Grad students hone communications skills at institute
From left, art conservation graduate student Christina Cole, institute coordinators Joyce Hill Stoner and Matthew Kinservik, and Journalist Erickson Blakney chat before an interview session.
Journalist Erickson Blakney interviews Christina Cole about her research into Native American quillwork.
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10:31 a.m., June 12, 2009----Graduate students enrolled in the University of Delaware's Public Engagement/Material Culture Institute (PEMCI) were on the hot seat being videotaped as they were interviewed about their research.

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Outreach and engaging the public are vital to museums' and other institutions' missions, and PEMCI's goal was to give the 12 students in the program the tools to reach the public and share their knowledge and enthusiasm about their research.

PEMCI is a practical, intensive, two-week, hands-on program where students learn by doing. They write press releases, visit museums to learn about their outreach programs, talk to journalists, learn about photography and get lessons on public speaking.

One daylong session involved learning how to give TV and radio interviews. Erickson Blakney, a television journalist who has been associated with Bloomberg, and Lisa Hatcher, a corporate consultant who has her own company, Now You're Talking, ran the workshop.

Blakney first gave the students some succinct tips on mastering media interviews. “You become the reporter,” he said “and ask yourself who, what, where and how and why me?” Then, he said prepare yourself to promote your and your organization's ideas and get ready for the interview by reviewing the show or publication.

He suggested making a list of talking points and distilling those down into three core messages and preparing concise and positive sound bites.

“Keep your language simple, be careful of technical jargon and insider lingo,” Blakney said. “Remember, you are the expert so relax.”

Then it was into the UD TV studio for each student to be in the spotlight for an interview by Blakney.

Christina Cole, whose research involves Native American quillwork, has a chemistry background. Blakney questioned her about the importance of her research. Preserving the quillwork and their colors is important for collections, she said, and her research involves identifying the sources of dyes so the colors can be preserved. Identifying the dyes is like sifting through evidence at a crime scene, Cole said, but analysis can be carried out by outside facilities with a minimal investment for collections.

Jennifer Fang discussed her research, which deals with Chinese immigrants' links to Chinese cultural practices as they move from Chinese neighborhoods into suburban areas. She said she intends to do oral histories about the experiences of being Chinese in America and how they keep and create their identities.

The afternoon sessions featured more informal, “man-on-the-street” type interviews with quick on-the-spot questions.

LaTanya Autry answered questions dealing with the history of American lynching and memorial activities. Lynching and African American racial issues need to be addressed and recognized, she said, and usually a group of citizens will get together and memorialize events with historical markers, statues or plaques. “It can be a long process,” she added.

Cheryl-Lynn May was asked about the tradition of embellishing miniature portraits with fabric. She said adding fabric gave them a tactile and three-dimensional appearance. She focused on the work of Mary Way (1769-1833) who earned her living in Connecticut and New York by painting miniatures and adding fabric. Way represents the ingenuity of early American women who learned to use what they had on hand, May said.

Hatcher critiqued each student's presentation in terms of posture, voice projection, distracting behavior and how they responded to questions.

The students said they found the PEMCI useful and helpful in improving their communication skills. Cole said she learned to speak like a “regular person” about her research in quillwork and not use technical terms. She also has become more aware of how others perceive her project.

Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, whose project is how the Mississippi River is represented in maps, paintings and other images in the mid-19th century, said the sessions helped her become more aware of how and why her research was important to a larger audience.

Beth Williamson whose research deals with the history of the Disability Rights movement in Berkeley, Calif., said the institute taught her to express ideas quickly and to strip her words down to the basics. She also said that learning how to write a press release, which was edited and critiqued by Hatcher, was useful.

PEMCI is funded by a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is coordinated by Joyce Hill Stoner, professor of art conservation and director of the UD Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, and Matt Kinservik, professor of English. The taped interviews are given to the students and also sent to NEH.

Article by Sue Moncure
Photos by Evan Krape