Investing in public history students
08 September 2015 – Jennifer Black
Last September, an undergraduate approached me to inquire about potential internship opportunities. As a new faculty member in a department with no formal public history program, there were few established connections with local community partners that I could tap. Yet the main obstacle to placing this student in an internship was her need for income; as a single mother, she had to support herself and her son. In fact, financial constraints often prevent history majors from engaging in educationally rich internships because they are unpaid. If we can find a way to invest in our students, however, we can provide them with worthwhile educational experiences that pack a bigger punch in terms of professional development because paid fellowships are attractive to potential employers. Recently, our university created an internal grant program that would fund undergraduate research fellows—regardless of discipline—over a ten-week summer session with generous stipends to support their nearly 30-hour work weeks. In an attempt to bring faculty-directed student research to the humanities at my university, I applied and received funding for a project that would instruct six students in public history practice, give them hands-on experience, and engage them in researching, writing, and designing an online exhibit to showcase their work.
I partnered with the Greater Pittston Historical Society (GPHS), a local volunteer organization that had just received non-profit status. The GPHS had amassed a series of donations to build their collections but lacked the professional staff needed to process and catalog those materials. To rally public interest, the untrained volunteers at the GPHS scanned and uploaded documents and images to the GPHS Facebook page and mobilized additional volunteers to record oral histories.
The hybrid project that resulted was part research fellowship, part internship, and part classroom instruction. I drafted a project outline for our community partner that emphasized the process- (rather than product-) oriented experience I wanted for my students. I also designed a syllabus for a “Public History Practicum” course offered concurrently to the fellowship period, whose final project would be an online exhibit designed and authored by the group. My goal was to give the students a near-professional public history experience: they would catalog images, transcribe oral histories, and research and select “objects” for an online exhibit that they would design and write themselves. Even if the exhibit ultimately didn’t work, at least my students would have learned something through the process.In the first week of the ten-week session, students underwent intensive training in metadata standards, collections management software, and best practices for cataloging and exhibit preparation. Over the next few weeks, the students devoted their time to learning the collections, cataloging scanned images, and transcribing oral histories. In week six, we began preparing the online exhibit. Because Pittston (PA) is located in one of the historically largest anthracite coal-producing regions in the United States, we expected to find a lot of material related to coal mining. Instead, we found a city struggling to adapt to the challenges of postwar deindustrialization, a city clutching to its long-standing traditions, yet looking to the future in creative and interesting ways. To tell this story, the students selected seventeen “objects” (images and oral history clips) and fashioned these into four thematic areas highlighting the experience of social life in Pittston during the post-World War II period. Students composed object entries, thematic introductions, and a main introduction for the site as a whole. Defining my role in the project meant navigating the tension between professional work and pedagogical work. As a project manager, I pushed the students to keep on task and conducted quality checks to ensure they cataloged with accuracy and attention to detail. Yet as a teacher, I also wanted to mine “teachable moments” when they arose. I managed this tension by checking in on the students almost daily and holding weekly meetings to discuss our findings and plans for the next week. I also spent a lot of time reading drafts, offering feedback, and editing the revised texts before our website launched. I took a fairly heavy hand in the editing process in order to ensure that this was the best exhibit we could offer. To evaluate their progress, I required students to keep weekly journals on “notable” images or oral histories they’d encountered along the way. Reading these at the end of the term allowed me to see their interest in local history grow; but the journals also betrayed a certain unevenness in the students’ reflections, allowing me to look more critically upon their efforts week-by-week. By summer’s end, the students had exerted a tremendous effort in seeing the project through to completion. Collectively, they cataloged approximately 4,000 images in GPHS collections and transcribed five oral histories. Each student also spent time outside of the classroom researching secondary sources to contextualize their object entries and section introductions, contributing well over 3,000 words to the final exhibit.
The funding we received through the internal Student Summer Research Fellowship program made possible the high quality of my students’ experience and the finished product. In addition to providing the space and technology that facilitated our work, the fellowship allowed my students to devote a majority of their summer solely to this project. Had they not been paid, all of these students would have undertaken full-time jobs elsewhere to subsidize the expense of attending college. Importantly, paid fellowships evoke a competitive quality that points to the employer’s investment in training the student, and the student’s quality as a recipient of the paid position. Thus, when these students eventually enter the job market, potential employers will value their paid fellowships more than unpaid internships. Finally, the funding we received enabled us to provide a tremendous service to the community.
In just ten weeks, we accomplished what would have taken GPHS volunteers (themselves unpaid) about ten to twelve months to complete. We also gave this volunteer organization a completed exhibit that will serve them well in future publicity and fundraising efforts, saving them the expense of hiring a professional consultant to do the same. The funding infused into our project by the Student Summer Research Fellowship program instead gave that valuable experience to undergraduate students and in the process gave the university a strong ally in the community.
As we all prepare for the new academic year, we might do well to take a lesson from our colleagues in the sciences, who routinely engage undergraduates in faculty-directed research projects that provide both academic training and professional experience. Using funding like this for public history projects accomplishes several important goals. Such funding elevates the value of the public history work we do with our students by recognizing its comparability to the faculty-directed research done in other disciplines. By using the fellowship model to invest in our students’ public history education, we also strengthen our ties to the community and provide our students with a professionally valuable learning experience that is also financially solvent.
~ Jennifer M. Black is Assistant Professor of History and Government at Misericordia University. Her students’ project, “Mining the Past: Family, Faith, and Industry in Postwar Pittston,” can be found online here. Dr. Black can be reached at [email protected].