A Conversation with American Studies Program Coordinator Dr. Nicole Sackley

November 10, 2016
A Q&A on community-based learning

UR Downtown educational programming coordinator Alexandra Byrum talked with Dr. Nicole Sackley, associate professor of history and American studies, about community-based learning at UR and more.

Last spring, your American Studies Seminar students curated Greetings from Richmond, Virginia: Visitors Through the Centuries for UR Downtown’s Wilton Companies Gallery, and the exhibition is now being installed at the Richmond Convention Center and the the Office of International Education on campus. What led you to want to work on an exhibition with your students? What inspired the theme?

I was interested in doing an exhibition in part because I recently developed a course on the public spaces in which history is debated, contested, and constructed. My students have been working on a digital archival project but also investigating how history is displayed in museums. Increasingly, I became curious about the possibility of my students not only offering a critique of exhibitions, but trying their hand at one themselves.

The American Studies Capstone Seminar seeks to train its majors in the many ways they might convey new knowledge. I’ve been struck by the narrow way in which the history of Richmond is told. Its focus is the local even when the local has national and international implications. I wanted to invite our students to look at Richmond in new ways, to see Richmond through the eyes of those who have visited, and to explore the changing ways that the story of Richmond has been told through time.

What were some of the challenges and rewards of curating an exhibition in one semester?

I was lucky to be naïve about how ambitious this was, but the rewards were many. The students knew that their work was going to be very public. There was a real ownership of the project on the part of the students. They selected the title. They were instrumental in the design of the exhibition. Each student had their own visitors to research, and they had to work with groups of students to identify themes. It was exciting to see how individual and collaborative work came together.

We wanted to open on an RVA First Fridays, April 1, so we only had 10 weeks, an incredibly short timeline. The students not only had to research the visitors, but learn about the history of Richmond and the anthropology of tourism and develop their skills in museum work. Fortunately, this was a capstone seminar, and many students brought multiple experiences to the seminar.

Asking students to look at the United States in a global context is a central part of your teaching. What excites you about community-based learning?

Students who sign up for courses in the United States and the world are often expecting that we’re going to be talking about foreign policy and places. I’m also interested in the ways that transnational movements, economic connections, and politics shape human and local experiences. For example, I teach a course on tobacco, a commodity that links the city of Richmond to the world, and I have students investigate the links between tobacco and slavery and tobacco and labor on the streets of our city.

You are currently leading the Faculty Humanities Seminar. What are some of the topics you’ve been exploring together?

A number of faculty in the humanities were interested in coming together to try to understand what defines us as humanists, how we connect our teaching and scholarship to the city in which we live, and explore interdisciplinary directions in the ways we practice the humanities. For example, we’ve had seminars focused on Performing, Empathizing, and Looking and Listening. The seminar has mixed vigorous discussion of new scholarship with explorations of the city and connections to humanistic practitioners in our community. For many of our sessions, we have invited curators, directors, and scholars from other institutions as guest participants.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a historian?

My grandmother grew up on the Lower East Side in New York City in the first decades of the twentieth century, and as a child, I was captivated by her stories of the immigrant experience and the sights and sounds of Manhattan. In college, I took courses on the Progressive Era, and suddenly my family story had developed this larger frame for me, and it was tremendously exciting. I was fascinated by the question of how and why we come to be the people that we are, and how are our communities–local, national, and transnational–are formed.