Ask A Public Historian: Wes Garmon

Wesley Garmon is the Education Coordinator for the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH). He received a BA in history and secondary education with a teaching certification license from Athens State University and a MA in history with a concentration in public history, particularly museum and archival administration, from the University of North Alabama. Wes came to ADAH in 2014 after four years of teaching high school world history and government as well as adult programs for a local community college.

Do you consider yourself a public historian?

I see myself more as an educator, but the informal way I go about teaching leans more to the public history side.

Who is the “public” in your situation? How do you engage them?

K-12 parents, teachers and students, primarily 4th grade students because Alabama history is part of the curriculum.

How does your style of teaching differ from a classroom setting?

During tours of the Museum of Alabama, we strive for thoughtful, open-ended questioning that I believe further benefits the students than simply dictating the information to them. We also partner with Alabama Digital Learning through the Alabama Department of Education to conduct virtual field trips that engage and educate hundreds of schoolchildren on various themes in Alabama history through the comfort of their own classroom. We also create digital education resources and lesson plans for teachers. All of these things combined have allowed us to reach students the state.

What made you want to switch from being in the classroom to your position at ADAH? How does it differ?

The aspect of having to cram so much history in a short amount of time is not the most effective way to teach history. I wanted to find a more effective way to engage the students, and I wanted to reach a broader audience in order to have a larger impact.

Public history was a concept I was unfamiliar when I began my teaching career. I like to use the term “practical history” because I am able to do more things that are less passive.

Besides 4th grade classes, does ADAH reach out to other grade and age levels?

Most of our docents are volunteers or college-level student workers who have undergone training in both interpretation and historical knowledge. We teach the docents to be flexible in order to tailor to all grade levels. The elementary students are typically blank slates in which we try to give them an overview. We encourage the older students to think critically and to to relate the past to the present.

A great example would be World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. The older students are capable of understanding how fighting overseas and coming home to Jim Crow didn’t line up. With 4th graders we try to introduce the idea, with 12th graders we try to engage them and encourage them to tell us why it wasn’t fair to come home to racial divide after fighting for your country.

What is the best part of your job?

The best part of my job, and the reason I went into education, is being able to have an impact on people, especially students. I was fortunate enough to have had great teachers growing up, especially my 9th world history teacher, that instilled in me the love and importance of learning about the past and its relationship to the present.

I also enjoy working with various committees, particularly the Alabama Bicentennial, where my miniscule amount of input pools with other educators, scholars, and community leaders to create meaningful programs that reach students of history from all ages and education backgrounds. Lastly, every day is different.

What do you wish you knew before you started your public history career?

I wish that I had known of a straighter path to becoming a public historian. I would have never heard of public history if not for my wife enrolling in the master’s program at the University of North Alabama. I took a public history 101 course soon after and decided to enroll in the program as well.

What advice would you give to those looking to get into the field?

Volunteering and internships are crucial. The contacts you make and the experiences that you build are every bit as valuable as the education. A solid grounding in history doesn’t hurt either.

Attending various conferences and talks are also important. By attending conferences, presenting papers and posters, and visiting ADAH as a student, I was able to meet the staff and network with other professionals. It was because of those connections that I was made aware of the position in 2014.

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