Teaching outside the classroom
For the past six months, my best days at work have involved working with college freshman visiting Brooklyn Historical Society (where I am the Public Historian) under the auspices of Students and Faculty in the Archives (SAFA). SAFA is a three-year, FIPSE-funded project that I am co-heading with archivist Robin Katz. We are working closely with eighteen faculty and several hundred students from three close-by universities: St. Francis College, City Tech, and Long Island University Brooklyn. Our goal: to introduce first-year college students to the joys of primary source research and to build archival and critical thinking skills. Our first teaching semester, fall 2011, we hosted almost 300 students and facilitated 41 visits to BHS’s library and archives. During visits, we analyzed hundreds of documents from BHS’s collections. Students compared the changing language of slave bills of sale to better understand New York’s gradual emancipation laws. They read fan mail and hate mail sent to preacher Henry Ward Beecher during the Civil War. They learned the history of deindustrialization and gentrification by looking through our rich real estate brochure collection.
Working with our first-year students – many of whom are first-generation college students, and virtually all of whom have never done archival research or visited a research facility – and their terrific, hardworking professors has been very rewarding, but has also raised many questions about educational collaboration and authority. My project partner and I designed and implemented the SAFA program; helped faculty select documents and design their courses and assignments; lectured on everything from collection provenance to the history of yellow fever; taught students document analysis skills; and more – all this while rarely setting foot in a university classroom. SAFA has pushed me to reconsider what it means to be a teacher outside of a traditional university setting – and what it means to be a collaborator with the professor who does in fact teach in that more traditional classroom. As more history PhDs pursue non-university careers, I anticipate that these questions of definitions and authority will become all the more pressing and more complex.