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Family History Writing: A Prototype for Local Service Learning


Suzanne is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Linguistics at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), where she teaches technical writing, multimedia, and family history writing. Her research interests include literacy studies, family and faith, writing in and with multiple media, and the intersections of cultural and digital rhetorics.

Text Box: Image of women in bathing suits goes here.?In a spring 2009 course on family history writing and service learning, students wrote portions of their own family history and then worked to help write an historical book for the Cottage Lake History Project. Data collected from student-participants and members of the organization revealed themes of collaboration, reflection, and reciprocity. These themes articulate the correlation between service learning and family history writing as well as shed light on what family history is and how service learning can be used in other historical, family based, and localized research projects. This article argues that a prototype course with small, seemingly insignificant, local efforts, such as working with our own families or working with two members of a little-known historical project, have immense value for long-term sustainability.

During the first half of the 16-week semester, students researched and wrote on their own family histories, using various qualitative research methods and fieldwork guidelines for archival research at the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center (ACPL)[1]. In the second half of the semester, the course shifted to helping a local organization called the Cottage Lake[2] History Project (CLHP).  Cottage Lake is about an hour from our campus.  The previous fall, two members contacted me for consulting advice on how to proceed with their large collection of interviews, images, and folklore from the lake’s inhabitants. They wanted to create a text of the lake’s history from the late 19th century through the 1960s. Students constructed research binders and narratives based on the data that CLHP members gave them. They organized and expanded the existing archive in order for future writers to more easily write the text. 

This course functioned as a “prototype,” part of Robert Bringle and Julie Hatcher’s (1996) sequence for implementing service learning which includes: Planning, Awareness, Prototype, Resources, Expansion, Recognition, Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Institutionalization (p. 224).  The activities of this sequence are not linear.  Rather there “may be numerous cycles back and forth across activities.” (p. 224-5). My course, Literacy and Family History, was for me a “prototype course” in which I developed the ideas of combining family history writing with service learning and explored how the two might function together.

After coding students’ data, I found interesting connections between family history writing and service learning. Further, I found three key themes which expound upon the nature of family history writing, service learning, and of this movement between Bringle and Hatcher’s activity sequence. The themes of collaboration, reflection, and reciprocity, while certainly familiar to service learning researchers, are themes which I have found also articulate the correlation between service learning and family history writing as well as shed light on what family history is and how service learning can be used in other historical, family based, and localized research projects.

At the beginning of the term, I invited students and members of CLHP to be part of my qualitative research about family history writing by allowing me to use their projects from class, blog or journal reflections, and interviews as data.  There were a total of ten students enrolled for the course: six undergraduates and four graduates.  Of those ten, eight opted to be research participants after the close of the term: five undergraduates and three graduates.  Student majors included English, History, Liberal Studies, and Social Science.  Also, both members of CLHP opted to participate.  It is upon these eight students’ and two community participants’ writing, data, and continued collaboration that I base this article.

Defininitions and Literature Review
Definitions of service learning abound, so much so that researchers such as Eric Sheffield (2005) have stated, “There are too many service learning definitions” (46), a fact which has prompted the “mis-understanding and the mis-practicing of the service learning pedagogy” (p. 47).  After reading and discussing such authors as Bringle and Hatcher (1996) , Prentice and Garcia (2000), Cushman (1999; 2002; 2002), Rhoades (1998), and Gere and Schutz (1998), students and I came up with our own working definition: Service learning incorporates 1.) sustainable reciprocity with a community organization, 2.) service to that organization as defined by their stated needs, 3.) direct connection of the service activities to course content and fulfillment of course objectives, and 4.) reflection in writing and discussion. 

Graduate students’ annotated bibliographies supported this working definition and offered several “topic specific” examples in the existing literature that show how family history writing is uniquely aligned for a service learning venture.  Such examples included Megan Norcia’s (2008) “Out of the Ivory Tower Endlessly Rocking: Collaborating across Disciplines and Professions to Promote Student Learning in the Digital Archive,” Natalie Ames and Stephane Diepstra’s (2006) “Using Intergenerational Oral History Service Learning Projects to Teach Human Behavior Concepts: A Qualitative Analysis,” and Mary Ann Levine, Kelly Britt, and James Delle’s (2005) piece “Heritage Tourism & Community Outreach.”

