Cultivating understanding: Students, professors document history online
A history professor and his students are collecting tidbits of history via photo to both remind Louisiana residents of their history and preserve the state’s Francophone heritage.
Thomas Cauvin, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, has played the role of organizer for the three harvests already held on campus and around the city. His students are the tour de force behind the project, as they execute the entire process of documentation for a project and post the data on an online archive both during and after the harvest.
Cauvin, whose historical research deals with public history, received inspiration from a similar program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which began a similar program in 2009. Cauvin said he tweaked the project in addition to what they did, with the focus on Louisiana’s French heritage.
“We have more oral history,” Cauvin said, “so we started using an app called PixStori to record stories and capture photos of related artifacts. That’s the best part about it — collecting stories about French heritage.
“We try to give the students experience in archiving, recording, collecting but also public experience,” he continued. “It’s a way to give students the chance to leave the campus and have a community experience.”
The online collection has amassed 143 items and eight collections, with subjects ranging from untold love stories to spiritual life.
Abigail Enicke is a public history graduate student who, among 15 other students, organized the first event, which was held in April. For her, the event came about in a collections management class with Cauvin.
“On the day of, I helped work a scanner,” said Enicke, “and so I helped digitize the documents and photographs.”
The history harvesters do not keep attendees’ artifacts; instead, they simply document at the event. Enicke said objects she has documented include an old washing board paired with a demonstration of its use to a copy of a Homer epic translated into Cajun French.
“(The epic) was just so unexpected, and so that was really cool,” Enicke said. “We didn’t upload the whole entire thing, but we uploaded the first couple of pages especially. And then more information was put on the website about who translated it and who brought it in.”
Enicke said posting the objects via social media allowed the community to share its collective knowledge of Louisiana French heritage and come to a greater understanding of the story behind the state.
Cauvin said the history department hosted over 80 people at its first event and collected documentation of 103 objects and stories to share.
Enicke said she believes the collaboration between community and students makes the project most successful.
“I find that in general, the community likes to share their stories — they just need a platform for it,” she opined.
What has been the most successful to Cauvin was how social media allowed people from other states, Quebec and the world as a whole the ability to connect with other people of Louisiana Cajun or Creole culture.
“The people who attend are giving their own knowledge,” Enicke said. “It’s not really (the students’ work). I mean, we’re there scanning and digitalizing, but they’re the ones really giving us the information. In many ways, it’s their project as much as it is ours.”
“This is very much connected to family history. What I like the most is to connect the family stories with something broader,” Cauvin added, “This history is something that people live. It’s their history, but it’s made with examples of suffering, loving and eating — eating is a big part of Louisiana history, too — so this process is what I like about it.
Besides the History Harvests’ raison d’etre, Cauvin discussed how there would be a table Française, where people could speak with others in their French heritage. There are also plans for the FrancoFun choir to attend, as they had done so at the first History Harvest.
The next History Harvest is scheduled for 10 a.m. March 18 at the Lafayette Public Library’s main branch at 301 W. Congress St. For more information, including the digital archive and instructions on project donation, visit louisianafrench.omeka.net