Lessons from the community engagement trenches

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“The one thing I’ve learned from this experience about public history is that I don’t want anything to do with it.”

two faces 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

8 comments
  1. Bob Beatty says:

    Partnership are perhaps the stickiest of wickets and perhaps the most critical element of our work–particularly in history organizations.

    It’s a skill that is harder to teach, and easier to learn. It’s an art and not necessarily a science.

    But more than anything, teach students about finding the win/win in the situation. I’ve found that if you’re honest and above-board, and follow through on your commitments (a BIGGIE here), things can/will go a lot smoothly.

    My degree in community engagement didn’t come from a university, it came from the School of Hard Knocks (emphasis on *Hard Knocks*).

    But I also find community engagement is one of the most fulfilling parts of our work.

  2. Linda says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Aaron to the Uncataloged Museum. I read this post and thought about what other advice I might provide. I think all too often the relationship between “professionals” (however that may be defined) and communities is set up as one of opposition rather than collaboration. So if there’s one set of skills I would encourage all public historians to embrace, it would be those skills relating to effective collaboration and teamwork: openness, transparency, flexibility, negotiation, and a real understanding of cultural and community differences. And of course, I do believe working together, communities and historians can do incredible things!

  3. Kate P. says:

    “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.”

    I find this to be a crucial point, as someone who has fairly recently bumbled into the field after being one of those students steeped in the latest scholarship. A couple of years in, it’s a lot easier for me to understand how hard it is to add in substantive readings to keep abreast of everything going on in the field along with all of the other work we do. (Which is why I find blogs like this and others so important!)

    I would be really interested in what any programs have done with students to try to foster some of the traits needed for this work – empathy, patience, a sense of humor, willingness to compromise, an ability to be outvoted, and others. If it wasn’t for the fact that my wonderful colleagues have all of those traits and aimed them at me, I’m sure I would have struggled much more than I did.

    I would also recommend workshops and trainings in community organizing, parntering, and mediation for students. I recently took one on managing strong community partnerships and the skills and tools you learn can be translated across content area, including history projects.

    1. Aaron says:

      Kate – great suggestion about workshops; can you suggest any resources or organizations offering that kind of training?
      Your question about what programs can do to develop the necessary skills is a good one: perhaps one key is to simply increase students’ familiarity with community sites and local history stakeholders – class visits to local historical societies/museums, or inviting staff from these places to departmental events (such as our department’s annual student honorary banquet). Ideally, casual, more frequent interactions could give students a sense of the people behind the faceless “community institution” and build the kind of trust needed for successful engagement.
      It does seem there ought to be more formal ways to build this into the curriculum for future public historians, as it is obviously so crucial. Maybe we should borrow ideas from professional colleagues in programs like Business, Psych/Counseling, Sociology, etc.? Of course, I can see both potential and problems there…

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