Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

University of Michigan

Teaching the Arts of Citizenship at the University of Michigan

September
2010

When University of Michigan Assistant Professor Michelle Lee McClellan and the undergraduate students in her History at Work course began researching the history of the New Deal-era camp structures in Michigan’s Waterloo State Recreational Area in 2008, they thought they had a storybook heroes-and-villains case.  The campground, which was built with Works Progress Administration funds, occupied land previously owned by farming families. In the class’s initial hypothesis, the families had been coerced out of their land by an overzealous government. But the truth turned out to be much different. Working with the Department of Natural Resources and the state Historic Preservation Office to research documents about the original land owners, McClellan and her students found that the farming families, suffering the economic effects of the Great Depression, were often happy to sell their land to the government and make a fresh start with the money they gained. “Without the students, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure this out,” McClellan says. “Public history is collaborative by nature.”

University-Community Collaboration

McClellan’s History at Work course was part of a University of Michigan initiative called Arts of Citizenship. Founded in the late 1990s by David Scobey, now of the New School, Arts of Citizenship is a project-based approach to community engagement for arts and humanities faculty members. The initiative awards grants to faculty members and graduate students to fund innovative projects in partnership with community organizations, nonprofits, or government agencies, explains Matthew Countryman, a UM associate professor of history and American culture and the faculty director for Arts of Citizenship. “It’s an opportunity to rethink scholarship and production of knowledge and to engage faculty members in collaborative research with community members,” Countryman says.  While increasing numbers of colleges and universities are emphasizing research skills for undergraduates (51 percent, according to a recent AAC&U member survey, many are focused on the science fields. The Arts of Citizenship program is an example of how other disciplines can imbed community-based research in the undergraduate experience. 

More recently, Arts of Citizenship has increased its emphasis on preparing graduate students for careers in a range of environments—not just academia. The kinds of collaborative community projects that Arts of Citizenship funds can be bridges to eventual careers in government agencies, museums, and community organizations, says Kamilah Henderson, Arts of Citizenship’s associate director. “We want to encourage our grantees to be open-minded and find a community partner that can transform their idea into something that can be brought to fruition outside the university walls,” she explains.

The Arts of Citizenship program seeks project ideas that draw on the specific areas of expertise of both the faculty members and their proposed community partners. “When I’m doing grant reviews, I look for a transformative element,” Henderson says. “Is everyone involved going to get something out of the project? Is it plausible, meaningful, testable? Is it potentially transformative? If you could do the project with a different community organization [than the one proposed] and the outcome would probably be the same, it’s not for us.”

These guidelines mean that Arts of Citizenship projects are carefully planned and administered. Grantees are required to work out a partnership agreement detailing the research question and mission of the project, what each partner will accomplish, how and when the parties will meet and collaborate, and what roles graduate and undergraduate student participants will play.  A series of ongoing professional development workshops for grantees and partners helps participants learn how to work effectively together, how to publicly share the results of their work, and how to articulate public scholarship work in the language of the traditional academic disciplines—and in tenure-review files.  And a “Friday Breakfast” series provides opportunities several times each semester for participants to present their work in a friendly, supportive setting. “We consider ourselves to be a developmental grants program,” Henderson says. “We don’t want to just give out a pot of money and send people off. We want to draw grantees into a community of scholars.”

Exploring Meanings of Citizenship

Many Arts of Citizenship projects have explored concepts of citizenship and belonging to a community or a region, especially communities around Ann Arbor, Detroit, and other parts of Michigan. Charlie Bright, a professor of history and director of the university’s Residential College, has been involved with Arts of Citizenship since 2000, when he started an ongoing partnership with Mosaic Youth Theater, a theater company for high school students in Detroit with a long history of preparing its students for success in college.  At the time, Detroit was about to celebrate its three-hundredth anniversary, and Bright and the Mosaic artistic director, Rick Sperling, wanted to develop a stage production about youth growing up in mid-twentieth-century Detroit. Bright developed a UM course, Drama and History, in which college students did the historical research that the high school students used to develop the show.

The college students conducted interviews with former residents of Hastings Street and Black Bottom, two historic African American neighborhoods, and also researched the details of everyday life for young black people in 1940s Detroit. The college students were extremely invested in the project, Bright explains, because they wanted to provide the high school students with the best possible material for their theatrical piece. “I could ask a history class about the popular songs in 1944, and they could read about it. But why would they care? But for this play, the actors asked, ‘What music should we have?’ And my students had to figure it out. What was the culture surrounding music and dance in 1944? They were invested in making it authentic.”  The resulting theater production, Hastings Street, was performed in May 2001, with additional shows on the UM campus that fall. Since then, students from UM have collaborated with Mosaic on several other productions, and are currently working on a collaboration about a 1966 student strike and subsequent “freedom school” at Northern High School in Detroit.

Evelyn Azeeza Alsultany, an assistant professor in UM's Program in American Culture, has been working since 2006 on developing an exhibit, partially supported by Arts of Citizenship, that explores stereotypical representations of Arabs and Muslims in U.S. popular culture. Working with the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, Alsultany and a team of undergraduate and graduate student researchers have identified a range of artifacts—including advertisements, Hollywood movie posters, detective novels and pulp fiction, children’s stories, men’s magazine stories, comics, toys, board games, and other media from the past one hundred years—that demonstrate the American fascination with the Middle East.  The exhibit, which will open online in May 2011, is called DisORIENTation: Arabs and Arab Americans in the U.S. Popular Imagination. “The exhibit aims to take visitors on a journey to show how Arabs have been represented over time, from exotic sheikhs and alluring harem girls to menacing terrorists and submissive women,” Alsultany explains. “It’s important for students to be part of making what they learn in the classroom socially relevant. What they learn in the classroom does not have to stay there—it has practicality and usefulness in the world.”

Mutual Benefits

The cornerstone of the Arts of Citizenship program is its focus on mutually beneficial outcomes for university members and community partners, Henderson says. But also important is the program’s focus on helping faculty members move outside of the comfort zone of academia and communicate their public scholarship efforts to others in the academy, as well as those in the community. “This is definitely an initiative to encourage faculty to not be lone wolves and to work collaboratively with undergraduates who might not otherwise have the chance to do research,” Countryman says.  McClellan’s own scholarship has benefitted from this focus. “One of my biggest challenges in working on the Waterloo project was to be open to collaboration, since so much of my training is to be by myself in my own head,” she says. “It was a good stretching experience for me.” So good, in fact, that she is currently working on another public history project, called Creating a Community History Toolkit, with Arts of Citizenship—this time in collaboration with the Chelsea Public Library in Chelsea, Michigan. In the new project, McClellan and her students will investigate how the community is evolving from its largely agricultural origins toward a more industrial future, and will develop educational materials about the changes for the library and local schools. “With today's economic changes, Chelsea is being pulled into business and industry, but the physical landscape is still what it was like one hundred years ago,” she explains. “I think public history can be a tool of community building—it can help newcomers and settled residents alike use the history of their common place to build bridges.”

Bright’s Arts of Citizenship theater collaborations benefit all the students involved—not to mention the community members who enjoy the final productions. “When I teach a class on Detroit history, the students write a term paper, I read it, it goes home, and it molders in the attic,” he says. “But with these plays, the history is performed, discussed, and becomes part of the public domain. We’re making history, not just reading and talking about it.”

Institution: 
University of Michigan