The Wende Museum Workshop: A Reflection on Collaborative Research — by Elizabeth Hedge

At the beginning of my senior year graduation already loomed. Decisions about the future, careers, and next steps all felt too close for comfort. I always knew that I loved history but was not sure how to turn that into a career. I got an email from Professor Drummond at the beginning of the semester asking me to take part in the Wende Museum Workshop, in which students from Loyola Marymount University and from the University of Leipzig would collaborate to create an online exhibition from the Wende Museum’s archives. I jumped at the opportunity to participate. I have always loved museums and the work they do, and was eager to explore the field further. The project focused on bringing to life the rich history of East Germany under Communist rule, to give viewers the opportunity to understand everyday life in the German Democratic Republic, through an online exhibit featuring real life artifacts, photos, and eyewitness accounts.

I worked on the “public spaces” portion of the exhibit, which focused on the ideal socialist city and the state’s attempt to promote a “social consciousness.” The Communist state in East Germany aimed to create each city with socialist purpose – from the street names to art and architecture. This was more than mere urban planning: the city was built to inspire those within it to love and live by the socialist political culture. The city, and its public spaces, served to educate citizens. My partner Richard and I wanted to emphasize this unique feature of the GDR’s public spaces through our artifacts. However, working on public spaces meant that we had few physical artifacts to work with. Photos displaying public spaces proved to be our most reliable sources, and we focused on recognizable streets, buildings, and monuments. Our next steps were, first, to think about what exactly we wanted to convey within our public spaces exhibit, and, second, to decide how to properly convey the information in a digestible way for audiences.

Richard and I started by looking through the Wende Museum’s holdings for specific artifacts that highlighted the use of public spaces, in addition to working with our advisors to come up with our thesis: public spaces served to mobilize, politicize, and educate the people. With these three emphases in mind, we settled on four artifacts that would convey our thesis. The first was a mural in Halle-Neustadt by Josep Renau titled “The Unity of the Working Class and the Founding of the GDR,” which provided a visual representation of key ideological principles of the “New Germany.” The second was a picture of several street signs from the East Berlin, which carried the names of prominent communist thinkers and activists, including Freidrich Engels and Ernst Thalmann. These street signs helped keep the memory of these socialist heroes alive. The third artifact was a photo of the May Day Parade, the epitome of a constructed political event. May Day, May 1st, also known as the International Workers’ Day of Action and Celebration for Peace and Socialism, was the most celebrated day in the year, and the public spaces within the city functioned to enhance the celebrations. Lastly, we chose a blueprint for Stalinallee, the most significant boulevard in East Berlin. Lined with magnificent office and apartment buildings designed with the socialist ideal in mind, the boulevard was meant to show the citizens of the GDR, and the rest of the world, that a Communist state was capable of achieving the ideal – according to their own – standard of city design.

Once we chose our artifacts we moved to in-depth research. We created small blurbs for each of the artifacts, quick and simple so that exhibition visitors could understand the purpose of the public spaces. We also gave readers the ability to explore all the artifacts in depth with links to further information and suggested reading. My research focused in particular on the perceptions of Stalinallee at home and abroad. East German city planners and architects celebrated the design of the street, claiming it to be the design of an ideal socialist city. However, I found a 1952 article in the American publication Life Magazine, which questioned this notion of a socialist utopia. The article debunked East German officials’ claims, pointing to a protest that broke out over poor working conditions and food shortages as well as emphasizing Stalinallee’s poor construction. The boulevard was still being built when Stalin died a year later, and officials quickly changed the name to Karl-Marx-Allee. The Life article was a key research item for me because it provided an outsider’s perspective, albeit an American, anti-communist one, that questioned the narrative East Germans presented about Stalinallee.

Richard and I worked well together as a team. Prior to arriving in Los Angeles, the German students had taken courses both in East German history and in museum studies. They were also able to devote all of their time to the workshop, while the other LMU students and I had to balance the workshop with our other classes and work. That meant that Richard and the German students were able to dive deep into the research about the artifacts and focus on the micro level. Richard brought lots of additional insight and knowledge that helped me greatly. But the LMU students and I were able to provide a macro perspective — to look at the exhibit as a whole and see it as a visitor would, to focus on the overall narrative rather than the details. This dual perspective was necessary for the successful completion of our exhibit. Richard and I also worked well together because we were open and able to share ideas with each other. We felt comfortable talking through what we wanted to do, sharing research materials, and offering suggestions, which ensured that our portion of the exhibit had a good sense of flow. Richard shared his knowledge with me so that I could focus on my pieces of the exhibit, but I was able to help him take a step back from all the information and see how all the pieces fit together.

