Student Perspectives – Miles McClain

Over the course of my academic career at the University of Nebraska, no other experience rivaled the experience I had with the History Harvest project.  No other educational experience sparked my interest or helped me refine key skills quite like it.  It was particularly gratifying to be a part of a team of individuals working toward a unified goal.  My experience with the History Harvest project increased my understanding of the rich and diverse histories and cultures of Lincoln’s refugees and helped establish stronger links between our campus community and a largely invisible subset of the local population.

Without a doubt, my career aspirations following college have been affected as a result of my involvement with the History Harvest project. In addition to the tangible results of the refugee harvest that I participated in – the various interviews and objects we collected – each of us also gained practical skills that, I strongly believe, are much more effectively taught in this innovative educational setting than in a traditional lecture-based setting. Among the skills students cultivated over the course of the project were:  community outreach and organizing; media relations; oral history practices; historical analysis; film and photography techniques; and, digital archiving.  Each of these key skills has a practical application within, but also beyond historical work.  For me, these skills will be important as I embark on my first post-college job as a member of Americorps in San Francisco.

So, as I begin the next chapter of my life beyond the university, having left my home state for new places, new people, and new experiences, I take with me the various lessons I received as a part of the History Harvest project.  These experiences have set me apart from many of my peers who have not had the benefit of such a unique educational opportunity and I can see a number of ways they will continue to be meaningful to me, personally and professionally, as I continue along my path.

Miles McClain was an undergraduate student in the Lincoln Refugee History Harvest course held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Fall 2012 semester.

History Harvest Potential: Environmental History – Adam Hodge

As I finish teaching my first course ever (North American Environmental History), I have an opportunity to reflect on what I did and what I can do in the future to make the class engaging to undergraduates. Since nearly all of my students are Nebraskans, I made a special effort to touch upon (relatively) local history, such as the creation of the Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s hunts in Nebraska, and the environmental history of the Platte River “road.” This seemed to stimulate student interest, but I think that the History Harvest might generate an even more fruitful experience. 

                Many of the topics that I covered in this class readily lend themselves to the History Harvest initiative. Overland travel, the destruction of the bison, homesteading, the great cattle drives, the Dust Bowl, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam projects constitute just a few of the countless subjects that undergraduates might encounter when they work to uncover local history. Since many of my students are themselves native Nebraskans, we may very well find that their families possess rich collections of documents that can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Nebraska’s past as well as environmental history in general. Challenging students to pursue such source materials and to put together local histories (whether those of their families, acquaintances, or total strangers) would be a great way to teach them how to “do” history even as they bring to light stories that might otherwise go overlooked. 

                Integrating the History Harvest into my North American Environmental History class would have the potential to give seemingly trivial relics historical significance. Such things as old photographs, maps, journals, letters, local newspapers, and even everyday items such as pieces of farming equipment are often important to families and communities, but they can help us to better understand broader historical events, trends, and narratives. Juxtaposed with a photograph of a farm, waterway, or cityscape taken today, one taken of the same thing 50 years ago can be used to highlight stories of environmental change and/or continuity. Letters and journals written 100 years ago in several parts of Nebraska can be presented and examined side-by-side to compare and contrast human experiences and environmental transformations. These are but two of many possible examples; the prospects are endless. 

                As I see it, the History Harvest can be used in such a manner as to help us better comprehend the past while at the same time producing and preserving materials for the benefit of those who follow in our wake. The Missouri River, as we know, has a long history of flooding. Only recently did we receive a reminder of humanity’s limited ability to conquer and control nature when near-record levels of precipitation in 2011 overwhelmed the river’s six major dams; water released to prevent overflows jeopardized many communities downstream. Although barely removed from “current event” status, this event presents students with an opportunity to interview, document, and archive before it fades into the past. The drought conditions of the past couple years represent another chance to grapple with the present for the purpose of better understanding the past and to document recent events for posterity. 

                Using the History Harvest as an instructional tool and a means of historical preservation in my environmental history classes would likely help students to better grasp the enduring legacy of the past. Encouraging students to explore such topics as recurring droughts and the periodic Missouri River floods would illuminate local and regional pasts that encompass decades of history in both rural and urban areas.

Adam Hodge is a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Student Perspectives – Ali Bousquet

As a graduating senior my interest in the History Harvest class and project began with my desire for a hands-on experience doing history to cap off my career at UNL.  I felt a bit of a deficit in the concrete skills I had developed as an undergrad and thought that the History Harvest might offer a more tangible opportunity to do historical work and develop some more skills than those I gained in the traditional classroom setting.

