Interview with Professor Richard Menkis – UBC History

  1. Can you explain how you went about integrating an applied research project into the semester—What were some of the steps? Were there any limitations?

I spoke to my colleagues who may have incorporated practical research in their courses. I also had some funding, and had a graduate student gather syllabi from other universities to think about possible models. I also spoke with her about her own experiences as a graduate student. I then reflected on the possible outside agencies I could work with, and what kind of work they do in terms of public-facing history that my students could do. I wanted to show that organization that a joint project would be of benefit to both the students and the organization.

  1. What did your students achieve during the semester?

The students received hands-on experience with an organization—the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre—which has very successful public-facing programs. They came to appreciate the challenges of public history through their actual experiences, and not just by readings about public history. It forced them to think about how historians communicate, how they need to “share authority,” and more. As they think about their careers, they will now have some experience of what else—besides teaching at the university level—one can do with a history graduate degree.

  1. What can faculty members gain by incorporating applied research projects into their teaching?

First, I think I am fulfilling my responsibility as an educator to provide the students with a range of experiences, including public history. Second, as someone who does public history, I appreciated that through the effort of the students, there are—and will be— more public-facing history projects, as the agency that they worked with has started to mount the students’ projects on their website. Finally, in preparing the course, I became acquainted with more of the local museums and deepened my relationship with one of them.  

  1. What do you think students can gain from performing applied research?

In the discipline of History, applied research can allow them to understand that “historical practices” can mean more than writing articles and presenting at conferences. They can think of professional alternatives to positions at post-secondary institutions. I also expect that they could, if needed, get a letter of reference from somebody at a non-academic institution, which might be of use.

  1. Do you have any advice for other faculty members who might be thinking of incorporating an applied research project into a grad-level seminar?

I think it is important to talk to as many people as possible, and to cast a wide net in terms of possible agencies to work with. At a certain point, however, I had to acknowledge that there are a lot of moving parts to a course with practical research, and that it was important to simplify matters. Although I thought initially I would try to place students in several different agencies, I thought that I could simplify the course, and create consistent expectations and experiences, if I had all the students working with one organization. I was fortunate that the class was small and that the VHEC was willing to comply.