The idea of taking on additional research projects while a student at university might sometimes feel more like a burden than an enriching educational experience. I loved working on the project because I developed a better understanding of archives, public displays of history, and museums, as well as broadened my knowledge about a subject I knew little about. Presenting at the Undergraduate Research Symposium felt intimidating, but it taught me important presentation skills. From my experience, what is most important for any student research project is to make sure that the subject matter is compelling to the students and driven by their interests so they are willing to devote the necessary time to it. Another important personal takeaway away from the project was that while I prefer to work independently, good partnerships can be of great benefit to both individuals. I could rely on Richard to help and teach me, and vice versa. Through our teamwork we ensured a successful completion of the project that probably would not have happened if we worked alone.

What I loved most about the project was learning about museum work. The “hands-on” work in the museum enabled me to learn about the process, the language, and the idea of “public history.” The information is important, but the way it is communicated sheds the most understanding. It makes history dynamic, creating new possibilities and perspectives. While I found the subject matter interesting, I particularly enjoyed the creation and organization of historical information in a museum. Reflecting on the project in this post has also helped me digest the project and what I took away from it. Beyond my genuine interest and passion for history, reflection and understanding the value of information continue to compel me to keep reading, writing, and learning about history.

Elizabeth Hedge graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2012 with degrees in History and Political Science, Magna Cum Laude . She wrote an Honors Political Science thesis on “Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage in America: The Courts Ability to Enact Social Change” and completed the Wende Museum Workshop in her senior year. New Zealand and British bred, Elizabeth was born in Hong Kong, and spent her childhood moving throughout Asia until beginning her studies at Loyola Marymount University in 2008.

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On the Benefits of Attending College Next to An Archive — by Nolan Rivkin

As an undergraduate student studying modern German history at Loyola Marymount University, I had the unique experience of studying less than five miles away from the Wende Museum and Archive – easily the largest archive of East German cultural history in the Western United States (if not the entire U.S.) This proved to be an immensely useful resource. Over the course of four years of undergraduate study, I made use of the Wende during my sophomore, junior and senior years. During my sophomore year I participated in a binational (German and American) undergraduate research group and contributed to the Wende’s recently-launched online exhibition (see the previous entries from Elizabeth Drummond about the Wende Museum Project). As a junior I returned to the Wende to comb through their archives for my own research while writing a seminar paper; this seminar paper later formed the basis (and roughly the last third) of my senior-year thesis. While writing that thesis I made use of the Wende’s archives once again and also received hands-on experience of archive work from the “other side” as a research intern. It is safe to say that the proximity to this resource not only strengthened my own research but also guided my academic path, which has led to a doctoral program in history at the University of Tennessee.

If I had to narrow it down, I would say that my work with the Wende taught me two important lessons relevant to my studies in history:

1) How do make use of an archive. Archival research is one of the most basic tools of a historian, but undergraduate students of history rarely get the chance to do it. Admittedly, not every university is conveniently placed adjacent to an archive, but nevertheless, having the chance to conduct archival research prior to entering graduate school was a great opportunity. The Wende Museum’s archive is small by most standards, but it is still cavernous (and cold! The work stations within it were actually equipped with space heaters) enough to earn its nickname of “the Vault.” While working at the Wende, I learned important lessons about how to locate specific documents from within this vast, frigid space and how to handle them. In the case of the Wende, they have a well-organized digital database with all of the collection indexed to a series of tags and with searchable descriptions, thus providing for easy navigation within the archive.

2) How to interpret cultural artifacts. The main goal of the Wende Museum is to archive cultural artifacts and not simply retell the basic history of the German Democratic Republic; therefore, their archives are stocked not with Stasi documents or transcriptions of political meetings but with home magazines, books and consumer electronics (to name a few examples). Artifacts like these have a lot to teach us; they serve as windows into the everyday life (or Alltagsleben, if you will) of a society that, for the most part, no longer exists. Through cultural artifacts, one can determine and analyze a variety of attributes. To use an example from my own research, I used popular antifascist films to examine East Germans perceptions of their role in the Second World War and how the Socialist Unity Party fostered the antifascist foundational mythology of the GDR. I also had the opportunity to work with the East German lifestyle magazine Kultur im Heim. Researching this magazine afforded me the opportunity to look into East German everyday life and consumer culture to analyze issues such as private spaces, East German design philosophy, and how the state’s political agenda was realized through consumer goods. For example, the heavy use of plastic in new toys, tools and cookware was a direct result of the regime’s “pushing” of plastics to strengthen one of the GDR’s strongest domestic industries. Admittedly, not every historian studies cultural history. However, analyzing cultural artifacts is an important and at times overlooked skill, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to develop it.

