinating with administration regarding funding. Otherwise, the trips are relatively easy to organize – all of the conferences have been thrilled that we were coming as a group and were accommodating to our requests. We found good hotels – even better if they offered free breakfast – and rented large SUVs or minivans for transporting the students. Most of these things really just came down to internet research and some emails and phone calls.
MKN: Have you integrated assignments into the trips? If so, what types?
JAM: No, we have not linked the trip with a specific course because we were trying to increase participation. Students seem to be overcommitted, leaving them little time to spend four days away from campus, or they are shy and don’t really want to spend that kind of time with other students/faculty. Thus, making the trips as straightforward and appealing as possible was a key goal. However, when we are on the trip, every student is required to write a journal entry for that day that discusses what they saw, heard, and did, and what they liked and did not like. The students enjoy doing these and make them informative and often very funny. The journals are then used to prepare a slideshow about the trip to present at the annual department dinner. I pull student quotes from the journals to accompany photos – the students love seeing their words on the screen.
MKN: How have students responded to seeing historians live and in person, and working outside the classroom?
JAM: I make a big deal out of the historians on conference programs – talking to the students ahead of time about their books, often assigning their books in class, and talking about their accomplishments. If I am excited, they are excited! I encourage students to ask questions at panels and on tours and they often approach historians after panels to follow up on a point or two. Several have brought or bought books at conferences and asked for autographs. The students respond positively to watching historians work in different capacities and it has helped them to both think differently about content taught within the classroom and also to understand how history ends up in textbooks. Conferences have helped them to understand that everything we “know” changes and shifts over time through interpretation.
MKN: Do you have any tips for professors who might want to take these kinds of trips with their undergraduates?
- Make sure your students know how rare and cool it is that they are going to a conference – that few undergraduate students often get or take these opportunities. My students always talk about how they don’t see other students at these conferences and how lucky they feel. I think they would love to see more students their own age at the conferences though.
- Be sure to rent a spacious vehicle. On this last trip, I tried to lower the cost by renting a smaller SUV and two students got motion sickness on the way to the conference!
- Go over expectations for behavior several times – we are on the go from early morning until late at night. They understand that we expect them to be well-rested and energetic. No oversleeping and missing the morning panels – they are getting a free trip and we expect them to participate in every activity. Plus, they are representing the university.
Julie A. Mujic is an Assistant Professor of American History at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. For more on her experiences with conference field trips, see her 2014 article in “Perspectives.”