Austin American Statesman

History in the Making: "Citizen-scholars" Build Bridge Between Yesterday, Today

By Rick Cherwitz, Sarah A. Rodriguez and Julie Siever
Monday, December 30, 2002

One in an occasional series. (More on this series)

In the past, academic historians were known as a tweedy set. We imagine them squinting over dry books in heavily restricted archives, quibbling over historical minutiae. But in some quarters of academe, scholars are beginning to reinvent what it means to do history. They are taking it back into the communities where it first happened. Rather than imposing their expertise on audiences, they are listening, collaborating with local communities to tell important, often untold stories in new ways. The resulting "citizen scholarship" not only brings scholars and communities
together, but it produces new and more vibrant local histories.

In a previous column, we wrote about an emerging breed of graduate students--"intellectual entrepreneurs" -- who utilize their knowledge to promote social good in imaginative, concrete ways. Consider such a group of University of Texas citizen-scholars who are making an impact in Texas communities through their work with museums and living history centers.

Martha Norkunas, director of Texas Folklife Resources, has taught the course "Interpreting the Texas Past" for four years as one of UT's 16 Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) graduate courses. Funded primarily by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department with assistance from UT, this class introduces graduate students from multiple disciplines to local citizens. Together, the two groups use their knowledge to bring Texas history to life.

Each year, the class focuses on a different site suggested by Texas Parks and Wildlife. Students survey area museums in the fall, asking critical questions about how history is told. Because sites often lack resources, their interpretations can be outdated. Students analyze the site's historic presentation in interdisciplinary teams and then develop project proposals to improve it. In the end, one proposal is funded. During the spring, students learn interviewing, fieldwork and documentation skills.

In 1999-2000, Cary Cordova, doctoral candidate in American Studies, designed the first "Interpreting the Texas Past" project for Varner-Hogg State Park, a former plantation site where numerous slaves lived. Cordova's research led to the "Varner-Hogg Slavery Project," consisting of a database documenting the names and stories of more than 200 slaves and an interpretive tour focusing on Rachel Patton, the plantation owner's African American wife, who was not mentioned in any park exhibits.

In 2000-01, graduate students Antony Cherian (Information) and Mark Westmoreland (Anthropology) filmed a documentary of residents of Washington County, home of the Barrington Living History Farm, where Anson Jones -- the last president of the Texas Republic -- lived. The video, "Truth I Ever Told," showcases interviews with three generations of area families, and won the American Folklore Society's 2002 Hurston Prize for its contribution to African American folklore.

Students from the 2001-02 "Interpreting the Texas Past" are completing projects now. Andrea Woody and Tracy Fleischman, master's candidates in American Studies, produced interpretive activities for fourth and seventh-grade students at Penn Farm Agricultural History Center. The games focus on migration, ecology, farm technology and labor/class issues. "Giving voice to groups whose history has previously gone untold has huge impacts on our perceptions of an era, which in turn impacts our approach to the future," Fleischman said.

Sarah H. Cross, a master's student in Women's and Gender Studies, is editing a film along with interdisciplinary doctoral candidate in Radio-TV-Film Anne Glickman and Ryan Molloy, Master of Fine Arts student in Design. They and four of their classmates produced a short video based on oral histories, interweaving stories from residents of Cedar Hill -- where Penn Farm is located -- with images of the farm and the town.

This year, the designated site for the class is Sauer-Beckman Living History Farm. Students have proposed plans such as redesigning the farm's Web site and documenting its residents' midwifery and healing practices.

Next year, students will have an exciting new opportunity: to participate in a scholar-in-residence program. Funded by the Summerlee Foundation and the Houston Endowment, one "Interpreting the Texas Past" student will receive a fellowship to work at that year's site for 12 months.

The success of "Interpreting the Texas Past" lies in its groundbreaking approach: connecting with society, putting research to work and making education more responsive and accountable. As universities and communities struggle to better connect and collaborate, programs like "Interpreting the Texas Past" are blueprints for a new academic model best described as intellectual entrepreneurship. These citizen-scholars are part of a growing body of intellectuals whose research contributes both to academic disciplines and to society. While differing from traditional conceptions of scholarship, these undertakings hold real and substantive value. They should be supported, celebrated and recognized as both intellectual and community work.

Cherwitz is Founder of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program at UT, where Rodriguez is a master's candidate in library and information science and Sievers is a doctoral candidate in English.