Student Work for Public Audiences

Yesterday I participated in a roundtable discussion on “Student Work for Public Audiences” at Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. I talked about last year’s AMST1550, “Methods in Public Humanities.”

I teach courses for students who want to learn how to work with the public. Many of my courses are for graduate students in a professional program, or more precisely, a program that’s a cross between professional and academic: the MA in public humanities program. The students in the class are graduate students who are interested in jobs in museums and other cultural organizations. They need to learn academic knowledge, philosophy and theoretical approaches, and practical skills.

And so almost all of our courses are designed to not simply learn things, but to put them to use. While many seminars in the humanities teach students to tear apart the literature and learn to criticize, our seminars are designed to see how we might build on our readings and put them to use. Our methods courses try to teach both a good bit of information about how things are done in cultural institutions as well as how to critique the way things are done. I want the students to learn the rules, and learn how and why the rules came to be, and most important, to know when to follow them and when to break them. The best way to do that is to include projects.

I’ll describe one course – AMST1550,“Methods in Public Humanities” – as I taught it last year. AMST1550 was very much about methods and process: it included project management, memos, meetings, working with outside organizations. I wanted to make the work real. Student work on a group project accounted for 60 percent of their grade. I had organized nine projects before the class, with nine different organizations. We would drop the projects that didn’t attract enough interest.

One key to a project class is a very clear timeline. Three weeks in, the student groups needed to set up their Basecamp project management site, write a project memo listing the contacts they had made, the way they organized their groups, their project budget, and schedule. Eight weeks in, they would submit another project memo, a revised schedule, and outline the final deliverable. At the end of the class, they would submit a written report, to be shared with the client, the work itself, and a report to me on the challenges they faced. At each of these points, they would also make a short presentation.

These were the projects that students chose:

You’ll notice that many of these changed from what was proposed. Maybe that’s the first challenge: organizations need to be flexible. So do class projects, and so do students.

Other challenges: it was very hard to work the time schedule of a course with an outside project. There were too many projects, too many students. The projects ballooned to take over the class.

On the positive side, when it works, there’s some very deep learning. Students get committed, they get sucked in, the projects get bigger; it’s hard to stop them. One of these projects turned into a kickstarter campaign and a grant proposal and is still going. Two others got produced. One turned into a full-time job for a graduating student.

Projects get students engaged. They need to know the content to produce their project, and they need to understand procedures to get things done. Those two kinds of learning can reinforce each other.

And something else happens when students become producers. They become responsible not just for doing their work for a grade, but for an outside organization that comes to depend on them. The connection to a real organization makes the project work important.

Most of the students look back fondly on these projects. They learned a lot, and the project is good to have on their résumé. At the time, though, some of them were overwhelmed by the work. And so was I: the course required too much work. It was too big, too many moving parts. The outside organizations were too hard to wrangle.

Student feedback suggested some changes. Students wanted clearer procedures set up earlier. more feedback. They wanted more work on group dynamics, difficult conversations, and how to work with each other and their organizations. There was some interest in using this as a way to learn how to work as an independent contractor. They wanted smaller groups, and a smaller class, and more time on the projects. They would have liked a better review process throughout, and, at the end, a “360 review.”

And so, the following year, I changed things significantly. I split the course in two. A projects course was just projects; the Methods course dipped into only two small projects. That worked better.

But there’s still much to learn; it’s a challenging medium, trying to do two things at once. I’m not sure what I’ll do next year.

 

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