History Beyond the Classroom: a conversation at week 6

This year’s cohort for HSTY 3902 is small and dedicated. So far, we have been discussing a range of issues in the classroom about undertaking public or community history projects. These have included matters of respect and ethical engagement, representation and the nature of evidence. We’ve been lucky enough to have visits from former 3902 students Erin Blanchfield and Sarah Graham; Anna Clark (UTS); Sally Zwartz; and Michaela Cameron (University of Sydney).
Thinking about what we’ve learned and discussed thus far, students decided to write a blog entry in the form of a conversation, following a prompt I put up on our class website. The prompt was: what do you think are the most important skills to develop when engaging in a community or public history project? Here are the responses:

Emily Hamilton: Open-mindedness and neutrality are the most important skills to develop when engaging in a community or public history project. An historian must be able to both acknowledge the insight and usefulness of the community members with whom they are collaborating, and avoid promoting their own agenda by presenting multiple perspectives. An historian must acknowledge that they are part of something greater than themselves and their own political viewpoint when engaging in community history.
Sam Corby: The first step to achieving this is to develop the ability to listen to the members of the community you are engaging with. It is crucial that the community members recognise your appreciation and respect for them and their accounts; being a good listener will build this relationship. Though it may take time for some community members to fully trust you enough to share their full accounts.
Lucy Cooper: A good community or public history historian needs to have the ability to balance the needs of the community not only with their own desires and motivations, but with what the greater public would expect of the project. To do this, they have to have an understanding, respect and awareness of the differing perspectives and opinions that they are presented with. Fostering relationships with the community through respect, whether it be for the people or the land/place, will allow a historian to gain a better insight into the history they are setting out to explore.
Rob Barbagallo: Hey Lucy, how are you? With my project, I feel that “what the greater public would expect of the project,” is really just what I would expect from the project. As much as the project is for the organisation, and they definitely have a big say in the shape of it, direction etc., where does the historian figure in? Where does the public too?
Lucy: Hi Rob, you make a good point. I just feel that sometimes there are certain conflicting perspectives in what people expect from a project. If I was to use the example of my project for instance, I know that probably the community organisation (Ryde Historical Society) definitely have a vision of what they want me to do (make series of local histories that people can view that they can print on demand, and make some money from it as well). Personally, I want to help them achieve this in conjunction to a) complete the project for the unit, and b) write about a particular place that has history I am interested in. Then there is the greater public, that may or may not be interested in this project, those who go to the website are looking to specifically find information about an area of interest (whether it be Ryde trams, Ryde textiles, etc.) and hoping they will find what they are looking for. However, you are correct because these interests can indeed overlap. With my project I suppose I am lucky that the Historical Society gave me so much free range to write about a history that I am interested in and for other organisations they probably might have a more solid idea that they want assistance with. Good questions, you really got me thinking.
Bonnie Waxman: In addition to respect and perspective, another key element to add when approaching a community or public history project should be initial interest in the community itself. Projects as personal as the ones we are each undertaking deserve to be met with not only objectivity, as we’ve discussed, but also with passion. It may sound overly basic, I know, but we all enrolled in this class with the understanding that everyone’s public histories are vital fragments of the past, present, and future of society.
Rob: Bonnie i sometimes think, it might sound pessimistic, but this passion, this wearing our heart’s on our sleeves, what if it is all for nothing, or what if it is really nothing? What if the organisation is just a husk of its former self, maybe it is insular–resists change, or is constantly changing so nothing can be done etc.? Like the teacher graduate, bright eyed, full of passion and motivation quotes, is weathered cynical by the end (I only look so far as my mother and this is true)…passion from outright? Or is passion just another one of those obligations we are to exhibit while we are dragged across the finish line?
Chloe Jambon: The most important skill to develop as a community or public historian is self-awareness. Whether you are an insider or outsider of the community, reflecting on your own culture, preconceptions, stereotypes, biases, and ways of thinking about both the community and History more broadly is fundamental. Firstly, it will enable you to distance yourself from possible sources of errors or misconceptions and it will help you connect, understand and empathize more with people that are different to you.
Rob: So far, we have said the important skills are: openmindedness, listening, balancing needs with desires/ambitions and self-awareness. To add to this, an important skill is initiation. How we first make contact influences the way we maintain contact, what that contact consists of and, the quality of that contact.
Rob: Hey Emily, just a thought. If I am to do what Chloe says and be self-aware–distance myself from myself so I can see the outside world more clearly–then I will approach the organisation with this neutrality. But if the organisation has a specific political orientation, then working from this neutral puts me on the outside…should I expect them to trust me? How will I relate to the particular issues that they discuss amongst their members?
Meg Haynes: A well equipped arsenal is required to adequately balance the demands of community history projects, with your own motivations and historical purpose. Respect and communication form the foundations for effectual collaboration, with compromise, neutrality and understanding pertinent to a successful project. It is important to recognise such a relationship must be two way street with these skills and qualities being practiced by the group you are assisting.
Xanthe Robinson: To engage in a community or public history project, I think a historian should develop the skills to be able to work collaboratively with organisations, while having the confidence to support their vision of a successful and engaging project. To do this, a historian needs to draw on a strong foundation of research, yet be flexible enough to embrace new ideas or unexpected deviations. It’s a balancing act between individual work and communal collaboration.
Lauren Forsyth-Smith: Engaging in a community or public history project requires substantial investigation skills. Speaking to as many people as possible that have insight about the history, recording as many relevant sources and transcribing different perspectives are essential branches of this framework.
Alex Hansen: When engaging in a community or public history project I think the most important skills a historian can learn is the ability to collaborate with a community or organisation without highlighting their own agenda, they should be aware and respectful of others perspectives. A historian should learn to be engaged with the research and must understand that they may need to be flexible if obstacles occur. The good historian should also be assertive in their role and vision for a successful collaboration.
Sarah Charak: As academics, we often have a tendency to homogenise and organise; we need material to make sense within a certain paradigm that we’ve already constructed. But as community historians, alongside the requisite open-mindedness, respect, and collaboration we’ve already identified, we also need to be able to accept the “otherness” of the past and of the people we talk to. Community history means stepping outside of our conceptual frameworks and definitions, and being able to accept that what we find might be messy, confused, confusing, very alien to what we know and expect. And being okay with that “otherness” means being willing to upturn and rewrite our paradigms, so that community history informs the way we return to academic history.