“Family history writing” is a phrase I use to describe a particular form of life writing, which is “a general term for writing about lives in various disciplines and modes” (Hobbs, 2005, p. 4).  It is the complex mix of researched materials and stories that distinguish family history writing from both genealogy and history writing.  Sherry Rankins-Robertson, a PhD student at Arizona State University, writes that “texts on family examine, define and construct the composition of a family’s history.  Family writing looks at the fabric of a family’s life and tells the stories—most often through researched writing” (2009, personal communication).  She further states that family history writing includes “research materials that examine a family’s lineage, location of immigration patterns, and/or family records; collections of oral traditions and tales; analysis of journals/memoirs/diaries about and/or by family members; visual family rhetoric, such as, photographs, maps, and pedigrees charts” (2009, personal communication). 

Text Box: Image of old journal page goes here.?If one thinks of a of family history writing as a complex weaving of research threads, its purposes and the story it tells are made clearer.  The warp represents those “factual” or “official” research pieces, such as census records, birth certificates, or obituaries.  The weft is represented by family lore, oral stories handed down, interview data from elders, and personal memories.

Primary documents could fall into either the warp or the weft.  A letter written from a WWI soldier to his mother is a “factual” document in that it is a period piece, an actual literacy artifact from his life.  But the contents of the letter more aptly reflect the weft: a contextualized exchange of insider knowledge and personal memories.  Also, students found during their research that “factual” evidence often conflicted, drawing into question the accuracy of the warp and the “falsehood” of the weft.

The written product and modes of students’ family history projects in the class were as diverse as the students writing them.  They included a heavily researched and verified family tree; multigenre research documents incorporating factual evidence, interview data, song lyrics, and fictionalized screenplay writing; an oral report on food traditions; a scrapbook keepsake; a website with wiki to establish community involvement with family; several historical narratives that incorporated primary and secondary documents as well as images into a cohesive narrative; and a research report of the trials faced when “verifiable facts” do not agree with one another. 

The first theme that emerged from my data is a key component of all service learning: collaboration between the community participation and the class.  Students’ comments within their blogs and written work indicate that collaboration is also a key component of family history writing, partly because the “creation of a family narrative reflects, in part, the consensus that the family has reached in co-construction its definition of family.  The family may use these ‘practices’ of co-construction to impart value to other family members and to reaffirm its beliefs (Reiss, 1989)” (Fiese and Sameroff, 1999, p. 11).  Collaboration and co-constructed family stories, along with collaboration in the writing of those stories, articulates a commonality between service learning and family history writing.


Student comments about collaboration focused on the relationships within their family between generations, between family members of the same generation, within the community in which the family resides, and with outside family history researchers.  Also, students’ blogs indicated that collaboration in family history writing and in their service to Cottage Lake was necessary for accuracy and, perhaps more importantly, for depth and richness in the writing.

A number of students commented on the types of connections that occurred between generations, both future generations and past.  Penny pointed out that by creating a history for her family, the younger generations can have “a sense of their roots.”  She wanted to use her work in the class as “a stepping stone to other projects in my family genealogy” with her daughter. In another blog entry, Penny noted that to create her family history project, she interviewed her mother, uncle, and last living sibling of her grandmother.  She also interviewed another aunt and several distant cousins or relations in hopes of finding out information about her ancestor.  The number of people that Penny contacted for information is impressive, but I find another comment she made more significant.  Penny wrote, “If nothing else, I’m thankful that this project gave a reason to have us visit my aunt.”  Penny here shows that while collaboration within family history writing begins with the search for data and fact, the relationships prompted by such a search are as important as the writing.

Erin had similar experiences with collaboration in her family during her family history project.  She wrote, “While researching my family history, I found that this type of research can often become a family—and in some ways a community—affair.”  Erin also spoke to the quality of information she found for her project when she collaborated with others.  She wrote, “I have found that the best resources are those people involved in genealogy or record preservation or older family members. During the last few months, I … learned more about my family and acquired more artifacts spending just one afternoon at my grandmother’s house or talking to her on the telephone for only 10 minutes.”  Erin noted that while searching through books and databases is important to family history writing, collaboration with her grandmother proved to be more helpful and more rewarding.  She wrote, “Family history can be done by a single person, but it becomes much easier and more fulfilling if it becomes a family or community affair.”

During the course, students found that collaboration with people was not only more fulfilling and even interesting than databases, but also “serendipitous.”   They found family data in places they’d least expect it: during an elevator conversation with a stranger, though a step-parent’s friend-of-a-friend, striking up a conversation while searching the stacks at ACPL, and, most surprisingly, while researching and interviewing about Cottage Lake for CLHP, even when their own family had no real connection to the lake.  Students found that there is a sort of fortune in meeting others who are related, able to help their research in a way they’d never plan, former neighbors or acquaintances of family, or, simply interested in family history and willing to help in the hunt for facts.

