Sparking an interest in public history

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Dr. Steven D. Hoelscher, a professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, inspired Dr. Jessica (Jessie) Swigger to become a great teacher and author.

“Steve informed everything about how I approach my job,” Jessie, an associate professor of history at Western Carolina University, said about her inspirational professor.

Jessie first met Steve when she took his Memory and Place course at the University of Texas (UT), Austin. “The point of the course is to examine how members within different cultures and societies do certain things to remember a shared past as well as to forget a shared past,” explained Steve, a professor of American Studies.

“I was really inspired by that class,” Jessie recalled. “Steve was studying the kind of things that I was interested in.” His enthusiasm for the subject was infectious, and it sparked her interest in public history, the way history is put to work in the world in fields like museum curatorship and historic preservation. Jessie eventually decided to specialize in this area of American Studies, writing her dissertation on the history of Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and choosing Steve as her advisor.

Initially, Jessie was a silent participant in Steve’s course. “I had a lot of trouble speaking up in classes,” she confided. “But he pushed me to enter the discussion in a really kind way. He would ask me just the right question to get me talking. That’s something I have yet to master in my classroom.”

Steve informed everything about how I approach my job.

— Jessica Swigger, Associate Professor

Describing his approach to encouraging class participation, Steve said, “I think a certain degree of empathy is necessary to be a good teacher. You need to try to place yourself in the shoes of the students, and to do that, you need to know them. Once you understand their perspective, you then try to draw out things that might otherwise just be unspoken.”

Jessie also credits Steve with helping her fine-tune her research skills. She fondly recalled going to office hours and talking to him about her ideas for different research projects. “They were such intellectually fruitful conversations that expanded how I was thinking about different problems,” she recalled. “He taught me how to do research—the way to think and how to read carefully and write. He would always give me such detailed feedback on my writing.”

“If professors are doing a good job, they offer critical feedback,” Steve noted. “And sometimes that can be kind of hard to receive. But Jessie was always interested in figuring out ways to do work better, and she worked really hard.”

When it came time for Jessie to look for a job, Steve was there to help. “When you are an advisor, you do more than just read the dissertation and give feedback,” Steve explained. “You write letters of recommendation. You look for jobs that might be suitable for the candidate. You suggest avenues for publication. And you talk about the difficult job market and the sort of things that one needs to do to prepare.”

Now in her fourteenth year of teaching, Jessie praised her inspirational professor by saying, “I want to be the kind of teacher that he is.”

In response, Steve said, “One doesn’t always hear that when you are a teacher or a professor. You go about your business and do the best job you can. So when you hear that you have been important in someone’s career, that means a lot, especially when it’s from someone whom I admire like Jessie.”


Dr. Jessica Swigger is an associate professor of History and the director of Public History, at Western Carolina University. She is the author of “History is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village and is working on a book about the history of children’s’ museums in the United States. Jessie earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees from the University of Texas, Austin.

Dr. Steven D. Hoelscher is a professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, and the faculty curator at the Harry Ransom Center. He has published four books and over forty book chapters and articles. Steve has a doctorate of philosophy degree in geography from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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