Lessons from the Applied Humanities Learning Lab 2016

Emily Esten, History Major; Applied Humanities Learning Lab Fellow

In its second year, the Applied Humanities Learning Lab (AppHuLL) seeks to take dynamic and motivated students and allow them to put into practice humanities skills on a real project. Many of this year’s Fellows are undergraduate students from various disciplines in the Five Colleges. The course is half-career prep and half-project management – two vastly different goals, but both addressed in the four-day intensive. Of the course of January 11-14, we fifteen Fellows went from knowing nothing about the Quabbin Reservoir and its history to standing up as scholars and humanists in our own right.

AppHuLL Networking Lunch (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

AppHuLL Networking Lunch (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

Our first day, we walked out of the classroom daunted by what seemed an impossible task – I almost felt like I was invading a mostly-forgotten history protected by the few surviving persons. But we were welcomed – by great mentors Cheryl Harned and Mark Roblee, and most importantly, by the community members and leaders who helm the memory of these places today. Between field trips, conversations, activities, and workshops, we accomplished so much in learning where we stood and what we needed in order to move forward.

What I quickly discovered was that even if we were new to the history of the Quabbin, we’re well prepared humanists. We’re young, we’re motivated, and we’re passionate in our quest to rediscover what once was lost and reframe in a new light. And by the time we started our conversations on Day 2, we found ourselves already bringing up presentation ideas and big questions about the reservoir’s history and relevance to modern themes. By Days 3 and Day 4, our groups had somewhat fleshed-out plans – way more than I had expected to accomplish. As our final hurrah, we had a networking luncheon to get to know other public humanists and their work – librarians, activists, historians, and educators to name a few – as well as receive feedback and advice on avenues to pursue our personal and collective interests.

The intensive structure is integral to AppHuLL’s success – it gave us the opportunity to experience firsthand our research subject and start to learn from other public humanists about the opportunities available in doing work like this. I’ve always had a strong connection to place, and being able to walk and visualize the Quabbin and the emotional resonance the watershed still has – it’s pretty amazing. And in being able to create a dialogue about these enduring questions of the humanities, of our projects, and of our field with people who practice everyday helped put us in perspective and allow us to hit the ground running for the rest of the semester.

Posters from networking session (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

Posters from networking session (Photo Credit: Chelsea Miller)

Over the course of the next few months, my classmates and I will take on The 1937 Project For the Preservation and Dissemination of Useful Information. Working with the Swift River Valley Historical Society, we’ll find ways to advance and address the needs of the society, create an collective exhibition representing affected individuals, and taking part in The Full Disclosure Festival. In our overarching goals, we’re tasked with memorializing and remembering the four “lost” towns of the Quabbin: Prescott, Enfield, Dana, and Greenwich.

But in our desire to be respectful to the former residents of the Quabbin, we have to consider them in context with the positive effects of the reservoir and watershed. We’re asked to address all of these complicated histories – with great mentors, of course – and to convey these issues of displacement, environmental change, and eminent domain to a modern audience. There are numerous questions and challenges that we’ll run into in the next few weeks, and I’m confident that we have the skillset and support to tackle all this and more.

I’m thrilled to be a part of an incredible group of students to take on this exciting project, and can’t wait to see where our discoveries take us this semester. Stay tuned for future updates, and definitely make sure to come to our Gala event on March 24!

The Applied Humanities Learning Lab is supported by The Five Colleges, Inc. / Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Bridging Initiative in the Public and Applied Humanities, which is a 2-year endeavor which seeks to address longstanding needs, and harness significant area resources, at the intersection of museums, archives and public history, with the goal of strengthening and clarifying pathways from undergraduate humanities education to professional careers in the public and applied humanities. For more information, visit the AppHuLL course website.

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