History Harvests

We are always looking for creative ways to get my Messiah College students engaged with the past.

That is why I got very excited while reading an article in Perspectives on History on “History Harvests.” It is written by William Thomas and Patrick Jones of the University of Nebraska and Andrew Witmer of James Madison University, professors who have held successful “History Harvests” at their universities. The article is behind the AHA membership wall, but I will try to summarize it below.

“History Harvests” seek to “democratize and open the nation’s history by inviting citizens to share digitizations of their documents, artifacts, and stories for educational use and study.”  They function at the intersection of public history, experiential learning, and digital history.  As the authors write: “Since the project started in 2010 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln these events have generated significant community involvement and media interest and proved extremely popular with our students, who have described their participation as challenging, rewarding, and transformative.”

How does a History Harvest work?  Students invite community members to contribute items that they believe are historically significant or devoted to a particular theme.  (At James Madison the focus was on local religious history). During the “harvest,” community members bring their items to campus where they are digitized.  (“Assure community members that their documents and artifacts will be treated with care, respect, and professionalism….”)  Students take an oral history of the artifact, the document is scanned or a picture is taken, and the item is returned to the owner.

A “harvest” provides wonderful opportunities to collaborate with local school districts, museums, retirements centers, public radio stations, and other organizations.  Thomas, Jones, and Witmer elaborate on the community benefit of such a project:

Discuss with students what it means to serve as an ambassador of your institution, and look for ways to build stronger bonds with community members.  One of the chief benefits for students will be the chance to actively engage and learn about the community, while exploring the ethical and political dynamics of history.  Emphasize the democratizing aspects of the History Harvest: the way it invites more people to play a role in the work of preserving and studying the past, the opportunities it offers to augment the sorts of stories we tell about our communities, and how it expands our understanding of what merits preserving and remembering.

The authors suggest that a History Harvest should be student run. Students “will think of ideas you would never have considered, and they will relish the chance to build something of their own rather than simply implementing a prestablished plan.”

Marc Parry, writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education, thinks that the History Harvest project may spawn something similar to a new Works Project Administration.  It already has the potential for a new kind of MOOC (massive open online courses). His article quotes William Thomas:

“What we want to do is have history harvests all across the United States and perhaps even the world—to spread this movement,” Mr. Thomas says. “It could lead to all sorts of new historical interpretations and historical approaches … We have all sorts of historical material held in families and in communities. It’s not government-created material. It’s not the White House papers. It’s the social experience of people.”

Mr. Thomas and his colleagues plan to expand the History Harvest concept into a MOOC-like online course. The hope is that students at participating universities in different areas will run local History Harvests. The students (like the Nebraska undergraduates pictured at left) would also collaborate online, so they could participate in work outside their own regions. A pilot version of the course will be offered in the spring of 2014.

I am already contemplating how I might incorporate a History Harvest into a course I am developing on Pennsylvania history.

So what happens with all the digitized material that is “harvested?”  Learn more by checking out the History Harvest website and the History Harvest YouTube page.  (JMU’s History Harvest collections can be found here).

I am thinking about incorporating a History Harvest into my new Pennsylvania History class offered in Spring 2014

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