The Practicum, In Practice
The public humanities program emphasizes the relationship of theory and practice. Rather than writing a thesis, students undertake two practicums where we connect knowledge learned in the classroom to practice in a professional setting, and reflect critically on these experiences with our academic peers. Practicums allow us to enhance our skills as well as to connect to the field.
Throughout the spring 2014 semester, Keila Davis, Raina Fox, Sage Snider, and Nate Storring, students who were conducting practicums, met regularly to discuss their practicums and the ways they connected to students' academic and professional goals. Here are some of their reflections.
Keila took her summer practicum at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture where she conducted research for an inaugural exhibition (the museum is scheduled to open in 2015). During the spring 2014 semester, she worked at The Winthrop Group, a historical consulting firm that helps businesses, schools, and other organizations to capitalize on their legacy. She assisted in marketing Winthrop's projects to potential clients and authored a report on best practices in digital history.
The practicum requirement allows students to see a glimpse of their potential professional and personal future. By shadowing seasoned professionals you can understand what it takes to be successful in the field. This foresight has been crucial in my immediate and long-term decision-making. After my first practicum, I was able to make informed decisions regarding classes and community jobs. I began to take a whole-person approach to designing my career path. What kind of life do I want, what will be my contribution to the field? These introspective questions emerged from my practicums at the Smithsonian and The Winthrop Group.
In summer 2013, Nate worked at the Chicago Architecture Foundation where he collaborated with curators and designers to produce three temporary exhibitions, and to reinterpret its permanent city model display. During the spring semester of 2014, he worked at MIT Museum, where he undertook research on its permanent architecture collection and for an upcoming retrospective exhibition of photography from the urbanist journal Places
The value of a practicum can also be unpredictable—in the best of ways. In my placements at Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) and MIT Museum, unforeseen side projects often gave me my most fulfilling and useful experiences. Who would guess that writing text for a mini-exhibition about Bus Rapid Transit would prepare me to curate cultural panels for shelters on Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s new R-Line, or that a year after reinterpreting CAF’s city model, another organization would need that niche work experience for their own city model? My practicums taught me to embrace the specificity and serendipity of the public humanities.
In spring 2014, Sage worked at the museum design firm Experience Design, where she helped develop exhibits for cultural institutions around the country. This summer, Sage will continue her work with Experience Design focusing on a strategic vision and interpretive strategy for two of the firm’s clients.
My practicum helped me understand how social, political, and economic factors both constrain and add value to public humanities work. While I’ve experienced and admired the engaging, interactive, and educational exhibits firms like Experience Design have made for years, my practicum allowed me to contextualize why and how such exhibits are created. Preparing project proposals especially forced me to consider the complex reasons why vastly different institutions, from traditional museums to business schools, desire experience-based exhibits. Researching content and then collaborating with the design team similarly challenged me to use my academic orientation and skills towards creating more fully engaging experiences.
During the summer of 2013 Raina worked at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago, where she did exhibit research and development for "Unfinished Business: The Right to Play", and supported programming around social justice issues. With the support of the Provost’s Office, she also worked with Centre for Community Cultural Development in Hong Kong on a community memory mapping project and explored socially engaged humanities. During spring 2014, she deepened her two-year involvement with the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, coordinating evaluation of the internationally traveling exhibit and developing digital content.
For me, public humanities work is about building relationships between people, objects, stories and places. Practicums allow us to explore the ways that these relationships are negotiated on the ground. At the Jane Addams Hull House Museum, I was inspired by the creative ways history and cultural capital can build community and inspire social change. At Centre for Community Cultural Development in Hong Kong, I was intrigued by how artistic methodologies could elicit memories and forge a sense of place. And at the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, I was driven by the unique ways that students around the world—including my colleagues at Brown—interpret, find meaning in, and apply human rights issues to their own lives.
Our conclusion: Practicums help us build skills. But they also help us build vision, versatility, context, and relationships. We cannot do our work alone, and the practicum gives us the opportunity to learn from and contribute to the field as we emerge in it.