Grad Student Profile: Ross Coen

The Mangels Fellowship: Reaching Broader Publics Inside the University and Beyond

Coen-with-Labels-200x300Ross Coen was selected as the Mangels fellow for the 2015-2016 academic year. In this grad student profile, Ross talks about the work he did as a part of the fellowship, and how this work has contributed to his growth as a scholar.

Could you begin with a little background information? What is the Mangels fellowship, and what did you do with it? How did you choose these particular projects, and how did you approach the various groups about working with them?

The John and Mary Ann Mangels Public History Fellowship provides funding for PhD students who are interested in working with libraries, museums, schools, and other institutions that serve the public. The goal of the fellowship is to support students so that they’re able to bring history to the general public in an accessible, non-academic format. This might take the form of a free lecture, an article in a local museum’s newsletter or Facebook page, and so on. The fellow might also assist institutions with a public history project, such as curating an exhibit or cataloguing records in the archives. The best part of the fellowship is that it’s flexible in allowing the student to collaborate in ways that contribute to his or her own research.

As this year’s Mangels fellow, I reached out to a few institutions that I knew would welcome a volunteer. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that when a PhD student calls and says he wants to help catalog a collection or give public lectures, they’re happy to say yes.

As scholars, we usually approach historical records from the receiving side, as researchers. What did you learn from the experience of cataloguing and organizing records at in Tongass and at UW’s Special Collections? How about your lectures at the Flying Heritage Museum and the assisted living center? How does that experience differ from giving lectures to more “academic” audiences?

At the Tongass Historical Museum I catalogued a collection of canned salmon labels, and at UW Special Collections I helped organize a few uncatalogued boxes of fisheries records that were found on the shelves. In both cases, I had to think, OK, if I was a researcher looking for records like these, what keywords would I search for? How would I know from the brief description in the finding aid whether or not to invest my limited time looking at these records?

Giving lectures before general, non-academic audiences is one of the best things historians can do. Not only are you bringing history from the ivory tower to people eager to learn about the past, it’s great practice for teaching and gives you some insight to your own methods of research and writing. Speaking to a lay audience forces you to engage with the art of storytelling, which historians often neglect when speaking and writing for each other. A public audience is also really good at showing you when they’re engaged and when they’re drifting away. That sort of feedback is invaluable.

While many students have expressed interest in learning about archival work and developing other skills outside of the typical academic training, several have expressed concerns that such pursuits take time away from already overloaded schedules and curricula. What are your feelings on this? In what ways did your work with the Mangels fellowship enhance or detract from your graduate studies?

To my mind, learning about and developing skills in other areas of academia is never wasted time. Think of it this way: You know when you write a 42-page draft and then edit it down to 30 pages? Those 12 pages you cut were not a waste of time because you needed to write them in order to make better sense of the 30 you kept. Working in the archives or other outside work is the same thing. It stands to make you better in every area. Make the time!

What advice do you have for other graduate students interested in pursuing internships or other work or learning opportunities while in grad school?

So many of my opportunities came about because I put myself out there. I attend off-campus lectures, participate in other departments’ colloquiua, introduce myself to archivists and ask them questions, and so on. Invariably someone will then email me six months later invite me to give a lecture. Then an attendee at that lecture asks me to speak to their local historical society. The the society asks for my help with an uncatalogued collection they know little about. And so on ad infinitum. You have to say no sometimes, but every time you say yes it leads to more opportunities. (Sometimes you even get paid!)


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