Reflections on Presenting Material Culture Research to Public Audiences

Over the past few years, History of American Civilization students have presented their research to the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Take a moment to read Nicole Belolan’s recent exchange with her colleague Alison Kreitzer below. Here, Alison, a fourth year Am Civ candidate, reflects on how sharing her research on African American men and automobile racing in the early twentieth century with the non-specialist Osher audience has enriched her academic work.

What was the nature of the research you presented to your Osher audience?

Alison: My Osher talk focused on the participation of African American men in automobile racing during the 1920s and early 1930s. African American men interested in automobiles and automotive technology began to compete in automobile races during this period to combat the social and spatial limitations that black Americans faced under Jim Crow. African Americans recognized that the automobile had specific cultural capital within American society as a symbol of white, middle class status. By showing that they could own, drive, and repair automobiles through organized speed contests, African Americans used this leisure activity as a platform to push for greater racial equality within the United States.

My research for this talk is primarily based on documentary evidence collected from African American newspapers. I am particularly interested in gaining a greater understanding of the types of automobiles that black racers competed in during this period. By comparing the driver and car information provided in contemporary newspapers with surviving racecars from this period located in automobile racing museums, I have significantly expanded my understanding of the types of racecars, financial costs, and the consumer networks black racecar drivers used to piece together their racing machines.

You participated in the University of Delaware’s Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI) during the summer of 2012. DELPHI is designed develop graduate students’ public humanities “toolkits” through a series of workshops. How did your participation in DELPHI help prepare you for the Osher audience?

Alison: My participation in DELPHI taught me important strategies to “package” my dissertation research in ways that are exciting and meaningful to a more general audience of history enthusiasts. Several members of the Osher audience had experience with racing or tinkering with automobiles, so they automatically connected to the more technical side of my talk, which discussed the types of racecars that participants competed in during the 1920s and 1930s. However, my talk also focused on larger historical issues and themes like segregated transportation and race relations. Audience members who did not have firsthand experience with automobile racing connected to personal experiences where they had witnessed cases of discrimination similar to those experienced by the black automobile racers that I described in my talk. The series of DELPHI workshops also helped me hone my public speaking and presentation skills, which allowed me to feel comfortable addressing the Osher audience.

How did your presentation preparation and style differ from how you might have prepared for a more “academic” venue such as a scholarly conference?

Alison: Unlike a scripted academic talk, the more informal nature of the Osher talk allowed me to discuss my research without reading my presentation to the audience. I used my power point slides which featured images of African American automobilists, racecar drivers, primary source documents, and surviving racecars to lead my discussion. Osher audience members felt comfortable with the informal nature of my presentation and asked questions throughout my talk, which allowed me to provide additional information about my research findings that targeted the specific interests of particular members of the audience.

The presentation technology has changed, but Alison's audience was likely as engaged as was the audience pictured here in 1944 at the United Nations Club in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The presentation technology has changed, but we can be sure that Alison’s audience was as engaged with her talk on African American men and automobile racing  as was the audience pictured here in a 1944 photograph taken by J. Sherrel Lakey at the United Nations Club in Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

How did you get your listeners to relate to your work? What about material culture or your research in particular strikes a chord with the public?

Alison: The majority of the Osher audience members had no direct experience with automobile racing; however, all listeners had driven automobiles throughout their lifetimes. An important way to connect listeners to my topic is to directly compare the experience of driving a passenger automobile to the experience of driving a racecar. Discussing the limited safety equipment like helmets and goggles available to interwar racers also helps audience members to create a mental image of what automobile racing was like during this period. After introducing objects that help to contextualize the sport for listeners, I can discuss how larger historical themes like masculinity, American leisure, consumption, and race relations are important aspects of my work. Even if the audience is not particularly interested or knowledgeable about automobile racing, my discussion of the material culture and major themes pertinent to the history of dirt track racing strikes a chord with members of the public who have participated in America’s car culture and are interested in hobbies or sports.

How did presenting your work to this group change the way you think about your research?

Alison: The Osher participants provided several stories of their own personal experiences with automobile traveling and competitive racing that worked to verify the historical experiences and narrative that forms the heart of my research. Their questions encouraged me to dig deeper into the personal histories of individual drivers to develop a greater understanding of their educational and family backgrounds as well as the reasons that prevented them from continuing to participate in automobile races by the early 1940s.

In what ways do you think material culture scholars are particularly well situated to bridge what is sometimes perceived as a “gap” between the public and academia?

Alison: Material culture scholars are particularly well suited to bridge the gap between academic research and public humanities because people from all different personal and educational backgrounds interact with objects like passenger automobiles on a daily basis. By studying objects, material culture scholars develop additional questions to pursue throughout their research projects that they may have missed by only studying document records. Since automobile racing history is not a widely studied topic highlighted in museum collections or academia, my research goals include developing public humanities outreach programs like this talk for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to educate people about dirt track automobile racing history.

On behalf of the Am Civ Blog, I extend special thanks to Alison for sharing her experiences with us today! We look forward to seeing her research progress. In the mean time, stay tuned this summer for more reflections on what Am Civvies are getting out of the Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI) fellowship training. 

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