As an Omaha native, I really had never experienced North Omaha. The History Harvest then plopped us in the center of this community that I had largely ignored my whole life, challenged us to learn about it and make a contribution.  To be honest, because I had no previous experience in collecting historical artifacts or oral histories, I felt slightly worried about what I could really do to help the community, as well as what our class could do.  But then came our work with the Great Plains Black History Museum.  The Museum site itself was crumbling—and so, too, sadly, were many of the artifacts inside. We spent a long Saturday and multiple classes sorting through and organizing the fragile and nearly forgotten artifacts of the Great Plains Black History Museum. Working with the artifacts completely changed my thought process toward living history—seeing that despite the fact that we were novices, our small group of students could make a historical impact and help save some of North Omaha’s vital and important past.  It was energizing.

During the actual harvest, community members who brought in artifacts understood that their personal history contributed to the collective history of the community, and even the broader history, as a whole.   At the same time, they were often surprised that we wanted to do this, that we wanted to know these things, collect their objects and share them with others.  It was this personal connectivity, seeing the way community members appreciated our interest in their history and the way the project valued these long-ignored artifacts and made them visible, that had a big impact on me.  I realized then that the History Harvest was a unique and deeply meaningful learning experience for both the students, as well as the community members who participated.

The History Harvest also helped prepare me for my graduate work in library science at the University of Illinois.  After collecting the artifacts through digitization, we processed, uploaded and organized them into an Omeka-based web-archive.  Because we were the first to build the archive, the lively discussions we had about archival standards and best practices really helped me in my first year of graduate school as we have explored different approaches to organizing and cataloging information.  My participation in the History Harvest project definitely gave me a bit of familiarity with these topics that many other students in my graduate program did not have.

Ali Bousquet was an undergraduate student in the North Omaha History Harvest course held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Fall 2011 semester.

Democratizing the past through experiential learning – William G. Thomas and Patrick D. Jones

To date, we have run four “history harvests” with both undergraduate and graduate students between 2010-2012. In what follows we reflect on our experience with The History Harvest and explore our rationale for democratizing history through new models of experiential learning.

             First, we have observed: 

that students undergo a profound transformation in their understanding of history and its meaning, and develop a range of core skills along the way, which are applicable within a range of potential future professional pathways; 

that there is strong and enthusiastic support from most local people and community organizations for this sort of innovative “people’s history” effort and that the History Harvest project often engenders broader local discussions among community partners about the value and meaning of their history;

and that digital cameras, scanners and other similar technologies allow for rapid, accurate, and efficient capture of historical materials on site, while the online environment provides a new and widely accessible way to organize and share this “people’s history.” 

            Grounded in the pedagogy of experiential learning, The History Harvest places advanced undergraduate students in a class designed to plan, run, and execute an on-site community digitization effort. Students work with and within the community, undertake interpretive analysis of the materials harvested, and curate these objects in a web site archive using widely accepted metadata standards. Led by faculty experts and supported by graduate students, undergraduates read secondary works about the major historical subjects relevant to the community’s history, and they continually reflect on the process of doing history as they work through the steps of planning, organizing and executing the History Harvest event, then processing and archiving harvested materials. In addition, each “harvest” seeks out opportunities for students to work with local historical societies, museums, schools and other organizations to further the broad goals of the project, support community-based historical organizations and generally cultivate a broader and more sustained interest in historical preservation and knowledge.  For instance, students worked with the Great Plains Black History Museum in North Omaha to rehabilitate important archival materials that had been damaged and the Making Invisible Histories Visible summer history program for “at-risk” middle school and early secondary school students. (Teaching Tolerance, 2012) 

            The benefits of experiential and authentic learning seem clear to researchers. Marylin Lombardi has defined “authentic learning” as focused on “real-world, complex problems and their solutions using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice.” Students immersed in these activities cultivate important skills, including “synthetic ability” to recognize patterns, “patience” to follow long arguments, and “flexibility” to work across disciplinary and cultural boundaries. (Lombardi, 2007)

             But historians have been slow to adopt such pedagogies, despite the opportunities that digital technologies afford. In an essay on the future of digital history and undergraduate education, Edward L. Ayers recently called for students to participate in a cycle of “generative scholarship.” (Ayers, 2013) He suggested that students build their work alongside ongoing research projects so that their contributions are assessed, validated, and preserved. The fundamental question humanities faculty face is: how do we reconstitute our classroom practices–literally what students do–for the digital age? 

