Lessons from the community engagement trenches
09 May 2012 – Aaron Cowan
“The one thing I’ve learned from this experience about public history is that I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Charlotte–a talented, enthusiastic graduate student in our History department–made this statement as she was reflecting on her first foray into the realm of public history. Charlotte had (on my recommendation) been hired to research and develop historical exhibits to be featured during a festival sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce and its county heritage association. Over several months, Charlotte put in hundreds of hours researching the topic, writing a narrative, developing copy for labels and signage, locating and choosing artifacts and images, and working with the two institutions’ staffs to develop an exhibit plan.
In the beginning, this seemed the ideal opportunity for an aspiring public historian like Charlotte–her work would have the chance to be seen by thousands of visitors, and ideally she would come out of the experience wiser, more experienced, and more enthusiastic than ever about public history. Instead, at the end, the process of community engagement just seemed a frustrating and unrewarding mess. What went wrong?
Challenges had emerged early in the process. A rather vocal amateur historian–described by Charlotte in a moment of frustration as a “wacky, conspiracy-theorist, self-appointed expert” (I think we’ve all met him before)–began aggressively and publicly disputing the event’s interpretive focus. The chamber and heritage association bickered about financing, exhibit design, and division of duties. “Flame wars” on the smallest historical minutiae erupted in online discussion forums.
In short, it was your average public history project.
We try to convey to our eager students that public history is a messy business even in the best of circumstances–we assign readings and class discussions about concepts like shared inquiry and authority, the importance of listening to “stakeholders,” and collaborative scholarship. Still, for Charlotte–and a number of my other students who’ve embarked on local history internships or other work experiences–engaging the actual community is a disheartening experience (and that’s before they discover the usual starting salary for most public historians!) At the end of the day, a community engagement experience probably has a 50/50 chance of either engaging and inspiring students, or sending them running as quickly as possible in the opposite direction.
So, in light of Charlotte’s comments, I’ve been asking myself how we as public history educators might try to shift those odds and make community engagement more frequently inspiring than dissuasive. I’m not sure there are one-size-fits-all rules, as every public history endeavor will have its own unique set of circumstances, but the following are a few impressions about what we as faculty mentors can do.
1. Support our students A simple sympathetic ear and positive encouragement can go a long way toward helping a student in the trenches feel like someone is on their side. Going a step further, advocate–demonstrate to local partners the positive assets that well-trained students can bring to the table; and, if the project is especially intensive, don’t be afraid to make a case for compensation (and I think the advice to work for free or full rate, never cheap is wise counsel for apprentice public historians as well)
2. Prepare students–and community partners Share with students candid discussions about challenges you’ve faced in your own public history work–but also the positive contributions that emerged. Even though classroom reading can convey only part of the struggles of public engagement, great case studies like Cathy Stanton’s classic The Lowell Experiment can help students understand the dynamics that must be addressed. Examples like PhilaPlace and the historical interpretation efforts of Old North St. Louis Restoration Group can provide inspirational examples of success. When working with community partners to plan student engagement projects, establish as much agreement as possible among all parties on issues like “chain of command,” expected outcomes, and the responsibilities of all parties. “We can figure out those details later” is usually a recipe for discord.
3. Serve and educate partner institutions In our rural/suburban community, very few institutions have staff who’ve been professionally trained as historians, archivists, or curators. These passionate staff and volunteers are the heart and soul of our local history sites, but they often have only rudimentary awareness of contemporary best practices for public history, which can lead to conflict and misunderstandings with students who come steeped in the latest public history scholarship. Education has to be done gingerly, of course, and should be seen as a continuing collaborative process rather than a “quick fix”. Most dedicated local historians resent (quite rightly) being called “amateur” and are sometimes wary of academic historians interfering with or co-opting their work. Linda Norris’ blog “The Uncataloged Museum” is an accessible, non-threatening resource for sharing best practices and innovation, as are the online workshops and webinars developed by AASLH (many of them free). Such information will be best received within a relationship of trust: before throwing students into revising historical programming or challenging cherished celebratory histories, have them volunteer for Clean-Up Day, or enter backlogged accession records into PastPerfect. These tedious, seemingly insignificant contributions can establish a good working relationship that lays the groundwork for richer engagement down the road.
These are just a few ideas to start the conversation, and by no means definitive. What lessons have you learned in the trenches of student community engagement?
~ Aaron Cowan
Slippery Rock University