From Theses to Capstone Experiences: Engaging Students in Community-Based Preservation by Rebecca J. Sheppard and Catherine Morrissey, University of Delaware
Rebecca:Everybody hear me? Thank you, Lauren. Historic preservation has long focused on the importance of preserving buildings and landscapes. In recent years, a paradigm shift in the field placed a new priority on working from the ground up using a grassroots approach. Preservation professionals increasingly seek to connect with the communities that own, occupy and use these historic resources to establish what the communities want to preserve as well as why and how they value their places, instead of dictating those values from the top down. To be successful in the preservation world, students need to learn to navigate these situations and develop skills that will allow them to effectively communicate with the public.
A typical preservation students, although not so much maybe in France program, spend much of their time in the classroom learning what to preserve and developing a broad range of technical skills but finding limited opportunities to engage with an actual public about why to preserve.
Today, what I want to do is explore the first few years of the capstone experience at the University of Delaware master’s program in preservation and the ways in which it encourages students to consider the role of the community in preserving its resources. About four years ago, in response to alumni feedback and in recognition of some shifts within the field of historic preservation, Delaware launched a new master’s in preservation. Unlike the earlier MA in urban affairs and public policy which had a concentration in historic preservation and which required a thesis as the final element for the degree, the new master’s now requires a two-semester capstone experience. Delaware model places a high priority on practical experience balancing formal coursework with participation in real world projects through either research assistantships or course credit.
We specifically designed the capstone to encourage students to engage with the specific community to explore questions of preservation while producing a set of individual portfolio pieces to help with job hunting. This paper compares the experiences of the past two years which involved two other different approaches, one focused on a single site in Newcastle, Delaware and the second focused on the entire town of Mauricetown, New Jersey.
In both cases, students coped with real clients in publics, choosing individual projects, geared to their own particular interests as well as to priorities within the community. They successfully mastered not only the technical side of preservation but also the healing side, one that’s increasingly more critical to the profession.
The thesis model tended to be more individualized than the capstone relying heavily on archival research in fieldwork in combination with secondary sources. A few thesis projects actively engaged students with the public. While the thesis satisfied the degree requirement, a few students published in any way beyond that. Despite the fact that students were generating thought provoking and useful material, there was no external audience beyond the thesis committee and research who were using ProQuest.
A further problem encountered by students on thesis, was that depending on the topic addressed and the output that they created, the work didn’t always relate well to the qualifications required for jobs in the preservation field. The capstone’s experience was designed to address all of these issues that we’ve been running into over the past 15 years with the other program.
After talking with many of our alumni and looking carefully at preservation job opening descriptions and requirements for those jobs, we developed the key components to the capstone to fill gaps in our previous model. The portfolio pieces that are required demonstrate competency in technical skills that are sought by employers, including measured drawings; architecture photographs; culture resource survey forms; national register nominations; and concise written statements of a variety of natures.
In addition to the technical skills, the students all have the chance to engage in something that is more tailored to their specific research interest, whether that is more on the museum study side, the architectural documentation side, or the preservation planning area. It also gives them the opportunity to delve deeply into primary source research around a broader topic. The capstone pushes students to cope with the inevitable issues that arise in such research such as the fact that as we all know nothing ever goes the way that you plan. For students that is sometimes a very frightening concept that you can’t expect things to go like clockwork.
The capstone and thesis models both challenge students to stretch their intellectual muscles in terms of analysis and interpretation, but also provide chances to develop their writing skills. In the capstone class, the first semester includes a number of short written exercises geared to very different purposes. They include a property history, an architectural entry for the vernacular architecture forum tour, a proposal for a conference paper and a proposal for their individual project. These individual projects are similar to the thesis in terms of the depths of the research that they do but they have one key difference. The students are asked to create a final product that is not intended strictly for an academic audience. These changes the way the students approach communication and language, prompting them to be both more creative and more careful about the way they write and the message they seek to convey.
The capstone course ultimately forces students to use a wide ranging set of skills they may or may not be comfortable with. Rather than choosing to rely primarily on the ones in which they feel most confident, which was what we saw happening with the thesis, people would hone in on a particular area that they were really passionate about and then use the skills that they felt most confident with to do that. What we try to do is turn that on the other end and say, “You need to be able to master all of these range of skills and then from there you can choose what you want to focus on once you go out in the job world.”
