Native Americans in the 21st century: Nation Building II community research projects

Awardees: Dennis Norman (HMS), Shelly Lowe (Other)

Summary: Awardees plan to support and extend a multidisciplinary, experiential learning course on community building in indigenous cultures.

Students get really comfortable talking about what they don’t know about

Awardees offered a field experience course, “Native Americans in the 21st Century: Nation Building II,” pairing student teams with Tribal leaders and Native organizations on community projects. Students work with their partner community to define the goals and scope of the project, familiarize themselves with the community history and relevant background information, and gather data and conduct interviews in the community. They present their findings and potential resources to both the client and the course instructor.

Course instructor Dennis Norman said that they limit the course to 24 due to the number of community projects and associated travel they are able to support. While the course is cross-listed in the Kennedy School of Government and the Graduate School of Education, they have also enrolled students from the School of Public Health, the Law School, as well as undergraduates. They experienced some anticipated challenges—for example the diversity in students’ ability to drive or rent a car—but acknowledge that these types of hiccups are bound to arise in field work: “once they’re gone, anything could happen,” Norman remarked. In addition to the field work challenges, they mentioned that they had to take extra consideration in hiring a Teaching Fellow with the appropriate experience and background; one semester, they were not able to find a candidate on campus and hired a Boston University graduate student.

Norman explained that his own thinking about experiential learning has shifted since he began participating in this course, and that having completed a few cycles has made him more confident in articulating the benefits of this kind of learning experience to his students. In addition to the value of conducting hands-on, real-life project, he finds that students gain invaluable skills developing their own plans, receiving feedback from one another, and tackling a project with little to no initial background knowledge: “At first the students are like, ‘We’re not being told what to do?’ It’s not a hierarchical type of course. But eventually they get really comfortable talking about what they don’t know about.” He explained that at first students are typically surprised that their instructor is not leading the problem solving discussion, rather leaving it to the group to discuss as a whole. Lowe also observed that students, both Native and non-Native, had eye-opening experiences through this process.

In addition to the student learning benefits, Norman recognized an additional benefit: the course represents the University well in the world and he has witnessed a shift in some Native communities’ perception of University involvement and their willingness to collaborate. Many students have maintained their connection with their partner community, and some have even refined their theses studies as a result of their involvement in this course.

In May 2013, Norman and Lowe also organized the Nation Building Symposium to discuss Harvard’s experience with and commitment to Nation Building. Many invited presenters and others have since modeled their own experiential courses after “Nation Building II” and continue to collaborate with Harvard. Here on campus, Norman and Lowe look forward future collaborations with other Harvard schools in other Native American studies courses. “Students are always trying to take what they’ve learned and fit it into the bigger world,” said Norman. “It should be an institutional priority to support these kind of student experiences.”