Something interesting happened last week. I got a phone call from a gentleman who is involved in an organization of families and descendants of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Since the 100th anniversary of the fire is coming up this year, the family members are coming together to organize memorial events and information for the public.
He told me that the family of one of the victims had asked him to contact me because they had come across a course website from one of the Macaulay seminars, where students posted their research about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. The site, from 2008, with the student’s research, was giving the family a good source of information about their ancestor.
One of the things the student noted in his research was that the woman he was studying had her name spelled in several different ways in some of the contemporary and historical sources he found. He speculated a bit about these misspellings, and tried to think about reasons they might have occurred. It was a good example of a student engaging with real historical research–the kind of problem that does occur when using primary texts.
The family members had decided, in recent years, that they wanted to standardize the spelling for themselves. So they contacted me to ask that on the site, we try to acknowledge their wishes. Easily and gladly done (with a simple note that the family contacted us and made the request–which added to the whole discussion of the various spellings)–and even better, I got to notify the student, now a senior, that the work he had done as a freshman was still around, still of value, and actually having an impact on the descendants of the historical figures he studied. Of course he was thrilled!
Frequently I hear an objection about having students do public-facing work: “What if they have errors? What if there are mistakes? Won’t it make us look bad?” I think this case makes a good answer. Yes. There will be mistakes (this is not the first time I’ve been contacted about a student-created website from a previous year). But no, they don’t make us look bad. They make the learning for the students (and the public) go on beyond the boundaries of the semester or the class, and they give students a commitment and an engagement to their work. And they give students real evidence that their work can really matter–that they can learn not just to think like historians (or literary critics or biologists or whatever), but to actually do what historians do. And to have their work have meaning for real people, outside the classroom and outside the college, in all the ways that historians’ work has meaning.