Initially, we conceived the capstone as a single semester in length. In the first two years of the capstone, we had very small numbers of students and our vision of this, the capstone experience changed based on the successes and failures we encountered with those two groups. In 2012, two students wrote national register nominations for properties as part of a larger historic context project that was undertaken by the Center for Historic Architecture and Design. This proved problematic in a number of ways and that prompted us to seek a different strategy the following year. In 2013, we had five students and we asked them to focus on a single property so that they could pool some of their research efforts.
Penn Farm, which is located in New Castle, Delaware, is the last surviving tenant farm still owned as common land by the Trustees of the New Castle Common. William Penn originally granted the commons to the town of New Castle in the late 17th Century. The Trustees managed over 1,000 acres of agricultural land, which was broken into 11 tenant farms, collecting the rents in cash or crops and putting the profits to work for the town. Over the 200 years, they slowly deaccessioned a lot of that land and Penn Farm is the only surviving farm left from the original 11 tenant farms.
In 2010, Delaware Greenways, a non-profit group focused on the preservation of open space, sustainability and environmental education, took over as the new tenant after the last farm family moved out. Shifting from a family to an institutional occupant of the farm required some adjustment on the part of the Trustees. In particular, the farmhouse need substantial renovation before it could be occupied again. Greenways was unclear about how they wanted to use the buildings on the farm overall. The Center for Historic Architecture and Design partnered with Greenways and the Trustees to help them work through the process of deciding on a mission for Penn Farm moving forward. Part of that mission has included incorporating educational opportunities for students in the preservation program.
In the spring of 2013, the five students in the capstone class embarked on a first really serious in-depth research that had ever been done for the farm and the context in which the farm existed. Each student took on a different aspect of the property. Alex Till chose to study the farmhouse within its architectural context to explore whether the house itself possessed characteristics that marked it as a tenant dwelling.
Tim Pouch wanted to learn more about the role of the Trustees, particularly their function as landlords. As part of his research strategy, he digitally photographed four volumes of the minute and account books kept by the Trustees from 1790 to 1900 and this was somewhere in excess of about 500 pages of material that he photographed and then put into a form that the other students were able to draw on for their particular research interest.
Jennifer Anderson explored the tenants who occupied Penn Farm for more than 200 years. Calling primary resources such as census and probate records, as well as newspapers, local histories and the Trustees’ minute and account books, to create biographies of each tenant family and to look for patterns in the lives of the tenants.
Jenn Nichols chose to pursue a more personal approach to the material of life of the tenants by conducting oral histories with the surviving members of the last tenant family. Drawing on their memories and family photographs to understand the ways in which people occupied the landscape of Penn Farm in the 20th century.
Christine expanded on the question of landscape by looking at changes in the agricultural landscape of Penn Farm and the surrounding region, again, seeking to understand the context in which Penn Farm developed and how it compared to other farms in the area.
At the end of the semester, the students presented their findings at CHAD’s Annual Research Day with members of the Trustees and Greenways staff in the audience. In addition to their individual findings, they created a joint introduction and conclusion that summarize their findings and made a few recommendations about future directions for the property. Collectively, their work formed the basis of a much more complete historic context for Penn Farm helping to justify its significance and to guide the decisions that Greenways and the Trustees will be making about its future.
Although this capstone group presented their work to an audience invested in the care and maintenance of the Penn Farm, the nature of the way that this particular capstone had been designed kind of prevented any real interaction with the community during the course of the research. They didn’t do a lot of back and forth and give and take with the Trustees and Greenways and that was the one thing that we saw that was sort of a deficit in that particular year.
The following year, we made some more changes to the capstone experience. This has sort of been tweaking bit by bit as we move along and that’s part of what I’m trying to get across here. First, we expanded the experience from one semester in length to two so that it extends now across the entire second year of the master’s program. Second, we restructured the content of the course requiring each student to choose a building and develop a set group of portfolio pieces, as well as creating an individual project. Third and perhaps most significantly, we initiated a two-week onsite field school in August to allow completion of the major data collection work. To be honest, we initially designed that because we wanted the students to have this concentrated period to do their drawings and their fieldwork and photographs. It had the unexpected benefit of really enhancing their connection with the community.
