Post contributed by Anisha Kar, Rebecca Krucoff, Heather Lewis, Katilin Millin, Makayla Ndu
We are students and professors who recently completed a new, interdisciplinary course sponsored by Art and Design Education and Historic Preservation in Spring 2020. Across the semester, both in person and on-line, we explored Pratt’s relationship to the social movements and student experiences that shaped the school and community during its first few decades and in the 1960s and 70s. Central to this work was exploring these histories in Pratt’s Archives and working with the Institute Archivist, Cristina Fontánez Rodríguez.
We discovered that Pratt’s Archives were rich in sources from its earlier history. However, searches for documents and images related to student activism at Pratt in the 1960s and 70s resulted in greater silences in the historical record. For example, although there were images and fliers from student protests in the School of Architecture in 1968, there were no images and few documents of the Black Student Union protests that took place in that same year. To address this silence, we conducted oral history interviews with Pratt alumni who were part of the Black Student Union. We discovered that these alumni were critical sources for understanding more about student activism at Pratt and that they were eager to contribute their memories, artifacts, photos and contacts to address historical silences.
Our original plan was to design an exhibit that would open in the library at the end of the semester but due to disruptions of COVID-19 we transitioned to on-line websites. In this transition process, we learned about digital humanities from visiting guests and applied their insights. Following are brief summaries of how we went about our research and some examples of what we found.
Pratt Institute: A Social Experiment
Anisha Karr, Graduate Student in Historic Preservation
Project Website: https://sites.google.com/pratt.edu/pratt-institute-an-experiment/the-richest-man-in-brooklyn.
The project originally began as a search for the hidden voices of Pratt Institute – the students, the teachers, even the laborers who worked at Pratt’s industries. I wanted to avoid Charles Pratt himself at all cost because like most of us, I believed that as a rich white man he would have nothing to contribute to this story. But as I began looking through archival materials, especially his diaries and the copies of the speeches he made to his students, I realized that he was a man whose voice had also been lost in the distance. I was amazed to find how intimately he was tied to the Institute. His personal philosophies and ideals governed the conception of the institute. He turned out to be nothing like I expected him to be, and the way the story of the institute intertwined with his life convinced me to shift the focus of my project to understanding Pratt Institute through his lens. In particular, to understand what this man set out to achieve – an all-inclusive education for Brooklyn’s working men and women.
Makayla Ndu, Graduate Student in Art and Design Education
Project Website: https://sites.google.com/pratt.edu/prattcommunity/home
My research focused on the students of Pratt Institute and what their experiences at Pratt were like from late 1800’s to the late 1900’s. In my search for information, I found the yearbooks the most interesting for many reasons. From the earliest yearbook on file at the Pratt library to the most recent, each one was designed and published by the students themselves. Each one shows the activities and student experiences on the Pratt campus, documenting the voices of students. At first, I started looking for the underdog in Pratt history and how Pratt has changed over time from their view. As I delved in deeper, I was inspired by the yearbooks and realized the true history of Pratt: the students. Working digitally made it easier to combine and condense information by a click of a button instead of starting all over from scratch. A website is forever with an internet connection, but a physical presentation could be lost by just the change in environment alone.
What if the Students are Right?
Kaitlin Millin, Graduate Student in Art and Design Education
Project Website: https://sites.google.com/view/1960s-1970s-activism-at-pratt/home
My research started at the Pratt Institute Library archives. There, I saw a letter from the engineering students in 1972 that outlined some demands that they made for curriculum revisions, changes in Pratt’s faculty, and new educational approaches within the Pratt community. After reading this letter I became interested in student voices of change within Pratt’s history. When I conducted an oral history with Larry Provette (Pratt, 72), it further sparked my interest in student activism on campus at that time and its significance to present activism on campus. After hearing Provette’s story about the campus lock up in 1969, I conducted additional archival and oral history research about diverse demonstrations and protests that took place on campus between 1968 through 1972. I became extremely interested and surprised by the lack of historical documentation of student activism on campus and the apparent hidden histories of the Pratt Institute. I found that a goal of mine over the course of my research was to bring to light who was involved, why the demonstrations happened, and what the outcomes were.
Reflections on Teaching a Hybrid Course
Rebecca Krucoff (Visiting Assistant Professor, Art and Design Education) and Heather Lewis (Professor, Art and Design Education)
Our students had little to no experience in archival research but in their first visit to the Pratt Institute Archives they immediately became interested in particular historical periods, events, people, and places, which they investigated through the archives and oral histories conducted in class. When we moved to an online format midway through the course, the students continued to explore their identified topics through Pratt’s digital archives. Upon reflection, it was critically important for students to engage first with the physical archival material before they investigated the digital sources. Students’ initial immersion in the physical archives proved to be open-ended, broad, but also deep in the sense that they looked more closely at particular sources. By the time students worked exclusively with the digital archives they had already identified a topic and taken photos of some of the non-digital sources. At first, the digital sources did not appear to provoke the same response as the physical—perhaps because so much of students’ world at the time was on-line. But this changed as students spent more time immersed in the digital photos and textual sources. Through an iterative process of interpreting and re-interpreting sources, developing and refining a narrative story, and presenting and revising their final project through power points and eventually a website, students used the virtual and physical archival sources and oral histories to uncover complexities and silences in Pratt’s institutional history.
Some of us will continue to teach the course as part of a grant-funded project (Pratt Strategic Planning) entitled, Preserving Community Activism Beyond and Between Pratt’s Gates. We will continue to conduct oral histories of students, community activists, and faculty who were part of the activism of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The overarching goal of the project is to foster a public dialogue within and outside Pratt about diversity, equity and inclusion through a historical lens. In addition to this course, other courses will be offered in the fall and spring semesters (20-21) that also consider Pratt’s history and its links to social activism.
We would like to thank the following Pratt alums who shared their oral histories with us and granted permission to deposit the transcripts and recordings in Pratt's Institutional Archives; Pat Cummings, Larry Provette, Ron Shiffman, and Connie Harold.