History Spaces (IV)

I’m at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this weekend and yesterday I attended a panel discussion of the recent American Academy of Arts & Sciences report, “The Heart of the Matter” that discusses the future of the humanities and social sciences in the United States. One of the panelists, I’m pretty sure it was Claire Potter, suggested that one reason our colleagues in the STEM disciplines seem to be more visible on campus is that they do their work in big spaces — labs, workshops, and so on — spaces that include other colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduates. The speaker then urged historians to think big, by which she meant big projects we could do that would similarly involve many people.

We already do that here at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, where we have dozens and dozens of people working on various projects, large and small, spread out across half a floor in one of our campus research buildings. But we’re one of only a few history departments around the country that have such large scale research and production spaces and almost all of those that exist are engaged in digital work. Digital work at this scale is not for everyone, but historical research is, at least if by everyone we mean historians and their students.

In my second post in this series I suggested that we need to start thinking about research, teaching, and learning as shared endeavors rather than something that we as the experts transmit to our students in our classrooms and in our cramped offices. Such a vision of the future of history education fits very nicely with the push across the United States for substantial expansion of undergraduate research opportunities. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research, more than 900 colleges and universities have signed on as members of the Council and more than 10,000 faculty, staff, and students have joined as well. I’m quite certain that within a decade these numbers will have increased substantially. Undergraduate research is just too attractive both as a pedagogical tool and as a marketing strategy.

For historians this should be a no-brainer.Every history curriculum I’ve examined has a research methods course, a required research seminar, or some similar focus on undergraduate research. It’s just what we do.

But while we’re very good at giving our students a chance to engage in authentic historical research, we’re not very good at doing that in a “big” way as suggested by yesterday’s speaker. Instead, we generally reproduce the binary expert/novice model and just about the only time research that is anything like the shared endeavor so common to the sciences occurs is when we hire an undergraduate to do some research for us. library

What if we took yesterday’s speaker seriously, though, and went big? What kinds of historical research projects could we design that would span several years, would attract external funding, and would engage undergraduates, graduate students, and colleagues in collaborative knowledge production and meaning making? I can think of several such possibilities right off the top of my head and I’m sure that with a few minutes reflection, you could too.

But if we are going to go big, we need some space for that to happen — space where people can sit around tables and collaborate, where some archival files can be stored, maps can be unrolled, objects can be locked up and then later brought out for examination, careful analysis of sources can happen, where all the things we do as historians can take place, can be shared, and can result in something much bigger and more immersive than the expert/novice binary can every provide.

Any such space we build should be visible from the street, the hallway, or the campus quad. Other students, those not part of what we’re up to in that cool space, should be able to peer inside and ask, “Hey, what’s going on in there?” Because if they do, they might just think to ask more about being a history major. And with the number of high school seniors set to decline over the coming decade, anything we can do to attract a few more our way is to the good.

Tomorrow, in my final installment in this series, I will tackle the thorniest question of all — how we can get the kinds of spaces we want. Be prepared for a post that will make you a little queasy.

2 thoughts on “History Spaces (IV)

  1. Lee Wright

    Is “space,” in the physical sense of the word, what’s lacking? Agree with the interest in larger projects involving others that connect and engage more people in history, but isn’t the web the best place to do this, with face-to-face meetings via Skype or in-person at conferences and in ad hoc workshops, as needed? There are many advantages, including the inherent access that the web provides and the fact that the tools are free or nearly so. Funding and infrastructure are no longer impediments to moving forward.

  2. Mills Post author

    Hi Lee. Thanks for the response. I agree that virtual spaces can take the place of physical ones, especially for a variety of meetings, seminars, etc. But I also think that we need to remake the physical world we live/work in on campus both to jump start new ways to collaborate among ourselves and with our students, but also to send a clear message that we are doing different things. Also, it’s worth thinking about what our competitive advantage is on the bricks and mortar campuses. I would argue that the advantage lies in the bricks and mortar — something the online educational providers will never have. Students are being asked to pay a premium to be in our presence, so why make that presence so stodgy and traditional?

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