Other students pointed out more “traditional” service learning collaboration with the CLHP.  Alex pointed out that “from what we have learned so far, service learning is a giant tradeoff” between the class and the organization. He further listed some of the jobs he could perform to help them: typing notes, asking questions, and interpreting the data as a historian to help CLHP members make decisions.  He wrote, “Doing this would offer … a fresh perspective on a topic they may be too attached to and subsequently open new avenues of thought.  I had to remind myself that they are the experts and my job is to guide that expertise, not replace it.”  Here Alex has realized that the kind of collaboration one does in service learning really is collaborative.  He could not force CLHP toward a particular direction any more than they could force him to research in a particular way. There had to be give and take for the project to work. 

The collaboration with their family members and the CLHP members has continued.  When writing this article, several months after the close of the term, I am still receiving emails from excited students in the class who have finally made contact with someone or made a breakthrough in their ongoing projects. 

It seems then, that the collaboration that is so inherently part of service learning is also an inherent part of family history writing.  With the “public turn” in composition and rhetoric studies, it is interesting that the small, the local, and the interpersonal is still that which makes “civic” effort possible.  It is the combination of collaborations within and among individuals that creates community.  Without personal connections, any efforts “to go public” in our research are far less significant.  Further, the interconnection of individuals within a family speaks to the need for balance in efforts of public rhetoric.  Efforts to “get out of the ivory tower” (Cushman, 1999) are as significant when we “go home” as they are when we knock on legislative doors. 

Reciprocity, the second theme evident in my data, is distinguishable from collaboration.  Reciprocity, rather than being all participants working together toward a goal, focuses on the relationship between the participants.  It is an expectation that the class and the community organization will be mutually dependent upon one another, that each of us will “return in kind” anything given to us.  On the flip side, it is the expectation that all involve get some benefit from doing the work.

The reciprocity experienced in the more “traditional” service learning half of the course, with CLHP, is an example of what Gere and Schutz (1998) call a “reciprocal relationship.” Student learning “reinforces and strengthens” the service, and service in turn “reinforces and strengthens” (p. 20) the learning.  The reciprocity one could expect in a course such as mine that involved archival research is exemplified in Norcia’s (2008) “Digital Archive.” Norcia’s project shows that the benefit of doing archival and research-based service learning is the reciprocal relationship: “students inform archive, archive informs students” (p. 93). As with any service learning project, this course offered reciprocal exchange of knowledge. The community gains the service students provide; the students gain “real world” experience on which to build their careers. Tanja wrote:

our project … has morphed into what it is now and that is what the client needed. In rl (gamer jargon – real life), this is exactly what it is like; the client never knows exactly what they want and when they do, it isn’t always what they “really” want. This experience is giving all of us practical, real world experience. In this manner, [CLHP members] are providing us with a service because they are challenging us just to create a project.

Tanja also pointed out that she had to “reshape” her understanding of service learning when doing this project. She now sees service learning as “more eclectic and reciprocal” than she had thought. 

Students and members also shared a larger sense of purpose during the latter half of the term.  One member of CLHP wrote about this larger sense of purpose, “I believe there is an inherent need of people to find their roots….” Most students voiced a similar renewed sense of purpose after working with CLHP.  Erin wrote that it enabled her “to see the importance of historical preservation through artifacts and structures and physical things, not just names and dates, information and intangibles. More specifically, it made me consider how much history is contained even the smallest community.”  In his entrance essay, Alex wrote, “I feel that without service learning, many of the towns, events, or people that outsiders view as insignificant would never be fully understood.”  And Beth noted long after the close of the term: “I feel like we've made an impact that will last a lifetime….” 

More specific to this article, though, is the fact that reciprocity was a main theme and intent for students’ work within their own families.  Students saw the work they were doing in their family history projects as an act of service to younger generations (e.g. in hopes of youth continuing the writing) and to older generations (e.g. to honor their memory, as an act of respect, and as an act of thanks).  Many of them voiced that it was a way “to give back” to their parents or grandparents.  And as with Ames and Diepstra’s (2006) project, students saw the family history projects as a “building of intergenerational relationships” (p. 724). 

imageErin pointed out that when writing her analysis of the conflicting records of her ancestor, she was able to teach her mother, grandmother, and friends about family history research and writing, which prompted their own research.  She concluded, “In a sense, this reciprocal and reflective work with my Family History Project could be considered a form of service learning.”  Similarly, Penny noted that the “family history project helped me to take genealogy facts and put them into something tangible for the family.”  She wanted this tangible family story to help connect her children and grandchildren to their roots and to honor her ancestors.  Finally, Alex’s hope for his family history project was to provide “a work for my family that can last for years.”