Every undergraduate student of history should pursue the opportunity to conduct first-hand primary-document research. Of course there is nothing wrong with the classic method of conducting research in the library, writing the paper, and turning it in all without leaving campus; but if the opportunity to go out and conduct history in a “real-world” setting exists, it shouldn’t be passed up. Without the academic foundation that I built up with the help of the Wende’s archives, I likely would not have done the academic work that resulted in my application and acceptance to a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where I am continuing my work on 20th-century Central and Eastern Europe.

Nolan Rivkin graduated from Loyola Marymount University in May 2013 with a major in History and minors in both German and Jewish Studies. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, working with Dr. Monica Black.

For Money or Credit?

This series of posts is based on an experience I had with integrating an undergraduate student into a research project. It is not a how-to, but one example that is intended to provide some food for thought.

How do we organize and administer student work on faculty research projects? In the form of a course? Or a part-time job? Or just something extra, a resumé-building, above-and-beyond activity? And how does this affect our students’ experience?

In involving my student, Emily (name changed), in my research, my options for structuring her participation were somewhat limited: I did not have any resources to hire a research assistant, and neither did my department. Rather than delay our collaboration while I looked for some kind of pay, I chose to move forward, aware of time passing—Emily was already a senior. For those of you who have employed a student researcher, a model that many of my math colleagues follow, I would be very interested to hear how you did it and what the faculty/employer-student/worker dynamic was like.

I do not doubt that Emily would have been glad to participate in the project simply for the sake of the experience. But I wanted to formalize her participation in part to ensure that both of us would take it seriously, stick to deadlines, and make some progress. So Emily registered for a 1-credit independent study, called “Faculty Research.” This seemingly simple choice ended up shaping the experience in ways I hadn’t anticipated—namely, in focusing our attention on what Emily would learn.

Writing the syllabus for the course made me answer many questions: What were my expectations for her performance? What would we actually do? Would I expect her to produce anything, and if so, how would I evaluate it? It was in writing the learning objectives for the course (a syllabus requirement at my university) that I had a moment of realization: in making this a course, I was foregrounding Emily’s learning experience and perhaps prioritizing it over what I was going to gain from the experience. As a result, the learning objectives had more to do with the skills and meta-knowledge that Emily would take from the semester: to learn what faculty research in German Studies is; to locate secondary material using relevant databases; to read and discuss those secondary materials; to write paragraphs of the article; to determine possible publication venues for the finished article; and to help prepare the article for submission to a journal. (The last two were optimistic.)

Reading this now, I wonder what this had to do with my research. I am happy with the learning outcomes—it is important to me that Emily take skills from this experience. But I am struck by the difficulty of preventing the student learning experience from eclipsing our research agendas. Does an employer-employee relationship change this dynamic? What are your experiences?

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Conclusion)

Part 5: Conclusion

This type of undergraduate research requires good community partners and strong institutional support, but the benefit for students is well worth the investment of time, space, and monies. There are two main lessons that I would take away from this experience. The first lesson is that it is essential that the various partners involved – the students, the faculty, the universities, and the community partners – clarify their expectations early in the process and come to a collective understanding about them. Community-based learning is most valuable when it is neither mere charity (students doing volunteer work) nor an off-campus site for learning (where students merely use the museum, for example, as another resource), but where both parties benefit from a collaborative undertaking – where students learn from community actors and where their learning contributes back to that community. The community partner must thus be involved from the start, in designing the experience, to ensure that the student research is of a kind that will be useful for the community organization. Once students understand the community partner’s expectations, they will be better prepared to make the most of their research. The second lesson is that this specific type of community-based learning is difficult to do in the space of a month. It would work better as a full semester-long course, with the historical content (the classroom part) front-loaded into the course, as a foundation for students for when they go out of the classroom, into the community, to do hands-on work in the museum. More time and more structure might also help the students to work more efficiently towards the final project. Expanding the workshop into a proper course might also address – even if not completely – the imbalances that often exist between students from different institutions, whether domestic or international. Had we made this a semester-long course, the LMU students could have had some of the same preparation that the German students had, so that the workshop part of the course, when students came together as a group to work in the museum, could have been more truly collaborative. While this type of research should never supplant the traditional research paper, it can supplement it.