             A number of digital humanities scholars and leaders, including Ayers, have suggested that we need to experiment with new models of undergraduate education in the humanities. Founder of the Perseus Digital Library, Greg Crane has recently drawn attention to the need for “a new culture of learning” not only for the field of classics, but also more broadly for the humanities. According to Crane, “we need to engage our students and our fellow citizens as collaborators. We need a laboratory culture where student researchers make tangible contributions and conduct significant research.” Crane argues that “the crush of data challenges us to realize higher ideals and to create a global, decentralized intellectual community where experts serve the common understanding of humanity.” (Crane, 2012b) 

            Crane’s critique of the humanities deserves quoting at length: “Defenders of the humanities claim a special role in training citizens for a democratic society and often have deeply felt convictions about democratizing knowledge and including new voices. The mainstream of humanities research has, however, focused upon virtuoso scholarship, published in subscription publications to which only academics have access, and composed for small networks of specialists who write letters for tenure and promotion and who meet each other for lectures and professional gatherings. Students in the humanities remain, to a very large degree, subjects of a bureaucracy of information, where they have no independent voice and where they never move beyond achieving goals narrowly defined by others.” (Crane, 2012a, Crane 2012b)

             The History Harvest project is one effective model to achieve these ends.  In the project, we attempt to reorganize the learning process for undergraduate students and to provide standing for community members to have a voice in what Crane calls “the republic of learning.” The lesson in almost every digital history project has been that people have materials to contribute, and they also have expertise.  At each “harvest,” community-members are invited to bring and share their letters, photographs, objects and stories, and participate in a conversation about the significance and meaning of their materials. Each artifact and the story told about it are digitally captured and then shared in this free web-based archive for general educational use and study. Caring about everyday people’s histories – their stories and their objects – validates their experience, which, in turn, has often resulted in an even greater appreciation of, and engagement with, history. (Crane 2012b)

             The History Harvest on-site event features student-run digital imaging and filming tables for documents, letters, diaries, photographs, art, and 3-dimensional objects. To date, community members have shared remarkable documents and objects including: homestead family letter collections, railroad timetables, Civil War letters, rare commemorative silver sets, slave-owned cups and coins, church records, business records, rare music sheets, broadsides, pamphlets, uniforms, photographs, and posters. As we turn to the largely invisible archive in family and community collections, we see not only an opportunity to supplement our other archival records, but also to connect what have been long separated domains of historical understanding. Over time, as the digital archive grows and more people in different locales conduct harvests, exciting new opportunities will emerge to work with these materials and create new resources and tools for historical exploration, from curriculum, to audio and video programs, to networked exhibits that link materials across the many harvests. 

            In the 1990s the animating spirit behind much of the work in digital humanities was democratization. At that time, a small group of like-minded librarians, scholars, technology professionals, and students saw early on that the World Wide Web opened up new possibilities for scholars to communicate not only with one another but also with the public, with an audience largely unmediated by traditional gatekeepers. Their ambitions then were to transform the way history was understood by changing the way it was produced and accessed. In fact, we cannot change the way history is understood without changing the way it is produced and accessed. The History Harvest project seeks to recover this animating spirit in a time of increased privatization and commercialization of the sources necessary to do history and to make good on the promise, long articulated, but rarely achieved, that digital technologies might yet transform the way history, as well as the broader humanities, is taught and learned. It is precisely the hybrid formulation of this approach, blending elements of traditional classroom-based teaching, with more recent calls for innovative, student-led and community-oriented approaches, along with digital and other technology-based methodologies, that has proven so powerfully transformative for teachers, students and local communities. 

            Finally, as communities explore their common heritage, students and participants recognize the real consequences of history for today. Some communities have had their histories expropriated and abused for generations by state powers, large institutions, including universities, and political organizations; distorted by mainstream media outlets; or simply ignored or minimized by the majority. The History Harvest seeks to address these deficiencies in the mainstream historical record by empowering communities, encouraging dialogue, and enabling preservation without appropriating the past or taking material objects. In listening to the stories people tell about the materials of their histories, and allowing communities and communities members to speak for themselves, we affirm their value and their inclusion in the larger story of the past.

             In the coming years we envision multiple partners running History Harvest classes at the same time. Hundreds of classes across the U.S. and the world might contribute to the History Harvest digital archive, adding sources and stories relevant to scholars and the public, and opening up vast new areas of inquiry into long-neglected aspects of our collective past. At the same time, we envision student teams in these courses working across institutions on interpretation, curation, and analysis of sources related to a particular theme. Using social media, high-speed Internet connectivity, mobile devices, and social networking tools, we anticipate a high rate of adoption and adaptation of The History Harvest concept. As the project grows, the interactive, collaborative possibilities are virtually limitless. 

