This semester I’m fortunate to have the opportunity — two opportunities really — to supervise an undergraduate and a graduate student working on two very different internships. The typical history internship is one where the student works at a client site off campus and the supervising professor simply makes sure something that has academic merit is happening (more than learning to run the copier at a local museum, for example). In my case, however, I am the client for both of these internships. Being in that role has gotten me thinking more about how we might integrate the internship experience more explicitly into our curricula.
First, though, I want to brag on my students a little. Here at George Mason we are a combined department of history and art history and the undergraduate internship I am supervising is for art history credit. As part of the Freedom Without Walls program we are staging here this fall to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, my student is putting together a photographic exhibition using images from the Library of Congress’s Look magazine collection. These images, taken by the photographer Paul Fusco in 1961, offer her a fantastic, yet limited, collection of material to work with — perfect for a one semester project.
Even though we are only in the first weeks of the semester, my student has had to learn a lot about working in the LOC, about copyright and fair use, about photo duplication, and other things we might call the technical skills of the historian (or art historian in her case). But the much more valuable lessons she is learning, it seems to me, have to do with the central issues governing what she is doing — What is the narrative of the show she wants to mount? How will the creative decisions she makes — selection of images, framing of the work, arranging them in space, the text she provides visitors — effect the reception and perception of the work itself? I won’t do any of that thinking for her and she is obviously enjoying having to make all these choices, even as she has admitted that doing so is pretty hard.
The other intern is one of our MA students who is interested in a career in archival work. The project she has undertaken for me is to weed through the archival remnants of the records of the Civic Education Project, an international educational NGO I helped run for many years. When CEP closed down, it fell to me to (shudder) have the files of the organization shredded. I saved about 10 boxes of material I deemed worth keeping as a small archive and she is now learning all about meta data, proper storage, writing finding aids, etc. Once she is done, the collection will find a home in our Special Collections division of the University Library. As with my undergraduate student the hands on experience she is having has introduced her to a whole new level of complexity when it comes to thinking about archives and how they are structured.
I have to admit that while supervising these internships is fairly labor intensive, it’s also a lot of fun. Maybe it’s because I’m deaning at the moment and so miss the level of student contact that I’ve grown accustomed to, but I also think that all three of us are really enjoying the learning experiences in ways that transcend what happens in the typical classroom.
So what to do? I won’t have any more internships to offer Mason students after this semester. But I once I leave the dean’s office and come back from a well-earned study leave, I want to see what I can do to make internships a much more intrinsic part of what we do in our department, especially at the undergraduate level. We are blessed with literally hundreds of internship possibilities here in the D.C. area, so finding sites for the students won’t be a problem. Figuring out how to make interning an intrinsic part of the major will be the issue.
I raised this question in a series of posts on the undergraduate curriculum two years ago, but at the time was speaking from an “outsider’s” perspective in that I’d never been this deeply involved in internship work. Now that I’m having these experiences (my own internship as it were), I’m hoping my views on the subject will be much better informed.