A few weeks ago, I wrapped up my first semester of teaching Museums and Community Engagement online for the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies graduate program. This experience was very much about both learning and teaching for me. In this post, I'll share a bit of what I learned about my own professional practice and excerpt some of the students' plans about deepening their practice around community engagement. I'm sharing my lessons learned not because I think all of you, dear readers, will become online professors, but because the challenges I faced are the challenges that many museums face as we work to engage virtual visitors.
What did I learn about teaching?
First, online teaching is different than classroom teaching (no kidding, right?) and both of those are different than doing professional development workshops. Mastering the mechanics of online learning was definitely a learning curve for me, but equally important, and sure to be the subject of more of my experimentation, was how best to build a sense of community among 15 students, all over the world, and me, all working together.
Second, structure matters more than in an in-person process. I found there's more give in in-person teaching--there's a chance to explain further, to see a puzzled face, to ensure that there's full understanding. It was a lesson for me (a great lesson to always be reminded of) that we need to meet our audience (be it students or museum-goers) where they are--not where you assume them to be.
Third, levels of risk-taking vary. In any workshop I do, I always have at least one new element as a way of challenging myself. I changed a fairly substantive element of this course part-way through, and some students found it easy to address that challenge, others found it perhaps confusing and difficult. Both those thoughts are equally valid, and it's my job to explain the why and the how better, to make those less comfortable with risk (a key element of creativity) more comfortable with a new process. Giving a grade, something that never happens in professional development workshops, complicates that process of risk-taking, but is a reality none-the-less.
Fourth, keep building those skills. My skill as a forager of information proved to be important. As #museumsrespondtoFerguson and other topics of discussion surfaced in the field over the last few months, I found it important as a teacher to continually share new information. My networking skills and social media presence made it possible to easily find five organizations to serve as case studies. A big shout out to Jakob at the Skagen Museum, Tania at the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State University, Megan at the Henry Ford Estate-Fairlane, Laura at the Carbon County Museum, and Lindsey at the Laurel Historical Society. I put out a call for volunteer organizations on this blog's Facebook page and instantly got volunteers. These five, representing a diverse range of organizations, generously shared their time and perspective with collaborative teams of students, providing some real-world experience as they developed a community engagement plan. Although many of the students in the program are already working in museums, this provided them with a chance to work on an issue outside their regular job duties and outside their institution.
And what did my students learn? Because, after all, that's what really matters. As part of their final reflection paper, I asked them to share a personal or organizational plan for continuing to deepen their understanding of community engagement. I found so many of their thoughtful responses worth considering for myself, and wanted to share some of them here.
Here's one personal plan:
- stay informed
- practice and evaluate
- actively researching the new resources I have been provided this semester
- sharing this information and opening up dialogue in the workspace
- networking with others in the field
Several students were quite direct about how they were going to improve the community engagement process in their own institutions. It was exciting for me to learn how they were going to put specific tools and knowledge to work. One wanted to strengthen her evaluation skills, so as to understand more about audiences; while several others felt more equipped to ask more challenging questions as a part of any planning process. Said one, "During these discussions it will be important for me to have case studies and research evidence ready...in the future, after starting a dialogue with my supervisor, I we might then be able to put together a focus group of employees from different departments who would help to spread across the museum the results and positive effects of community engagement initiatives." One action plan identified the goal, actions, resources, potential issues, and potential solutions for engagement at a complex site. Her clear analysis made the chances of success more likely.
I loved that one student found herself sharing her observations on weekly readings, AAM talks, and other materials in staff meetings and even in carpools...and her frank thoughts on why she wasn't always successful. As she wrote, "[community engagement] is a process that I now understand truly never ends."
In working on creativity, Rainey Tisdale and I are often sharing about simple tools that each of us can use to build organizations' shared creative muscle power. Seeking out stimulation from a broad pool and sharing that information is critical. It was very rewarding to see how many thoughtful ways my students came up with to accomplish the tasks of seeking, sharing and spreading.
But the two biggest takeaways from my students came perhaps from a single essay:
"Now I use every chance I have to listen."
"Change is hard and scary."
Go to it, students! And thanks to the 15 of you for such a stimulating semester of learning for all of us.