            We have the opportunity to make previously inaccessible materials visible and usable, but just as important, we see the History Harvest as a way to open up and make more accessible who is included in our history. Alongside this ambitious goal we propose reorganizing the undergraduate experience in the humanities by building a collective research project for undergraduate contribution. Taking advantage of the new technologies for digitization and new media for the presentation and analysis of historical sources, The History Harvest serves as a prototype for a model of undergraduate e-learning in the humanities: one that is student-led, team-oriented, networked, community-based, “generative,” and interdisciplinary.

REFERENCES

Ayers, E.L. 2013. “A More Radical Online Revolution.” The Chronicle Review, February 4, 2013.

Crane, Greg. 2012a. “The Humanities in the Digital Age.” Paper presented at “Big Data & Uncertainty in the Humanities,” University of Kansas.

Crane, Greg. 2012b. “Greek, Latin and a global dialogue among civilizations,” Paper in possession of the author.

Lombardi, M. 2007. “Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview,” Educause Learning Initiative, January 1, 2007.

Lombardi, M. “Approaches That Work: How Authentic Learning is Transforming Higher Education,” Educause Learning Initiative, July 2007. 

Parry, Marc. 2012. “‘History Harvest’ Project May Spawn a New Kind of MOOC,” The Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus Blog, December 21, 2012.

Seefeldt D. and William G. Thomas. 2009. “What is Digital History: A Look at Some Exemplar Projects,” Perspectives on History, May 2009.

Teaching Tolerance. 2012. “Making Invisible Histories Visible,” Vol. 24. 

Thomas, William G., Patrick D. Jones, and Andrew Witmer. 2013. “History Harvests: What Happens When Students Collect and Digitize the People’s History,” Perspectives on History

William G. Thomas and Patrick D. Jones are Co-Directors of The History Harvest project.

Student Perspectives – Jessi Hare

The History Harvest project stands out as the most rewarding class I participated in during college.  Though challenging at times, it changed how I had been taught to learn about history.  The History Harvest taught me that history can be hands-on and collaborative.

While the whole year was full of learning and growth, two memories really stand out in my mind and I think they exemplify what the History Harvest is and what it can grow to be.

The first occurred while our class was working with the archives of the Great Plains Black History Museum.  We were reorganizing and preserving some photographs when I came across an old picture of an African-American couple in a park.  Out of curiosity, I checked the back of the photograph and learned that it had been taken in my hometown of Alliance, Nebraska.  This discovery made me think.  I was hoping to challenge and help create a new narrative in North Omaha, but I had never really stopped to think about a possibility of a diverse history in my own town.  I realized that I had been taking my own town’s history for granted and mistakenly believing it to be a homogeneous and primarily White history.   The photograph gave me a new perspective on the misconceptions about North Omaha’s history, and the racial history of Nebraska, more generally.

Another favorite memory came from the day of the History Harvest.  Towards the end of the day I was sitting with other students discussing how the event had gone.  Everyone confessed that they were thinking about how awesome it would be for the History Harvest project to come to their hometown.  It just goes to show that anyone who sees how this project works will understand how important it is and how  rewarding it is to be involved.  Hopefully this means that the History Harvest has many advocates that will help it grow and succeed in the future.  I feel like it will always affect how I think about learning and teaching history.  I think it has the potentially to change how a lot of people learn and teach history.

Jessi Hare was an undergraduate student in the North Omaha History Harvest course held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Fall 2011 semester.

History as a Public Activity – Brian Sarnacki

Upon learning that I study history, people frequently reply “I love history!” and quickly share an anecdote from their favorite era. History pervades our bookstores, dominates best sellers lists, and fills our television and movie theater screens. Genealogy has become a beloved hobby for many people looking to learn more about their personal history. Simply put, America loves history. And yet, academic history faces the same crisis as the rest of the humanities. Academic presses, journals, and departments are all facing immense challenges and reduced budgets, despite history’s popularity. Bridging the gap between academic and popular history is not a new issue, but UNL’s History Harvest presents a valuable opportunity to bring together lovers of history, both professional and amateur.

I have been fortunate enough to help with the History Harvest project and experience first-hand some of the historical artifacts hidden in my community. Seeing the enthusiasm in the eyes of people eager to share their history, I could not help but become excited myself. It is easy for the day to day obligations to overshadow the tremendous good fortune undergraduate and graduate students have in their ability to spend their time studying history.