For an update about the exhibit…

Out of the Classroom, Into the Museum: Undergraduate Research at the Wende Museum (Part 4)

Part 4: The Challenges

As with any new experiment, there were a number of challenges that presented themselves before and during the workshop. With any sort of project that involves collaboration with the local community as well as international actors, one of the challenges is finding resources to support the endeavor. Participating in the workshop meant that LMU would have to invest in the workshop (with monies and space). That meant convincing the Dean that this was a project worthy of financial investment. Fortunately, the workshop dovetailed nicely with a lot of the initiatives that my college is undertaking – a focus on interdisciplinarity (history and museum studies), an effort towards internationalization (collaboration with German students), and a push for community-based learning (a partnership with the Wende Museum). Tying undergraduate research to university and college strategic planning and curricular initiatives is essential if we wish to get our universities to support it. In this case, the Dean’s Office, the Office of the VP (now Associate Provost) for Undergraduate Research, the History Department, and the European Studies Program all offered monies in support of the project; the History Department also offered space, and both our administrative assistant and I offered our time and labor. In addition, the Wende Museum allowed the students full access to the Museum’s holdings, even as it was in the midst of a thorough inventory. Cristina Cuevas-Wolf also gave generously of her own time, mentoring the students through the process of working in a museum and developing an exhibit. She also arranged for the students to have library privileges at the Getty Research Institute and to meet with local museum professionals. The German students also applied for a series of grants to support their travel to the United States.

Another challenge had to do with a certain imbalance between the German and the American students, which manifested itself in a variety of ways. The German students had already taken a course in museum studies, were well-schooled in the history of East Germany, and had German. The American students were coming to the workshop more or less as blank slates. While some of the students had taken courses in modern European history or other aspects of German history, none had taken a course in East German history specifically or in public history or museum studies, though one was an intern at the Wende Museum at the time. One of the Americans was a German heritage speaker, and a second was taking German (doing a German minor), but the other three had no German. Two additional things exacerbated the imbalance. First, the workshop took place during the regular LMU semester. Whereas the German students could devote all their time to the project, the American students were doing it in addition to their other courses and activities. They were required to devote Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to the workshop but were really unable to do more. The second was that we had the German students do a series of presentations about certain aspects of East German history and museum work. These presentations were designed to help the American students “catch up,” but it also created a certain hierarchy – with the Germans as teachers and the Americans as students. We would have been better served by skipping the presentations and just discussing some of the assigned readings, with the hope that those discussions would get the American students up to speed. Unfortunately, all of this created a situation in which the student pairs were often not really partnerships. A couple of the groups worked really well together, with both students contributing a lot of ideas, but there was a certain friction in others because of this imbalance.

Yet another challenge had to do with expectations. The German students tended to see the virtual exhibit as their project from start to finish, with no limitations on it. But this is not the way that community-based learning works. The workshop was going to produce an exhibit that would be of use for the Wende Museum, so it had to conform to the museum’s expectations as well as its technological capabilities (the original ideas for what the exhibit might look like were quite elaborate). My students were very clear on that. They understood that they would be working in the Wende Museum to produce an exhibit for the Museum – that this was a community partnership. But they also had prior experience with service-learning and community-based learning, which is more widespread in the U.S. than in Germany, so they had a better and more realistic sense of what to expect. This disconnect between expectations and reality sometimes led to frustrations for the German students, who felt constrained by the Museum’s expectations, the structure of the workshop (that they couldn’t constantly be at the museum), the role of the LMU students, and so on. These frustrations spoke to the importance of explaining to students (and this is our responsibility as instructors) that partnerships like this, where different individuals and institutions are contributing resources, mean that those institutions have their own expectations from the project – that the students cannot just do whatever they want, that they have to work with the community partner, that community-based learning means that students have some responsibility to the community.

Next: Conclusion

Identifying a Student

This series of posts is based on an experience I had with integrating an undergraduate student into a research project. It is not a how-to, but one example that is intended to provide some food for thought.

One of the most challenging components of involving a student in your research is to find the right student.

In the fall 2012, I had a series of conversations with a German major and advisee of mine, Emily (name changed), about her frustration with her classwork. She felt that most course work was superficial—by necessity of coverage, the ability of her peers, etc.—and that only the rare project or paper allowed her to pursue a topic in depth. I should say that Emily is truly an exceptional student, not only in her in-class performance, but more so because of her active pursuit of learning opportunities. Three areas of interest in her academic work are immigration and minority experience, pedagogy, and feminist inquiry. They overlap with mine and also, fortuitously, with a research project I had on the back burner. So I approached her about working with me on that project. She accepted, and we are currently wrapping up a successful semester’s worth of work.

