Pedagogy in Public: Academic Programs and Community Partners
Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University
For many public history programs, it is important to maintain close relationships with community partners. Such relationships offer ways for faculty to remain involved in the community and in the field, real-world projects and experiences for students, a source of internships and assistantships, and the hope of full-time job opportunities post-graduation. Yet sometimes these projects leave someone “on the edge” — the students who may be unprepared or uninterested in the project, the community institutions who may have not been included as equal partners or who might find themselves left with an unfinished or unusable project, and even the theoretical basis of the class, which may get pushed to the side in order to complete a client-based project on time.
This working group was held at the 1025 National Conference of Public History. It addressed an array of issues that often arise in class projects and relationships with community partners, and it aimed to establish a set of best practices to help academic programs and cultural institutions move forward in creating these relationships in a more mutually beneficial way. To do this, we wanted to avoid getting stuck in the cycle of individual project “show and tell” and instead pushed participants to think about larger questions, including how to initially find community partners and create those relationships, how to maintain those partnerships in a healthy way, and what to do when problems arise. In addition, we focused on the central question of what is and should be the purpose of projects and partnerships like this. Is the focus bringing hands-on experience and practice to students? Is it fulfilling a professional, usable end product for a client? Is it based more broadly on the idea of civic engagement and offering a service to our communities? These are important questions and certainly will promote discussion among academics and perhaps encourage cross-university relationships as a way to form a support system. However, we wanted to think not just about these relationships from the viewpoint of the college or university, but to extend this conversation to the community partners themselves. These partners are often left “on the edge” or the periphery of project formation and completion, so it is important to bring them to the center of this discussion. What are you looking for in these relationships? Are they worthwhile to your organization? From your viewpoint, what needs to be done to promote better relationships and communication streams?
The working group included approximately 15 members from academia, from cultural institutions, and from the graduate student community. With this mix, we were able to see how academics already engage with community partners or who are considering reaching out to the community and establishing partnerships, how community partners have viewed these relationships or what questions they have in trying to set up these relationships, and what students who have completed class/individual projects and internships have gotten out of the projects and to assess their readiness to undertake the project.
While on the surface this may seem to have little relevance to RWSA members, it closely aligns with an interest at the last conference, which was to how to form better and stronger and closer relationships with community members and community activists. Perhaps organizations like the RWSA should look to the public history field for guidance as public historians have long grappled with how to best form these ties and to overcome the town-gown barriers.