The idea of the field school also prompted the possibility of using a site that was not in the immediate vicinity of the UD campus, which was especially important since they’re going to be 10 students in the class that year, which meant we had to find 10 buildings for them to work on. Selection of the site for the 2013-14, capstone occurred almost serendipitously. Through my involvement with planning, the 2014 Vernacular Architecture Forum meeting, which was occurring in New Jersey, I learned that one of the tool planners needed help documenting Mauricetown, which is a port town on the Maurice River, first settler in the early 19th century. Since we needed a location with at least 10 buildings, this seemed like a match made in heaven because he had at least 20 buildings on his list to be looked at.
Fortunately, we had a core group of residents in the town who had a strong interest in their local history and in the history of their particular homes. They agreed to give the students access to their houses for research and documentation. Another group of residents actually offered housing for the students so that we didn’t incur any cost for that.
On August 12th, 10 students and two faculty members arrived in Mauricetown and ready to start work. The community later told us that we doubled not only the population but the decibel level in town for the two weeks that we were there. Divided into teams of three, the students dove right in to begin to measure their first set of houses. Over the next two weeks, their days alternated between measuring, drawing and photographing the buildings and starting to research the history of the town and their properties. In the evenings, the group bonded over dinners and quick sessions and spent time talking with local historians and exploring the holdings at Mauricetown Historical Society for historic photographs and family genealogies.
All of the students took the same set of basic courses in their first year of the master’s program, which introduced them to the same range of skills for fieldwork and research. Due to their assistantship assignments and their elective classes, each had developed strengths in different areas. One of the challenges of the capstone experience lay in asking a group with varied skills to produce the same set of products. For students with little fieldwork experience, the prospect of creating a full set of measured drawings seemed quite daunting, especially when confronted by a complicated facade of Victorian decoration and commercial windows. Within a few days of immersion and the study of their buildings, all the students began to rise to the challenge and gain new confidence in their abilities.
Learning to read buildings through fieldwork is one of the most important skills for historic preservationist, but as we all know, it takes a great deal of practice and it takes exposure to many different kinds of buildings. One positive result of working in teams of three meant that each student have the opportunity to look closely at at least three buildings rather than just one.
Emily Miller and Gabby Vicari discovered that their houses shared remarkably similar floor plans and architectural details. Research later revealed they were built by the same carpenter. Ginny Davidowski, who was studying an 1820s brick dwelling that belonged to a family of doctors in town, turned out to be one of only two brick buildings in the town. If you know South Jersey, it’s an area that’s known for its pattern-ended brick houses. For there to be only two brick dwellings in town was really unusual and that was something that Ginny explored a little bit in her project.
Once their documentation projects were well underway, the class began to consider ideas for their individual projects. For all of them, this process was inspired by their research on their individual buildings but also by their conversations with local residents and exploration of the surrounding communities. In the end, their projects fell into sort of two major categories. About half of the class produced scholarly research papers focusing on an architectural theme of some sort. Four of them eventually presented their papers at the VAF Conference in May of 2014. Alex Tarantino developed a historic context for a property type called stack house. She surveyed Mauricetown and neighboring Haleyville, mapping all the stack houses and collecting their architectural data before conducting detailed, archival research to identify characteristics of the builders and occupants of these houses.
After a visit to nearby bivalve, Laura Proctor was fascinated by the landscape of oystering, particularly the community of Shellpile, which appeared in 1930s to support the African-American population of oyster shuckers brought in from the Chesapeake. The town itself was built in the 1930s but was condemned and torn down in the 1970s and so part of her challenge was to conduct oral histories and draw on historic maps and photographs to try to recreate the world of the shuckers.
Other papers in this group focused on the use of decorative iron work, doctor’s home offices and the commercial landscape of Front Street. Each made a substantial contribution to the understanding of South Jersey architecture, which will be helpful to CRM firms and others conducting architectural surveys and research in the region in the future.