What made Emily such a great student to work with? Here are some thoughts.

  • Her academic interests overlap with mine. Her enthusiasm for the topic motivated her to read articles even when I was struggling to find the time to do it, and to try her hand at writing down some of our discussions when I had little energy to write.
  • Her coursework and intellectual activities on campus (in German, Sociology, Social Work, the Feminist Discussion Group, and volunteer activities) means that she has some familiarity with the issues at hand. While she was not familiar with the idea of intersectionality, for example, she was not new to analyzing media through a feminist lens.
  • She is responsible, reliable, and maintains regular communication with me. She attended every one of our meetings and came prepared, whether with a list of sources to consult, an article we had read, or paragraphs that I had asked her to write.
  • Perhaps most important, I enjoy her company! Her positive attitude energized me, and I genuinely looked forward to our conversations.

This makes Emily sound quite the ideal student, and I do think she was just the right fit for this project. Her upcoming graduation (next week) leaves me feeling somewhat dispirited with regard to this project. I regret that we only had a semester to work together, and that the semester was of course full of other demands on my attention and time. I am frustrated with everything else that got in the way, and I envy my colleague in English who had the forethought to involve a student in his research when she was a junior, thereby giving them a much longer and more realistic span of time.

Perhaps more than anything I am wondering when I will work with a student on my research again. When will I find another student so motivated and who shares an interest in my research topics? Will the arrival of that student on my radar coincide with the early stages of relevant project? It seems to me that the question of fit is one that can make or break student involvement in faculty research. What are your experiences in this regard? Please share your thoughts.

Meeting New Expectations, Forging New Practices

While undergraduate research is increasingly promoted by institutions, it seems that the institutional support for and recognition of faculty investment in such developments are still catching up with those expectations. It is easy to recognize the value of undergraduate research. It promotes a dynamic and student-centered model of education in which students create knowledge, better preparing them for future autodidactic projects in academia or in another professional arena. Indeed, senior capstone projects have become standard in institutions ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities. In German Studies, this most often takes the form of a research project informed by a theoretical lens and an argument carried out along well constructed methodological lines. Inherent in these sorts of requirements is the notion that students can and should be expected to successfully complete these projects, having developed the discrete skills necessary for such projects over the course of their undergraduate years. While such projects have become institutionalized in our curricula, a number of additional opportunities are flourishing as well. Independent studies and innovative enrichment programs — some taking students off-campus for research or experiential learning — often aid students in designing and carrying out longer research projects than the normal term or semester accommodates.

But what if students in fact have not already developed and refined these discrete skills in the course of their classes or other projects? As this new model of undergraduate research develops, how are we to simultaneously develop a set of best practices for enabling those experiences? How can we best shape and support such projects for our students?

A model for undergraduate research is present and self-study of its effectiveness is already rather established in the natural sciences. In fact, a cursory search of resources on the promotion of undergraduate research leads almost exclusively to the natural sciences. (See, for example, the National Science Foundations well-funded “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” as well as the several studies and Chronicle of Higher Education articles measuring this program’s impact.) Such programs, however, function along drastically different lines from humanities projects. Students are inserted into a wider support context in which they collaborate with more experienced undergraduates, graduate students and (less often) professors themselves. They contribute to research projects already developed, and are assigned tasks within that framework. Humanities projects, to the contrary, are more often independent and created by the student her-/himself with the aid of a professor. Often, this professor is assisting several other students with such projects within the context of a capstone or other advanced course.

While a burgeoning literature has emerged on frameworks for creating conditions for undergraduate research in the natural sciences, there still exists a need for self-study and the development of best practices for such projects in the humanities in general, and German Studies in particular.

These opportunities create unique and highly valuable experiences for our students. German Studies has led the way in many respects, and as a field we have generally been early adopters of new methodologies and critical approaches. This is perhaps an outgrowth of our sense of vulnerability as departments see declining numbers and, in a disturbing number of cases, are being closed down altogether. Undergraduate research presents us with a unique opportunity to be leaders yet again, and to attract students because of the exciting and fulfilling nature of research. Given the dearth of information on best practices and standards for undergraduate research in the humanities, we could position ourselves to shape our field, and our institutions, around the needs and opportunities we recognize.