Max Denning

Eastern Oregon University History Professor Nicole Howard’s academic focus is on the study of Renaissance science and medicine. But, as a La Grande City Council member, she also has a passion for serving the city. Combining her passion for history and La Grande, Howard stepped outside her usual academic focus and is teaching a course this term focusing on the history of buildings in
La Grande.

The 200-level course “Investigating the Past” tasked students with doing a research project on a piece of property in downtown La Grande. Students looked for the earliest possible deeds for the buildings, changes of ownership over time and what the building culturally contributed to La Grande.

Howard, who is in her eighth year at EOU, said the class is traditionally a methods course that includes a lot of abstract research. Inspired by her election to the city council in January 2017, Howard thought she could get more students engaged by making it about local history.

“I think a lot about the city in a different way now (because I’m on city council),” Howard said. “So I thought I would change the course and have them focus on more local history, which I had never done before.”

Each student researched a building in La Grande’s historic downtown district. Howard said the assignment forced the students to do a different type of research than they’re used to.

“Every student acknowledged in their paper that they began research on the internet, going straight to Google,” she said. “But they said the web was a dead end, which surprised them. I think we’re all accustomed to finding things immediately online, but in the case of history — especially local history — that’s often not possible.”

Instead, Howard said students interacted with the community to complete their projects.

“Students ended up turning pages of books, talking to librarians, reading oral histories and combing through records and artifacts to find information,” she said. “In the end, they all noted that people, not browsers, were key to uncovering the histories they sought. That seemed a decidedly valuable lesson.”

The list of buildings the 22 students in Howard’s class researched ranged from the old fire station, now occupied by Side A Brewing, to the Foley Building, which contains apartments. Another researched the former International Order of Odd Fellows building, which recently received a grant from the Urban Renewal Agency and is under renovation.

See complete story in Monday's Observer