Spotlight on Chris Babits: Social Studies and Education Ed.D. Student ☆

Chris Babits is an Ed.D. candidate in Social Studies Education.  He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in History from Clark University, focusing on the history of the United States and Atlantic World.  Chris was a boarding school teacher for three years, has done curatorial work for the Nantucket Historical Association and research for the Brooklyn Historical Society.  He is currently an educator for the New-York Historical Society where he is building educational galleries to supplement a new traveling exhibit, “Revolution!”

Where did the teaching bug come from?

I always felt that I wanted to teach for a few years.  I had offers from teaching fellows and boarding schools, and I decided to go where I could best shape students.  At a boarding school, you are literally their surrogate father or brother.  You have 24/7 access where you can help kids and that was really appealing. So I taught at The Oxford Academy in Connecticut for three years.  It is a very small (50 student) school, and the teaching is one-on-one.  Most of the kids have been kicked out of other schools.  I lived on campus and coached sports.

My program—Social Studies and Education—is really geared toward the urban educator and I don’t have too much in common with my peers because I’ve been in this different field.  But the program still works for me, because much of it is theoretical.

You are interested in public history.  Can you tell us about your work in this area?

After graduation I spent a summer working for the Nantucket Historical Association.  I did Museum Education and I was a Curatorial Assistant.  Two days out of five I was in Collections helping catalogue things.  Since Nantucket was a huge whaling port, I got to work with amazing scrimshaw.

Then I went to the Brooklyn Historical Society and did research on an abolition project.  My honor’s thesis was about Austin’s response to John Brown’s raid, so abolition and slavery is something I’m really interested in.

This summer I worked on a project for WNET.  They have a series of online educational video games, and I developed one where the player gets to act as a runaway slave.  It will debut in January, 2012.

You are currently working on an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, which will open on 11/11/11, when the museum’s new galleries debut.  Can you please explain this project?

I am a Research Associate.  My work is part curatorial because we are designing educational galleries to accompany what will be the museum’s first trans-national exhibit, “Revolution!”.  The show is on the Atlantic revolutions, or the American, French and Haitian Revolutions.  It is going to be a traveling exhibit that will start at the New-York Historical Society, and then stop in France, Great Britain and Haiti.

The main theme is something called “the common wind,” or how ideas spread.  When we study the past we see ideas creep in:  We see it from the American to the French, to the Haitian Revolutions.  When you read the words of the Declaration of Independence, you can see how they are then reproduced in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens, and then how the Haitian Declaration in 1804 shares those ideas as well.  Then in 1945, you have Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence literally quote the American and French declarations.  It is the importance that an idea can take and then carry throughout history.

We talk about all the freedoms we have, or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but not necessarily the Bill of Rights, even though the Bill of Rights is the only thing that protects us legally.  When we talk about the ideals of the nation and the ideals we want the world to have we are really talking about the Declaration of Independence.   “Revolution!” talks about how ideals spread.

What is your role in staging “Revolution!”?

I am creating two educational galleries and picking the objects. We’ve identified three themes:  nationalism, slavery abolition and liberty.  I will be creating the timeline for the educational materials and am writing inquiry-based text for the walls.  Since these galleries will be for school groups, it is going to be a little bit different than the main exhibit and will feature guiding questions.  We are designing the room and have to figure in elements like an orientation space where an educator can provide an introduction and the layout of the experience.

I’m also acting as an intermediary between the departments and working with the curriculum coordinator.  It’s a really different role than anything I’ve done before.

You go to a new institution and you learn the inner bureaucracies of the place.  That’s sometimes the most fascinating part to me.  I know a lot of the history, but learning how to navigate things like the rights and reproduction processes is interesting.

How can educators best leverage a trip to a museum?

Understanding public history is very important for secondary educators.   They’ve got the little kids down pat.  But I think public history has failed older students in that they don’t know how to make a museum visit meaningful, how to make it carry into the classroom and how to present something that is not just this isolated “zone-out” experience.  The challenge is to provide an experience that is more inquiry-based, where the student has to really think, and then they take it into the classroom.  Teachers are responsible for this as well:  A museum visit should be a really well constructed plan between the teacher and the museum educator.  They should connect before the visit, then have a culmination activity.  The New-York Historical Society delivers this type of exchange–they are trying to make something real.

Do your long-term goals include museum work?

Whether I work in museums long-term depends on where my studies take me, and it is an interesting challenge at the moment.  I’d like to teach at the college level:  I’ve been told that there are these positions where you can teach historical content and education classes, and I would love to have one of those positions.