As this was a writing course, certainly writing and reflection were a large portion of the course assignments and theoretical conversation within class and with our community participant.  In trying to articulate exactly how reflection was used by my students in both their family history projects and in their service learning with CLHP, I found Thomas Deans’ (2000) Writing Partnerships particularly useful.  His three paradigms for community writing – writing for the community, writing about the community, and writing with the community – aptly illustrate the constellation of uses that reflection and writing were put to during the semester.  While Deans states that most classes will suit one of the paradigms, he does note that some service learning courses may well fit within several of the paradigms.  This, I believe, was the case for my students. 

The texts and projects produced for both the family history and the service learning portion of the course most closely align with Deans’ writing-for paradigm. Students worked to craft keepsakes for family or for themselves as they explored the relationships between families, stories, fact and fiction.  For the family history projects, the fit within the writing-for paradigm is largely based upon the acts of preservation and the larger social issue that preservation addresses, and based upon the assumption that family history writing in the course was an act of service learning within a (familial) community. Similarly, the texts and research done for CLHP were specifically writing for their use.  Students worked to organize, fill out, and filter portions of CLHP’s archive into useable notes for a future writer to use when drafting the lake’s history.

To a lesser extent, this course was a writing-about program. The course began with the goal of helping CLHP write portions of their lake’s history. But because of the condition of their archive, time constraints, and CLHP’s most immediate needs, many students did less writing and more of what Alex called “secretarial work” in which they created binders of organized and more-thoroughly-researched data for a future writer to use as a resource. Moreover, the direct service that the class as a whole was able to offer CLHP was akin to what a writing center consultant might offer: questions about audience, purpose, and voice; suggestions for organizational patterns for the final text; and collective energy and excitement. 

Finally, while the service learning that took place during the semester with CLHP was more closely aligned to writing-for and writing-about, both students’ family history writing and the CLHP project were examples of the writing-with paradigm.  As with Deans’ description of the Community Literacy Center (Peck, Flowers, and Higgins, 2000), active and situated collaboration was a key component of both service learning projects; students had a vision for their family history project that usually was mitigated and conceived of according to collaboration with family members.  Similarly, students’ only sense of what was needed for CLHP was based upon collaboration with its members, though communication with CLHP has ceased at the completion of this article.  Further, students continue to email me updates as they and their families carry on their family research long after the completion of the course. 

Students’ reflective writing showed evidence of each of Deans’ paradigms. Students wrote about their learning process, the community needs, and the personal rewards of doing service learning (writing-for) for both their own family history projects and CLHP.  They wrote as a means to process their emotions and analyze “root social forces” at work within their home communities and Cottage Lake (writing-about).  And they wrote to construct active and situated learning relationships outside of the bounds of school (writing-with).  Further, reflection in context of the two halves of this course did several things for students.  Writing seemed to help them situation themselves as stakeholders in the two projects; writing enabled them to examine data and sift through “factual” information; and writing meant they were able to contribute to the histories they were building. 

In their own family history writing, most students felt like stakeholders because they had a vested interest.  Beth, for example, wrote, “Throughout the last 15 years, journaling (and now blogging) has been one way I attempt to figure out my life, and most recently the lives of my ancestors.”  Conversely, some students found that they had to work very hard to feel like stakeholders in their own families’ stories.  For instance, Hidi felt like an outsider because she wanted to understand her family’s history in a way that made members uncomfortable.  She wrote, “I guess what surprises and frustrates me most of all in this family history research-business is how strongly people want to cover up and/or deny their pasts. All I want to do is figure out where I came from before it's too late.”

In the same way, the more students reflected, the more they felt a part of the life of Cottage Lake.  During the term, Tanja wrote, “I feel like I am participating in this new or renewed focus in university. Civics, if you will.”   Penny wrote, “We are making an impact because we are fulfilling the goals and ideas that [CLHP members] have had. We are making a contribution to the preservation of history.”  And at the close of the term, Tanja wrote, “I now feel connected to an area that I hadn’t even heard of nine months ago…. Learning about the Lake has given me a vested interest. I am an outsider with a vested interest.”

