Humanities for the Public Good RA Luke Borland sat down with fellow history Ph.D. students Ashley Dorn and Caleb Pennington to discuss their summer experiences working with community partners and how they connect their work to their scholarship. As HPG interns, Ashley Dorn worked with the University of Iowa Labor Center’s Iowa Women in Trades Network, and Caleb Pennington worked with University of Iowa Special Collections’ Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network.
- What made you interested in the intern experience?
Caleb: The Humanities for the Public Good internship is a rare opportunity as a grad student to get paid as you receive real-world experience related to your studies. It is almost unheard of, especially as an early graduate student, to receive funding and an experience that’ll help your career trajectory and education.
Ashley: I was interested in having more variety in my CV and demonstrating some skills that would straddle a CV and a resume so that if I needed to build one or both, I would have experiences. I was also interested in working with the Labor Center, as I’d worked with them before and knew that they had projects that I was interested in being a part of and people I wanted to learn from.
- What skills were most important when working with your community partner?
Ashley: The main skill that I used relentlessly was communication. Robin Clark-Bennett (Director, UI Labor Center) and I communicated very well in our weekly meetings, which balanced discussing practical day-to-day tasks and conceptual approaches to engaging with women in trades. Communications skills also helped me to talk to tradeswomen about their work and how they got into their careers and let them feel comfortable enough to share some of the obstacles that they’ve encountered along the way.
Caleb: Time management is a huge one, obviously, because it’s summer, not just for the interns themselves but also for the partners. The internship relied on my ability to handle my own time and balance a bunch of different tasks.
- What is something unexpected you learned about the work your partner does?
Caleb: During my internship, I contacted these smaller community archives, and I was really surprised by how many communities don’t have historical societies or have severely underfunded ones. Many had only one person working eight or 10 hours a week to run the whole show. It was a real culture shock coming from Boston, where local historical societies are a bigger part of communities.
Ashley: While I knew the Labor Center wrote a lot of grants, my work with them allowed me to better see how they balanced grant deadlines with their other projects. I was also surprised to learn that they had a tool library to help people get started in the trades.
- What are some new approaches you encountered?
Caleb: One of the big takeaways from the internship was a better understanding of digital humanities, especially public-facing digital humanities. For my project, I worked on an interactive Storymap of businesses found in the Green Book. I thought the work was fascinating, and as a result, I signed up for a digital humanities class through the Digital Studio this semester.
Ashley: The Labor Center team blended academic, legal, and organizing approaches with a personal touch on almost every project I saw. They held informative seminars on legal matters and then switched gears and checked in on an attendee from a past course all in a day.
- Did a specific day or experience from your work leave a lasting impression?
Ashley: At the first Iowa Women in Trades meeting, the presenter said, “Sexual harassment is a pretty common problem and I have a personal story that I could share, but I don’t, but my boss warned me that it might not be good for recruitment to lead with this story about how I had been harassed.” And Robin was like, “Well, this is a meeting of all women. So I think they’ll already know that.” That stuck with me because women come in very well versed in their own experience of it and don’t need education on the existence of these problems.
In these meetings, the women were much more strategy oriented and very practical. Robin and I observed that when you have meetings that are all tradeswomen, they already know about these issues and kind of weave them in and out of the conversation in a way that doesn’t happen when you have mixed company. Harassment was something that we talked about a lot without having to make a central spotlight all the time.
Caleb: I contacted some of these smaller museums and historical societies, and I found references to a huge civil rights collection from Davenport that the City of Davenport commissioned. I saw press releases for an exhibit, but I couldn’t find what happened to the materials after the exhibition. Eventually, I contacted the Putnam Museum, a science museum, which somehow ended up housing the collection in their basement. By finding these materials, I helped connect people with resources to learn about civil rights in Iowa that they might not have found on their own.
- How did you see yourself applying your historical training to the work?
Caleb: This internship was good dissertation training because you have all these little pieces that you have to collect and organize, and slowly, they start to come together as a bigger project, like a dissertation.
Ashley: Reading previous collections of oral histories has helped me a lot. Reading helped me think about the questions that I would ask. It helped me notice some of the things that tradeswomen like to emphasize in their interviews. For instance, I could get a sense of each trade by asking them about their tools. My history training also gave me ideas for how to structure the Iowa Women in Trades Network website.
- How do your experiences connect with your research?
Ashley: The basic pattern of reading previous work and then gathering new sources was something that I learned from being a historian. And over the summer, I had the pleasure of talking to my sources instead of reading them by doing publicly engaged work, which was very fun and rewarding, especially over the summer, even if it was over zoom. I think it kind of reinforced advice that I’ve heard as a graduate student before, which is to kind of keep your reading and writing on a cycle and not to do too long of a stretch of just one or the other.
- Did this experience illuminate any new career paths for you?
Ashley: I would say the internship built my confidence that my ability to research a topic and communicate with coworkers or a boss has grown through graduate schoolwork and the various professional experiences I’ve had here. It made me feel more confident that I could find a good job outside of the university because my skills are valuable to people who want information and communication to be part of their business
Caleb: This internship got me thinking about more career possibilities. During the internship, the workshops helped me articulate how my skills are practical outside of my education.
- Has this experience changed how you view yourself as a scholar? Would you define yourself as a public-facing scholar?
Caleb: The internship gave me a better understanding of how to be accessible to the public and what a public audience is interested in learning.
Ashley: I think doing scholarship with and for the public is a healthy part of scholastic life, even if I don’t consider myself a public-facing scholar.