Reflections on Working with Guest Curators

Those who visit regularly are aware that I have incorporated the Adverts 250 Project into the Public History course that I am teaching this semester.

Each of the students has taken a turn serving as guest curator for a week, taking on a variety of responsibilities: creating a census of newspapers published in colonial America during the same week 250 years earlier, selecting seven advertisements to feature according to the methodology I have designed for featuring the most current advertisements, conducting independent research to gain a better understanding of each advertisement, writing a short analysis of each advertisement (at least 150 words but often much more), submitting appropriate links and images to supplement and corroborate what they have written, and consulting with me as necessary throughout the process.

I continued as editor and permanent curator. In addition to providing guidance behind the scenes, I also contributed additional commentary about some aspect of each advertisement, sometimes building on the story the guest curator told and other times examining another aspect of an advertisement. So many of the advertisements are so rich that it would be impossible for anybody – student or professor – to comment on every detail exhaustively, but working as a team the guest curators and I have explored some of the most important attributes of a variety of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements over the course of the past several weeks.

In addition to the duties listed above, each student wrote a brief reflection (at least 500 words) at the end of his or her week as guest curator. Given that my work has paralleled theirs, today I am offering my own reflection on working with the guest curators on this project.

First, I knew that this was going to be a collaborative process, but I did not anticipate just how truly collaborative it would be. I tell all of my students – whether they are enrolled in an introductory survey, an upper-level elective, or a capstone research seminar – that I expect them to be junior colleagues in the endeavor of historical enquiry. More than in any class I have taught, Public History students working on the Adverts 250 Project have comported themselves as junior colleagues who have worked collaboratively with me (though I must also tip my hat to students who have conducted original research in capstone research seminars who have also consulted with me closely to produce impressive final projects).

The manner in which we worked together very quickly took a different form than I originally envisioned. When we first decided which student would serve as guest curator for each week, I instructed them that they should submit a draft of all seven of their commentaries by the end of the day on the Wednesday before their first advertisement would be featured on the Sunday of their week. That would give me a chance to read through them and schedule a one-on-one meeting with the guest curator during office hours to go through all of them together.

That plan turned out to be too idealistic. It did not conform to the way that most undergraduates work and, quite honestly, it would have been too restrictive for me as well. The guest curators and I soon worked out a system: anything that was to be published on the Adverts 250 Project had to be submitted to me at least twenty-four hours in advance. That would give me time to review it and, if necessary, suggest revisions.

As a result, it turned out that we did not have as many face-to-face conversations about content and analysis as I expected. Instead, extended conversation in my office that I originally anticipated turned into daily email exchanges: messages shuttling back and forth. Often I was not teaching students by speaking directly to them in person. Instead, I was reading what they wrote and then they were reading my responses. Information was exchanged, context was elaborated, and details were clarified, but via email and attached documents rather than via spoken words. For me, this transformed the instructor-student relationship by incorporating some of the practices of professional communication with colleagues.

In their reflections, some of the guest curators commented explicitly that working on this project made them feel like professional historians rather than students in a generic history course (and my conversations with others revealed that all of them felt this way to one extent or another, whether they mentioned it in their reflection or not). From my perspective, this was in part due to addressing the so-called “audience of one” problem. Many assignments for history courses (and courses in just about every other discipline) have an audience of only one person who will ever see it, read it, or assess it in any way: the professor. Since those assignments feel artificial to students (a hoop to jump through to complete a college course) they often do not recognize the value of the skills the assignments were designed to develop (critical thinking, analytical writing, research methods, to name a few). Sometimes they submit work that does not correspond to their abilities, shrugging off assignments that only a professor will see.

For the Adverts 250 Project, however, students were aware from the start that I would not be the only person reading their work. They knew that the material they produced would be available on the Internet for anybody who wanted to read it. I underscored that my own reputation was on the line; while the students certainly respected that and strove to do well so they would not let me down, I believe that they also submitted their best possible work so they could be proud of their own contributions to the project. Whether they realized it or not at the time, they were also further developing the same kinds of skills that would have been emphasized in more traditional assignments.

Each student will return for a second week as guest curator after spring break. Now that each has learned more about what is involved in the project I anticipate that their experiences will be a bit different the next time around. I know that I certainly have different (and probably more realistic) expectations. Each student will offer another reflection at the end of his or her second week as guest curator.

Similarly, I will offer my own reflection once again at the end of the semester. For now, I will conclude by echoing a sentiment that many of the guest curators voiced. The Adverts 250 Project has been a lot of work, but it has also been a lot of fun. The students have reported (with sufficient enthusiasm and sincerity to dispel suspicions they were only angling for good grades) that they enjoyed working on the Adverts 250 Project. I have also very much enjoyed working with them. So far, our collaborative efforts have been fun as well as intellectually and professionally rewarding.

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