Making the Most out of a Field Trip
I recently trekked across the country with fourteen high school juniors and seniors. It was the inaugural Gettysburg Experience field trip for my advanced course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I spent several months preparing for this trip: negotiating all the moving parts involved in getting fourteen teenagers and three adult chaperones to southern Pennsylvania, feeding them, getting them a place to stay, and keeping them occupied for five days. Of course I had to make a lot of choices when it came to the academic emphasis. Where, indeed, should I focus my attention? The natural inclination at such a place is to focus on the military. After all, Gettysburg does include a rather large battlefield...and I am pretty sure that the military had something to do with the big events of July 1863. But in all honesty that approach seemed a little limiting, and I doubt my students would have remained engaged after multiple days of this and that regiment doing this and that.
My focus - interpretation beyond the military. Yes, Gettysburg is a place where men killed each other in great profusion, and we considered all that the military enterprise encompassed: strategy, planning, and execution. But seriously, if we had limited ourselves to a military focus alone, we would have done ourselves a great disservice. Our questions (and conclusions) observed the military events and involved how Americans remembered the conflict, how they commemorated it, and naturally, how they wound up selling it to the public in subsequent decades. We discussed civic responsibility and the role of museums and the National Park Service. We even waded in deep with conversations concerning the recent debates over Confederate iconography in public settings.
In the end, after two red-eye flights and five 10-12 hour days in the town and on the battlefield, we made the most out of our trip. And I will be breaking that down into more detailed segments over the course of the next few weeks. I should for sure thank my class for being the very best for which I could hope. They have a tendency to ask the tough questions. So you know - I am a fortunate guy.