Reflections on Working with Guest Curators, Once Again

The semester is coming to a close and the guest curators from my Public History class have completed their responsibilities. In a series of interview questions, they each reflected on their experiences once again at the end of a second week guest curating. I would like to do the same now that the classroom project has concluded (for the moment: guest curators will return as part of future courses).

Working with my students on this collaborative project has been immensely rewarding, one of my favorite endeavors in nearly a decade of teaching. Why? There are several reasons. For one, this has been the most effect method for incorporating my own research into the classroom. In the past I’ve brought eighteenth-century advertisements to class to analyze as primary sources or assigned chapters I’ve written to supplement other readings about the confluence of commerce, culture, and politics in early America. While I will continue to do so, neither of those approaches allowed the sustained inquiry that guest curating the Adverts 250 Project for a week fostered and required.

I also believe that this was an effective method of instruction because students played such an important role in shaping the outcome. Although I did set some basic parameters (establishing a methodology for which issues of colonial newspapers should be consulted and insisting that they had to select advertisements for consumer goods and services, with only one exception each week), the guest curators chose the advertisements that interested them. This engaged their creativity, but it also gave them ownership of the work they were doing. For many assignments – in history and other disciplines – they respond to a prompt provided by a professor. They research and write about something that professor has specified they must investigate. For this project, however, they had much more freedom to choose what interested them.

One student was especially interested in women’s history. Whenever possible, she selected advertisements placed by women. That turned out to be just a starting point. As she examined those advertisements she learned a lot about the communities in which those women lived and the culture, politics, and economics that shaped their lives. The advertisements led her to a variety of primary and secondary sources that enriched her understanding of eighteenth-century America more broadly. She developed better research skills, tracking down maps, trade cards, and paintings from the period. Throughout the process, she enthusiastically learned about early America because her curiosity propelled her forward. I could have designed a series of readings and document exercises to impart similar knowledge, but the sense of discovery involved with locating and choosing which sources to consult enhanced the learning experience by giving the student both authority and responsibility for shaping her inquiry in the manner she desired and found most compelling.

The collaborative nature of this project also contributed to its success as a classroom exercise. I tell all of my students that I expect them to be junior colleagues throughout the semester, that we will investigate the past together. The extent to which students actually accept my invitation to become junior colleagues depends in part on the individual and in part on the type of class. Due to their previous experience, greater exposure to primary and secondary sources, and the projects they are expected to produce, seniors conducting their own research in the capstone seminar are much more likely to comport themselves as junior colleagues than students in introductory survey courses.

For this project, students could not avoid acting as junior colleagues, in large part because we interacted so extensively beyond the classroom. During the past semester I had more sustained contact with my Public History students than with any other students in any course I previously taught, with the exception of a student who researched and wrote a senior thesis under my direction and the possible exception of some of the best and most ambitious seniors in the research seminar. One at a time, the guest curators were immersed in the Adverts 250 Project for an entire week, which meant working closely with me.

Each student selected a slate of proposed advertisements and then met with me to have them approved. Most received my blessing, but I explained why some were rejected and gave advice for making new selections. Once an advertisement was approved, the guest curator independently conducted research on some aspect of it, though I sometimes made suggestions or provided context that I thought would be helpful. Writing a rough draft followed the research stage. Guest curators sometimes met with me in my office to review their drafts; other times we had conversations via email. Some drafts required a bit of polishing before being posted online, but others needed more extensive revisions. I made suggestions for revising prose and reorganizing material. I identified occasional historical errors, flagged incorrect assumptions, and challenged interpretations. I suggested additional sources to consult and explained why some online sources were problematic. We worked together on writing, research, and information literacy skills. Most entries went through more than one draft.

Then came another collaborative element of the project. Once a student’s entry was ready, I contributed my own “additional commentary” about the advertisement. Sometimes I expanded on the theme the guest curator had developed. Sometimes I addressed another aspect of the advertisement that interested me. In both instances I analyzed the advertisement selected by the student. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the guest curators did not always select the advertisements that I would have chosen, but each of their advertisements was significant in its own right. I believe that letting them take the lead, putting them in a position of authority in which I applied my expertise to the material they had selected, helped my students to conceive of themselves truly as junior colleagues.

There’s one more explanation for why this project was such a successful part of my Public History class: I worked with good students. Part of me fears attempting to replicate this experience in a future class with a different cohort of guest curators! As much as this method of instruction aided my students in learning and achieving their potential, it’s imperative to acknowledge that I benefitted from working with good students, each of them simultaneously smart, responsible, conscientious, and hard working. This experiment could have had a very different outcome this semester. I’m grateful that the guest curators took it seriously and, as a result, made such significant contributions to the Adverts 250 Project.

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