Second group papers addressed the set of research questions focused more on the practice of historic preservation. Gabby Vicari produced a preservation plan for the cemetery in Haleyville, mapping the gravestones and looking for patterns in the types of damage they suffered so that she could prepare recommendations for how to deal with the damage.
Following conversations with several local residents about an earlier failed attempt to prepare a National Register district nomination for Mauricetown, Michael Emmons chose to take on the challenge of writing a new nomination. He consulted with county and state preservation offices, held a public meeting to explain the nomination process, and conducted an update survey of the town.
Emily Miller focused her effort on the history and social meaning of an 1892 friendship quilt owned by the Mauricetown Historical Society. The quilt’s deteriorating badly so Emily developed a preservation plan that addressed those particular concerns. Other projects included a study of stained glass windows in the Methodist Church and an architectural pattern book for the town.
The research conducted by the students in this group was invaluable to the community. All represented professional products that would have cost thousands of dollars if completed by consultants, money that the community and the historical society could not afford. In some cases, the materials prepared by the students will provide the foundation for future grant writing and fund raising campaigns.
The students and their hosts developed close relationships over the nine-month long project, fueled by many return visits in which food played an important role in creating the connections. At the end of the field school, the locals treated us to a potluck dinner where everyone could relax and share their stories from the week. Our local logistics manager, Judy Moore, later told me that she thought of the students as her kids. She and her husband actually came to CHAD’s Research Day just to hear the students present on the other projects that they’d been working on over the course of the year. This had nothing to do with the Mauricetown project. They were just interested in what these guys had accomplished.
The capstone is proving to be incredibly valuable to both the students and the community. On a very practical level, eight of the ten students in this class had jobs within one month to graduation. Several of them have commented that the practical skills they acquired in the capstone helped substantially in their job interviews. They were able to show samples of drawings, National Register nominations, photographs and scholarly writing that was entirely their own, not a group product. In discussing their research strategies and discoveries, they communicate not just the information they learned, but also the confidence they gained from their multiple presentations.
Many of the town residents now hold a new appreciation for the historical significance of this once prosperous river town. A strong majority now support the idea of a National Register district, which is a major shift from the sentiment 20 years ago and offers well for the future preservation of the town.
All in all, we believe that the new structure of the capstone provides the best way to help our students develop the skills and the confidence they need in order to be a successful preservationist. We will probably continue to tweak this model in the future, but we’re feeling pretty confident that we’ve reached a good working model.
Historic preservation has long focused on the importance of preserving buildings and landscapes, but in recent years a paradigm shift in the field placed a new priority on working from the ground up with a grassroots approach. Preservation professionals increasingly seek to connect with the communities that own, occupy, and use these historic resources; to establish what the communities want to preserve, as well as why and how they value their places, instead of dictating these values from the top down. To be successful in the preservation world, students need to learn to navigate these situations, and develop skills that will allow them to effectively communicate with the public. Yet, typical preservation students spend much of their time in the classroom, learning what to preserve and developing a broad range of technical and technological skills, but finding limited opportunities to engage with an actual public about why to preserve. This paper explores the first two years of the capstone experience in the University of Delaware Masters Program in Historic Preservation, and the ways in which it encourages students to consider the role of a community in preserving its resources.
Four years ago, in response to alumni feedback and a recognition of shifts within the field of historic preservation, the University of Delaware launched a new MA in Historic Preservation. Unlike the earlier MA in Urban Affairs and Public Policy with a Concentration in Historic Preservation, which required a thesis as the final element for the degree, the new masters program requires a two-semester capstone experience. The Delaware model places a high priority on practical experience, balancing formal coursework with participation on real-world projects through research assistantships or course credit, and through the second-year Capstone. We specifically designed the Capstone to encourage students to engage with a specific community to explore questions of preservation, while creating a set of individual portfolio pieces to help with job-hunting. This paper compares the experiences of the past two years, which involved two rather different approaches–one focused on a single site (Penn Farm, New Castle, Delaware) and the second focused on an entire town (Mauricetown, New Jersey). In both cases, students coped with real clients and publics, choosing individual projects geared to their own particular interests as well as community priorities. They learned not only the technical side of preservation, but also the human side, one that is increasingly more critical to the profession.