Text Box: Image of Indiana house/cottage goes here.?Students’ reflections indicate, though, that they did not necessarily feel like stakeholders at Cottage Lake.  Hidi wrote of her involvement, “Service learning turned out to be quite different than what I had originally expected.…  I had wanted to feel more involved, but ended up feeling detached.”  And Erin wrote, “I still haven't figured out how some of their local history is important to a wider audience, but I am probably more appreciative of what is invested in preserving history even at the smallest level of community.”

Reflecting allowed students to take time to really examine their research process, the viability of sources, and ways of connecting “facts” with stories.   Making connections between often-disparate data is triangulation that, as Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater (2006) put it, “is the heart of the fieldworking process, distinguishing it from library research or observational reportage” (p. 432). By doing so, students felt more prepared for graduate school (Beth), more prepared for careers (Alex, Erin, and Tanja) and better equipped to continue similar research activities (Penny). 

A reoccurring theme throughout their reflections was to question the validity of their sources and how to combine “the personal” with more traditional academic sources.  For her family history project, Erin wrote, “The experience of writing about my family history was much more reflective than I expected….. Instead of only presenting “facts” about family (e.g. names, birth dates, and marriage dates), I analyzed those “facts” and wrote about my research process as much as my family history.”  Hidi also struggled with how to present this combination of researched and personal data.  She wrote:

I'm starting to uncover family stories, but I'm also digging into the facts (dates, certificates, publications, etc.) that complicate the stories.... Do I then write about the facts? Do I ignore the facts and write down the story? Do I write them both down side-by-side and let my readers (including family) decide what they want to? What are the consequences of all three methods of "delivering" my family history?

Erin reflected after the close of the class that family history is a sort of “organic thing.”  There is more to it than simple “facts.”  In a follow-up email, she wrote, “There are the stories and the pictures and artifacts that come with stories and significance and a rich history that can be documented, discussed, theorized and written about.

In relation to the CLHP, students struggled with similar questions about the validity of facts and making sense of their research. Penny wrote, “I found that writing the blog was a very useful tool in my research for both projects as it helped me keep focus and on track…. research doesn't always give you the information that you are looking for. I also learned that not finding something still contributes to the research.”  And Alex wrote, “In the process of providing such a service, I learned more about possible limitations of research. I also learned that when a problem arises, there are multiple avenues to explore to find a solution.” 

Finally, reflecting allowed students, in a sense, to contribute to their own histories. Erin wrote, “By working on this project and discussing family history in class, I also came to think of family history as something you do or create and not just something you find.”  Penny noted that she agreed with the statement “we learn more about what we know as we draft” (Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater, 2006, p. 421).  And Hidi wrote,

imageI also have found that even though our individual projects may seem so small and insignificant (even incomplete), together they help to connect entire families with their past, creating a web work of stories and facts that will provide a larger story for researchers and historians in the future as they look back to create a picture of who we were.

Conclusions and Implications
Ultimately, valuing communities and histories begins with seeing ourselves as invested and interwoven with those communities and histories.  Service learning ventures are uniquely poised to illustrate this fact to students.  But a more significant implication exists that speaks to the very nature of “going public” with our scholarship.  If we, as researchers of service learning, begin our efforts by first investigating, investing in, and theorizing the “private world” of our first communities (e.g. families), how much more will we then have to share with “the public.”  If true give and take and collaborative interdependence is a goal of service learning, then even the most small, seemingly insignificant, local efforts, such as working with our own families or working with two members of a little-known historical project have immense value for long-term sustainability.

Service learning, when it truly is local, shows substantial movement (both theoretical and literal) between self, the classroom, and “the community.”  Though certainly not without problems, students’ efforts in my class showed this movement as well as interplay between past and present. 

Though even some students in the class argued against the significance of both projects – Hidi, for example, had “trouble justifying work I'm doing as a real need of the CLHP and the greater community” – the class did function as a “prototype” for building communities.  As Tanja pointed out, “we made a different in two people’s lives.”  It provided what Bishop (2003) calls a “move beyond isolation” (p. 267).  Bishop advocates that we all “need to essay our lives.  In doing so, we never arrive at the end of things but agree to linger thoughtfully, painfully, ecstatically, along the way, in the company of others, in the agency of our words” (p. 267).  The course provided the means to reflect, collaborate, and to offer back to others what we’ve been given.  It was a small, local attempt at looking at that which is “insignificant.”  And from it, we can develop larger, long-term and perhaps more significant change.


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[1] ACPL is located in Fort Wayne, IN and contains the largest public genealogy archive in the United States.  It is second in size only to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT, which has some sections that are not open to the public.

[2] The lake’s name has been given a pseudonym.

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