December 02, 2019

Are all historians academics? No! What else can you do with a history degree?

This is what Maria Mazzenga seeks to teach in her History and Public Life class, open to both undergraduate and graduate students. 

“For this course, what I wanted to do was have students talk to professionals out in the field … and learn about how people practice history outside the classroom,” she says.

For two and a half hours each week, Mazzenga and her students explore archives, museums, historical houses, and cultural institutions to learn about the meanings of memory, heritage, place, preservation, community, and controversies in the field of public history.

“We were assigned a classroom for the semester. We met in the classroom once,” Mazzenga says. Instead, she uses the time they spend walking to the metro and traveling to historic locations to talk about the “landscape of history” that is all around them in Washington, D.C.

Goals of the class include learning how public history is distinct from academic history, and who the audiences of history may be. As a final project, the students have curated an exhibit in Mullen Library, and an online course-related web exhibit. 

“This class has become my absolute favorite course at Catholic so far because I get to see curation of museums backstage, and see the in-depth process of what it means to teach history to the public and be a public historian,” said Abby Anderko, a senior history major. “The city as my classroom — especially in D.C. — is an opportunity like no other because of the abundance of free museums.”

Mazzenga, who is curator of the University’s American Catholic History Research Center, earned her Ph.D. in history from Catholic University.

As a student, she took advantage of living and learning in Washington, D.C., while working at the Smithsonian Institution and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. “I both used [the city as a classroom] when I was a student here, and I use it now as a teacher.”  

Learn more about the benefits of living and learning in D.C.

— Mary McCarthy Hines, director of communications, can be reached at
Jamie Rife, University videographer, can be reached at