In April 2020, the Humanities for All team partnered with the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) to conduct focus groups with students who had participated in publicly engaged projects funded by the CIC’s Humanities Research for the Public Good (HRPG) grants. We held five focus groups with 20 students from 15 institutions who generously shared their thoughts on what they learned and the skills they gained through publicly engaged humanities work. We present a summary of the focus group responses here, while individual posts written by four focus group participants are on the Humanities for All blog:
- The Oberlin Sanctuary Project by Caitlin Merikallio of Oberlin College
- Spirits of Pine Log Mountain by Abigail Merchant of Reinhardt University
- The Commonwealth Monument Project by Chloe Dickson and Anna Strange of Messiah University
HRPG grants were awarded to CIC member institutions to support undergraduate research projects that incorporate a public presentation of research findings. (The program was funded primarily by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.) Projects must have made use of a significant archival, library, or museum collection held by the college or university, and the institution must have collaborated with a community-based organization to share this research with the public. The HRPG grant projects provided us a perfect opportunity to learn more about what students gain from participating in publicly engaged humanities work.
In the focus groups, we asked how working on their project changed students’ perspectives on the topic or community they were exploring. The responses largely showed that working on the project deepened students’ understandings of their local communities. As one student from Champlain College in Vermont told us: “It... really gave me a new appreciation for the place I've been living for in the last four years, because I actually was able to understand more of the cultural impact people have put on this place and how it's still even affecting me today.” Another student from Augustana University in South Dakota told us: “I have such a different view of my school and my university and the land that we're located on after having these really close relationships with Native American students. Because I think a lot of times this can be viewed as an ancient history, but in reality it's really present and visceral for so many communities in America.”
Students also reflected on a range of skills they gained by participating in their project. Examples include time management, communication, research/archival techniques, writing for different audiences, interviewing, collaboration, and digital literacy. Many mentioned that they had never worked in an archive before and how impactful it had been to learn about proper document handling, primary source research, and citing a variety of primary and secondary sources, among other things. Working with primary sources helped history feel more tangible to the students than reading about events from secondary sources. Other students noted the value in spending time listening to community members and having hard conversations about sensitive project topics.
Finally, we asked students how they would describe the value and utility of publicly engaged humanities work. Many students discussed the relevance of their archival project to the present, noting the value in understanding the historical context of current events. Others discussed the value of the humanities more generally and the ways it can connect people. A student from Saint Mary’s College in Indiana explained, “I think the humanities research also provides a way to unite us, because you can find common threads through things you would think that didn't relate at all, like the US Civil War to a Cambodian refugee crisis. I think it shows that we all have very similar human experiences and wants and needs...And recognizing that, I think, builds a really strong sense of community.”
Despite facing numerous challenges created by the pandemic, students appreciated the opportunities HPRG afforded them. As one student from Simmons University in Massachusetts stated, “I'm just so glad that I got to do this, just in general. I'm thinking about it now and I think I'm feeling sentimental because it's almost over and I'm so sad that it's almost over. It's been such a great experience.” While we will continue our research on the many impacts of publicly engaged humanities work, these focus groups indicate that including students in these projects can have important impacts on how they understand themselves, their communities, and the humanities.
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