Speeding Up the Experiential Learning Process

Experience enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.” Franklin P. Jones

How do you know when you’ve hit the “floor” of an Archaic Native American pithouse? How do you keep from digging right through the floor and losing the original context of any artifacts imbedded in that stratum?

How can you tell if a shed-roofed addition on the back of a mid-twentieth century Ranch house is historical? How do you explain that, although it wasn’t part of the house’s original construction, it’s still a contributing element of that building’s eligibility under the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)?

How can you tell if a local community actually wants to preserve a valuable building because it’s historically important? How can you find out if they just want to use historic preservation to stop a construction project that they believe will reduce nearby home values?

The short (and ambiguous) answer: there are lots of ways to know.

The long (and more satisfying) answer: it depends on what you know, who you know, and how you go about collecting and maintaining your information.

Experiential learning is at the heart of cultural resource management, heritage conservation, and historic preservation. While we collect mountains of degrees and certifications, our experiences as heritage conservationists is the true wellspring of knowledge that we will all draw upon to help us out of these sticky situations.

You can’t truly know the answers to those questions I posed above until you’ve been through it or know someone else that has been through these experiences. Fortunately, you don’t have to know everything in order to figure out all the answers.

Here are three tips for speeding up the experiential learning process:

Build upon your own personal experience- The best way to learn how to solve a problem is to have solved a similar problem in the past. Working projects is one of the best ways to learn how to navigate historic preservation and heritage conservation laws. Whenever you work in cultural resource management, you will be constantly faced with myriad situations where you have to use logic to find an answer that will satisfy as many stakeholders as possible. These experiences build upon themselves until you have a personal database of answers that will help make your job easier.

Learn by doing more. Don’t just stop with “doing your job.” Go the extra mile. As often as possible, try to help your co-workers and acquaintances with their projects. Always seek to know more about your craft.

Use your Network- In addition to tapping into your own database of experience, you should also make attempts to tap into the databases of others that know more than you. In the United States, historic preservation has been around for almost 200 years. Other countries have much longer traditions. There are, undoubtedly, dozens of experts that know more than you about the history and heritage of any given community. Seek them out and ask them for help.

You can start by reading the historic preservation recommendations in other quality cultural resources reports written by other preservationists you trust. You can also participate in a listserv for historic preservationists and CRMers. The American Cultural Resources Association listserv (ACRA-L) is a great place to start.

Using the Golden Rule is one of the best ways to collect information. Make sure people know you are going to reciprocate in the future if they help you today. Organizing information collected from myriad sources is an important way of keeping it readily accessible whenever you need it. Helping others first, is an even better way to create obligations BEFORE you need help.

Have a system for storing information- The learning process involves collecting information, but it also depends on how you go about attaining info and what you do with it after you have collected it. How many times have you asked someone for an article or report and they’ve said, “I know I’ve got it, but I can’t remember where I left it.”

The cultural resource and heritage conservation laws we work under prescribe the possible outcomes of any conservation or preservation project. Anyone can learn, but rarely used skills are easily forgotten. You must have a system for storing all the information you collect. Remember, you will need to know an astonishing array of facts, skills, and connections if you want a fruitful career in historic preservation or cultural resource management. Keep this information logically stored away.

Answering the difficult questions

In case you wanted to know, the floor of an Archaic pithouse (at least in Arizona) is characterized by several laminated, thin lenses of sediment with charcoal flecks and occasional artifacts. A good way to find the floor is to dig a trench or shovel probe until you punch through and reach sterile. You should be able to separate the floor from the house’s fill from the profile in that trench. Use your sense of feeling to shovel or trowel away the fill while leaving the floor intact.

The shed-roofed addition’s significance strongly depends on the period of significance you’ve identified for the house. The simplest line of deduction goes like this: if you’ve chosen a period of significance that includes the period when the addition was built, then the addition MAY be considered a contributing element.

Or, you could check out the National Park Service (NPS) Bulletin on Evaluating Suburbs.

You never truly know if a community is trying to stop a construction project by using historic preservation laws to stymie development. Communities are made of individual actors that can, sometimes, coalesce to form a block that can try and stop a construction project. As a cultural resource manager, it isn’t really our job to figure that out for our clients. But, if you have a personal interest, you can try to contact the ringleader that is trying to block the project and ask about their intentions.

Learning from our experiences is an important part of working in cultural resource management, historic preservation, or heritage conservation. Each project is another chance to increase our knowledge. But, you can also expand what you know by giving an extra effort, networking against a backdrop of reciprocity, and keeping all this information clearly organized.

We are all looking for shortcuts about how we can learn more, faster, and cheaper. Those three tips are a good starting place.

I would really love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

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