Teaching While Touring: Walking Tours and Public History

Prof. Timothy White

From Lviv to New York City, walking tours are a unique form of teaching and public history, transcending the everyday interactions of the classroom. On an urban walking tour, students go to the city but the city also comes to them, often in unexpected ways. This course will provide students with a focused analysis of the walking tour as a tool for higher education and for public history. We will spend five days studying this subject, using short and powerful readings to provide common subjects of discussion. All readings will be supplied via the course reader. Each day that we gather, we will engage in interactive lectures, city walks to explore the art of the walking tour in action, and group discussions.

On our first day will focus on contingency, meaning the unexpected roadblocks, people, and conditions that can materialize as one endeavors to lead a tour. We will discuss manageable contingencies, which can be “teachable moments”, as well as those contingencies that need to be overcome or simply bypassed. Also on day one, students will consider logistical and methodological considerations for walking tours, such as group familiarity and visual perspectives when choosing tour stops, and content for each stop. Day two will open up an important discussion of subjectivity in walking tours, building upon the contingencies and logistics of the first two days. All teaching is impacted by the subjectivity of the instructor and students, of course, but usually within the confines of a private classroom. As public history events, however, walking tours invite the subjective responses and interactions of passersby, pedestrians, and local residents. We will discuss strategies for dealing with challenges, questions, and interactions in many varieties. Building on this discussion, days three and four will feature walking tours for sites of loss, atrocity, or gentrification. The ways that a guide can deal with such sites depending greatly on whether they are truly site-specific to a precise location, such as the World Trade Center or the bebelplatz in Berlin. Last but not least, on day five we will discuss how a guide can best craft the narrative of her or his walking tour, using both logistical and theoretical considerations when deciding the order of tour stops.

Expect the unexpected: walking tour contingencies

“Reflections on the Walking Tour” by T.R. White

The Tour Guide, Ch.4, “Shticks of the Trade”

Site familiarity, visual perspectives, and group engagement

Subjectivity on the sidewalk

Touring sites of loss, atrocity, or gentrification

Touring sites of gentrification

Crafting narrative as a tour leader