Steve Lubar on becoming a student again

September 9, 2013

This summer, in something of a role reversal, I’ve been a student, and have been watching my students work as professionals, keeping an eye on their summer practicums. It’s been interesting, and a bit disconcerting, and I think I’ve learned something from it – in addition to what I’ve learned in my course. It made me think hard about the difference between being a student, and working at a job. That’s something that I think a lot about as head of the public humanities program, which is not only a set of courses designed to prepare students for jobs, but is also a field that straddles the line between academia and practice.

Perhaps some of what I learned this summer about the contrast between being a student and working will be useful to you as new students. Many of you are coming from jobs; many of you will be working at jobs as students; and you’ll be thinking about getting a job when you’re out of the program, in two years. Keeping in mind the differences and similarities can help as you think about what you need to get out of your time as a student in the program.

First, my take on being a student for the first time in a long time. I signed up for two MOOCs – “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets – taught by my colleague Sue Alcock, and Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies For Your Classroom taught by Lisa Mazzola at MOMA. Like all academics, I’ve been hearing much, pro and con, on MOOCs, and it actually taking one seemed like a good idea. And I really should know more than I do about archaeology, and museum education.

I enjoyed both courses. I learned some archaeology, and something of the principles and practice of museum education, and enjoyed being a member of a community of students – a diverse, worldwide, community of students. I looked forward to the new videos available each week and the lively online discussion.

What most surprised me was the odd pleasure of following a syllabus, a simple schedule. Each week students in the archaeology course were expected to watch 5 or 6 short videos, read a few short articles, take a quiz, write an essay, and evaluate the essays of five fellow students. The museum education course had a similar schedule. No decisions to make, other than what to skip if I don’t have time, and what to write about. Everything is individual effort, without the need to work with other students. Read this and watch that, the professor says, and you’ll learn what you need to pass the quiz. It’s quite a comforting way to learn – or, at least, to fulfill the requirements of the course, which isn’t always the same thing.

Real work is rarely like that. I’m reminded of the complexity of making your way through the workplace by talking to and reading the blog postings of the students who were working on practicums over the summer. While they often reported that they are using the knowledge they learned in class, so much of their work was really meta-work: figuring out what they’re supposed to do, how the organization operates, how bureaucracies work with individuals and with each other. This is very different from being a student in the sort of courses I took this summer, and maybe different than being a student in any course. Think about the etymology of “course”: it’s a track. Work, especially a new job, is less a track than an expedition into the unknown.

Everyone who works is aware of the work that goes on around the work. Being thrown into a new workplace for a few months brings it into high relief. Permanent staff know the issues. They know the personalities. They know what battles to fight, when to compromise; when to appeal up a level in the hierarchy, when to back off. They learn when they can win by working harder on their own, when they need to find allies. Students there for a short-term practicum– new employees more generally -  need to learn all of this, and they need to learn how to learn it.

The contrast between my time as a student and the students’ time as professionals this summer has reminded my of the challenge of teaching not merely for subject-matter learning, but also teaching for work in the real world. And that’s what we try to do in the public humanities program. A simple course with clear instructions, straightforward quizzes, and only individual effort, comforting as it is, won’t do it. It’s important to teach content, but also a reminder that content is only part of what we need to teach. We also need to learn how to work with, through, and, sometimes, around our colleagues, our bosses, and our clients, customers, users, or visitors.

It also reminded me of the challenge that you will face, as new students in the program. While it might be possible to complete two years of the MA program thinking of yourself as simply a student, working on your own to complete the work on the syllabus, learning what you need to pass the test, that’s not what you should do. Think about the contrasting requirements and opportunities and pleasures of a job and a course – and expedition and a course - and consider, over the next two years:

  • The balance between thinking of the course work as simply course work to be completed, and the possibilities of it being something more.
  • The balance of individual work and team work
  • The balance of practical and academic work
  • The balance of time spent on coursework, and on projects, and jobs, and other opportunities that come along

Archaeologists, I learned this summer, care a great deal about context, and think a lot about changing contexts, how the same object means different things in different situations. You should think about your work here in changing contexts too. The new things you learn over the next two years in the program – academic knowledge, theoretical approaches, practical know-how, interpersonal relationships, and more – will be useful to you both immediately, in your courses, and that’s valuable. But that new knowledge and new skills will change its meaning, and gain new and different value in a new context, as you move from being a student back to the workplace. Keep both in mind as you choose courses and undertake your studies.

Center Director, Steve Lubar, reflects on what it means to be a student.  FEATURED IMAGE: in addition to registration in two MOOCs, Lubar also enrolled in a 3D printing course at AS220, where he printed squirrel figures.  Professor Lubar directs Brown's Public Humanities program, building on his interests in issues of culture, community, and public history. Present research projects include work in the history of museums, material culture, 19th-century invention and technology, and digital humanities. He is working on a book on history curatorship.

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