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.



Jenks Society for Lost Museums

I’ve been blogging over at the Jenks Society for Lost Museums. You can see my thoughts on curatorial poetry and  “Report on the food of the robin” and on taxidermy workshops, as well as reflections on the legacy of Prof. Jenks. And also many other reflections and considerations by fellow fellows of the Jenks Society.

And a Medium post, now that the installation is complete. 

50 Years of Collecting at the National Museum of American History

Here’s the talk I wrote for the National Council on Public History conference at the end of March. It’s a piece of a longer work in progress on the history of the museum’s collections. This talk focuses on the the philosophical and bureaucratic contexts of the collecting at the museum. A second part, perhaps this summer, will look in detail at the changing nature of the objects collected. The big questions: What did they collect, why, and how can we evaluate the museum’s collecting work?

Updated: final version of presentation uploaded March 26, 2014.

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“An olla podrida of queer things pining away its sweetness in the desert air of the Brooklyn Navy Yard”





By popular demand, the full text of the article about the Brooklyn Naval Lyceum that appeared in the New York Times in 1852. It’s a very odd article. More about it, and the Naval Lyceum, in my article, brand new in Museum History Journal.Image

Teaching Digital Public History


Here’s the paper I would have given at the American Historical Association conference, had it not been for about a foot of snow and a cancelled flight.

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Changing the Ph.D. for a Changing Job Market

Some thoughts, kindly published by Oronte Churm at Inside Higher Education.

Arts and humanities analytics

Here’s the talk presented at Bryant University’s Applied Analytics in Humanities and Social Sciences conference today. Paul Margrave, Nate Storring and I presented work done by the three of us, Allison Roberts, Mark Motte of Rhode Island College, and students in his GEOG339 class.

Two parts to the presentation. The first is a very general overview of some of the types of work that might be called humanities analytics: a lot of it is digital humanities, but it also includes other ways that humanists might try to quantify their work, from eye-tracking to economic analyses of art markets.

The second part considers public humanities analytics. It includes a quick overview of visitor tracking in museums, and a very preliminary analysis of some of the material we’ve been analyzing for Waterfire, Providence’s creative-placemaking extravaganza.

The most interesting questions we received at the conference were about the difference between public humanities analytics and market research. We discussed some possibilities: to what extent are we interested in  artistic quality or public engagement?Is engagement in art — enjoyment, contemplation, learning — just another kind of brand loyalty? How does our work differ from tourism research?

We’ll be giving a fuller version of this talk next week, at Waterfire’s Art of Placemaking conference. Any advice on how to answer these questions appreciated!

21st-Century History of Technology: Fashioning a Usable Past

Yesterday the MIT Museum and the Hagley Museum and Library ran a fascinating workshop on “Doing the History of Technology in the 21st Century.” The workshop, at the MIT Museum, brought together historians, museum curators, public humanists, and more to talk about how the history of technology is changing – and how it needs to change – to play the role it needs to play as our sources, audiences, media, and interests change. It was partly about the digital, but more general, too.

My talk addressed the question of how do we do our work in a way that makes us part of a larger conversation. It’s something I think is important, but with no easy answers. The ground rules are changing.

Here are slides from my talk.

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And here’s a video of the presentation. Thanks to


The Humanities: Public, Open, Applied & Engaged

Just back from my trip to the University of Glasgow. A delight to meet with faculty and students there and to learn more about their extensive community engagement programs. I gave a talk about public humanities programs in the United States, focusing on Brown’s program. Here’s the slides from my talk. When I have time to rewrite it, I’ll post the written-out version here. Any comments welcome.

One Room (The after post)

Well, I enjoyed it.

The audience was mostly RISD Museum staff – not much of a surprise, given the topic. Interesting to them, less so to the general museum-visiting public.

My two hours was mostly conversation. I had imagined actually doing serious work on my visualizing project. Instead, it was more like showing colleagues a really neat new tool I was playing with that might be useful to them. That’s one of my favorite things, and I think that the RISD Museum folks enjoyed it.

Not only fun, but useful. The conversation with knowledgeable and interested colleagues offered an opportunity to think through my project, to explain why I thought it was worthwhile, to see where it needs work. They asked great questions and gave some excellent suggestions. (Museum web designers and visualizers: check out this NYT fashion visualization!)

And so: it did live up to the “office hours” idea, in the best way. Office hours as in the kind of great conversation that colleagues working on similar projects share in an office. Just that this office was a museum program, and museum visitors could wander in and join us. Which made it even better.

Perhaps the RISD Museum should make this permanent. “One Room” succeeds in its  admirable goal of introducing  “artists, designers, experts, and brainiacs” to each other and the general public. Now we just need a place to continue the conversation.