Historians need to get out of the classroom and reconnect with the community, according to David Scobey, executive dean of the New School for General Studies in New York.
Professors tend to promote community work to their students, Scobey explained, but do not follow their own guidelines when it comes to their research. “We send our students out there, but too often we do not go out there ourselves,” he said.
Scobey spoke to a group of Concordia staff members and students last Thursday as part of the CEREV-sponsored history lecture about his “in-here/out-there” theory. According to Scobey, the main disadvantage of staying in the office is that it develops an “in-here/out-there” mentality, which creates a disconnect between academics and non-academics. The dean also said true intellectuals miss the opportunity to open themselves up to questions and different views when they do not work in their community.
Scobey emphasized that opening the lines of communication with the community challenges academic work. “We deprive ourselves of their questioning,” he said.
It was during his research that Scobey himself experienced the value of civic engagement. He was working with the Franco-American mill workers of Lewiston-Auburn, Maine when he came across an invitation autographed by Maurice Chevalier, a French actor from the early 20th century. Scobey had a personal tie to the actor – when he was a child, his father would sing one of Chevalier’s popular cabaret songs to him. The invitation showed how Chevalier, a celebrity and cultural icon, stayed and performed for the community of mill workers. “Chevalier’s autograph shows us a different reality,” Scobey said.
The discovery made him want to dig deeper into the history of the people living in this particular community because there seemed to be a deep appreciation for the arts among its citizens. It was when he interviewed the elders in the community that he began to get a sense for their culture and make a connection between the metropolitan world and this local community. Through his interviews with the locals he was able to capture a different and more personal side of the history of Lewiston-Auburn and better understand the Franco-American culture that once existed there.
Scobey encouraged other professors to engage in such hands-on experiences and interact with people living in a community, since historians can deepen their own research. “Civic engagement makes our jobs better,” he said.