This infectious love of history highlights one of the most valuable aspects of the History Harvest, engagement with the community. History, particularly local history, should be an inherently public activity, though too often students and professors alike are happy to sit in the so-called ivory tower of academia. Taking history outside of the classroom shows students the practical value of the subject. Students see first-hand the materials that historians might use as sources. While students may struggle differentiating between written primary and secondary sources, the concept of primary sources becomes very clear when presented with real, physical objects and some of the people behind them. Learning immigration and the settling of the Great Plains in a classroom reinforces the big picture ideas of American history, but seeing the documents of people from the past, their marriage certificates, Homestead Act land claims, citizenship papers, and other similar artifacts I saw at the Nebraska City History Harvest, underscores the personal nature of these larger trends. Immigration and migration are national stories, but they are also individual ones, each one unique and engaging.

The History Harvest also serves as a valuable reminder to students that history is a lifelong project. I witnessed streams of people bringing in a wide variety of artifacts at the History Harvest. These people are a testament to the ability to continue working with and discovering history. As most majors do not continue their historical studies into graduate school, the History Harvest can play a crucial role in showcasing the subject as more than simply a means to earn a first job, but a skill that will pay dividends for a lifetime. The History Harvest, particularly the organization, planning and public interaction, stands as a wonderful example of the ways in which a history major can benefit students beyond classroom knowledge. By bringing the classroom together with public, community histories, the History Harvest helps reinforce the value of history to students. With academic funding constantly under fire, demonstrating the public value of history to students is vital for the discipline’s future. The History Harvest takes the concepts and processes from the classroom and grounds them in a “real world” setting.

Brian Sarnacki is a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has assisted with the North Omaha, Nebraska City, and Railroads History Harvests

Engaging with Communities and their Histories – Michelle Tiedje

It’s hard to believe nearly three full years have passed since the first History Harvest. Held in May 2010, the first History Harvest was a partnership between the University of Nebraska-Lincoln History Department and NET Television that focused on railroad history. I recall working closely with Professor Will ThomasLeslie Working, and Rob Voss to try to prepare as best we could for the unexpected. Although we spent months planning, coordinating, advertising, acquiring equipment, and organizing we were uncertain exactly how many people would show up, what they would bring, what their stories would be like, and what they would be willing to let us do with what they brought. We encouraged people to sign up or “register” for the Harvest ahead of time via either a web form or a toll-free number, which we thought would reach out to those both with and without internet access and allow us to manage time more efficiently the day of the event. Ultimately, though, the History Harvest was much more spontaneous than we initially imagined it.

People who had not registered dropped by and appointments were moved around. Some reported planning to attend for weeks while others said they only learned about the History Harvest while driving by the NET studio or listening to the radio. People came alone, as couples, and with their families. A group of older men with deep knowledge of and pride in the local railroad systems came. Most people brought items with them but others just wanted to look around. We welcomed everyone warmly and did our best to answer questions about how the History Harvest compared to the Antiques Roadshow (the most frequent question that day), explain what we hoped to achieve with the event, alleviate any concerns about how we would treat their precious artifacts, and guide them through each step of the sharing and digitizing process. In the end everyone had a story to tell.

My strongest memories of the first History Harvest involve watching the people grow more comfortable and slowly transition from people simply waiting their turn to members of a community. After observing the process for a few minutes participants usually began to move around, ask others about their items, and open up and make connections with strangers over their mutual interest in railroad history. Some initially hesitated to share their stories with interviewers, insisting that their artifacts – their histories – could not possibly be important. Friendliness, enthusiasm, respect, and a little time was usually all it took to draw folks out. Few people resisted the idea of digitization once we explained our intentions and showed them through conversation how much we valued their stories and their work to preserve the past.

In October 2011 I also participated in the North Omaha History Harvest. By then undergraduate leadership was incorporated into the project and some aspects of the interview and digitization process had changed, but many of the patterns of interaction from the first History Harvest remained. A few participants were reticent to open up and share but most were pleased to learn how much they had in common with others in the community, see how their histories connected to broader stories, and seemed to genuinely enjoy talking history with one another. I hope future History Harvests, here in Nebraska and across the nation, are attentive to the lessons these early experiments in public engagement offer and continue to emphasize an approach that puts the needs and desires of the community at the fore of the project.

Michelle Tiedje is a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She assisted with the North Omaha and Railroads History Harvests.