Teaching soft skills — and emotional honesty

My internship has been pretty monotonous lately. You get into a groove when you develop programs and materials for a new exhibit. It’s almost like a conveyor belt: you research using new resources — you fit the new information into the themes and learning objectives identified for the exhibit — you figure out how best to disseminate that information in engaging and relevant ways. Great in terms of learning new things, but not so much for writing fun blog posts.

So instead, I’ll write about something that’s been on my mind lately: soft skills. I’m talking about everything that’s not explicitly taught in school — what “business casual” means, how to make a phone call, how to write professional emails, how to work with people from different departments… All skills that, most often, students and young professionals are expected to learn on the job and pick up from other people.

I’ve been thinking about this because, at NMAJH, we’ve taken on two teen interns from the Cultural Alliance’s Bloomberg Arts Summer Internship program. In this program, interns spend three full days at a cultural institution, and two days learning professional skills and preparing to apply to college. While they’re working on projects that involve multiple departments, they have been reporting directly to me, and the nature of the program encourages me to be a mentor figure to them.

This puts me into a bit of a peculiar position — not only am I an intern myself at another institution, but I am very new to this career, and this is my first managerial position. Also, the transition from part-time/temporary/intern to full-time staff has been a difficult one for me, as I deal with mental health issues, impostor syndrome, increased responsibilities, and other adjustments.

So I feel like I’ve been more in tune with identifying these soft skills — what do I wish I knew when I entered the working world, what are these teens’ needs, and how can I make this truly a learning experience for them?

So far, this has included things like explaining why I’m making various decisions, describing behavior for sitting in on potentially-boring meetings, explaining aspects of our office culture in relation to broader trends, and trying to be as honest as possible as often as possible.

That honesty about how I’m feeling — in general but also about certain tasks like public speaking — I’ve found has become more and more important as I navigate the professional world while dealing with mental health issues. The “fake it ’til you make it” facade of responsibility and functionality is so pervasive in the working world. Of course, that’s important for productivity, but can create a burdensome environment for those struggling with mental health issues, who are led to believe that they are suffering alone and thus are failing at their job.

This issue has been in the news lately, with one woman sharing an email exchange with her boss about needing a mental health day. Part of this story’s popularity is the sheer surprise that the CEO of a company would acknowledge the existence of mental health needs, let alone supporting a day off to do self-care. In fact, I had a conversation with a different (college) intern about this issue — she was so scared to confess a mental health need to her boss that she cried while doing so. We had a great conversation about the importance of communication, about validating our respective mental health needs, about how yes mentally ill people exist in the workforce.

Not only does being open and honest about mental health in the worksplace encourage taking care of oneself, but it also acknowledges the fact that most soft skills take time to learn, and that many seemingly-professional adults struggle with phone calls, public speaking, and other skills. Additionally, thinking of these issues and having these conversations have encouraged me to be more honest with myself as well, acknowledging the resources I have, identifying comfort levels, making choices that lead to higher quality and productivity of work.

And, how has this translated to managing the Bloomberg interns? It’s mostly been through casual validation of their fears and concerns. The projects I’m giving them involve a lot of research, socializing with strangers, writing, and other intimidating tasks. One of my main focuses has been to let them know that it’s okay to be worried or scared about doing these things, while gently encouraging them to push through and try new things.

Not only does this lead them to learning and developing new skills, but hopefully will help with confidence and comfort in general. And, ideally, it will do the same for me too.

Back at AAMP!

I took a two-week hiatus from my internship at AAMP, due to some reasons that I’m not going to specify, but it’s not difficult to figure out what’s going on. I needed some time to put in extra hours at NMAJH, rest, wrestle with my feelings, and maybe try to actually do some laundry. (Which I did! Finally!)

But I returned yesterday, not having missed too much, ready to dig into AAMP’s special exhibition, PhilAesthetic. We’ve mainly been working on developing workshops – activities with students relating to the exhibition that can happen outside of, or following, a tour. The other interns came up with really great ideas, such as diving into specific art methods or looking at paintings through unexpected lens.

My workshop is an effort to explore the multi-genre nature of the Black Arts Movement. At the time, curators and critics restricted Black artists from their museums and galleries, often claiming that white artists were simply more talented. In order to increase access and reach their audiences, many artists within the Black Arts Movement would spread across different genres, including poetry and music. Art became performative, with some artists even bringing their work to the street corner in their neighborhood for everyone to experience.

At the same time, artists associated with the Black Arts Movement did not necessarily move in the same direction; it was a conversation or even a debate, with artists having wildly different opinions to a number of questions. What does a Black aesthetic look like? Do Black artists even need to exhibit a Black aesthetic? What role does Pan-Africanism play? Violence against white supremacy?

My workshop then would explore both themes of multi-genre art and the non-conformity of opinion within the Black Arts Movement. It would start with a discussion of these two topics, and then introduce a prominent non-visual artists of the Black Arts Movement, such as poet Nikki Giovanni. The workshop facilitator would then read aloud one of her poems (maybe “Always There Are the Children,” “Knoxville, Tennessee,” “Nikki-Rosa,” or “Revolutionary Dreams”…). Once, for students to listen and maybe ask about any new words, and then again, for the main activity: while the poem is being read, students can draw their interpretation of the poem. What they imagine, what they feel, something representational, something abstract, whatever calls to them. Students could then share what they drew and why.

(Well, it’s a work in progress…)

I have really been enjoying finding new ways to engage with a topic while on a tour. Museum education trends in general have been moving towards interactive, engaging, non-lectures, which is fantastic, but there are times when we need to move beyond talking in general. Personal, relevant, enriching discussions is so great at times, but too often I’ll have students on a tour that refuse to talk, no matter what I do. (Which I understand, since I was 100% that student in school!) Finding these alternate activities – touching a replica, creating a tableau vivant, drawing a picture, these are all ways to get even those quiet students to participate. It’s all about changing up learning strategies, to give students something unique, meaningful, and fun!

And, since I’ve been forgetting…..

Hours this week: 15
Hours so far: 37.5

Worksheets: the bane of my existence

It’s hard to not make assumptions about students. About how they’ll behave, what they’ll understand, what their interests are… When creating lesson plans and other educational programs, I do my best to imagine how a hypothetical student would react to a particular question or story, but it’s hard to do that tucked away in an office and sitting behind a computer.

At AAMP last and this week, I got to put myself squarely into the minds of a student seeing an exhibition for the first time. Now, I’ve been to AAMP before, but I confess that I’ve always skipped right past half of their core exhibit, Audacious Freedom, also known as “the timeline room.” The gallery, dominated by a mural of important figures and other images relating to the Black community in early Philadelphia, has always been darkened by other visitors in the middle of watching a narrated timeline projected onto the walls.

So, worksheets in hand, we were tasked with scouring the timeline to answer questions that students presumably would on tour.

This worksheet involved finding specific people, after which students can choose two more to learn about. I always enjoy educational activities that include drawing!

Admittedly, many of the worksheets were difficult! Occasionally, information was difficult to find or contradictory, such as a worksheet asking about the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” while the label read “Gradual Emancipation Act.” Or, directions were unclear, such as a worksheet asking to compare two figures, and literal-minded me tried and failed to compare their disparate opinions and life accomplishments, instead of the worksheet’s goal of imagining and comparing their general life circumstances.

To be fair, we were completing the worksheets to work towards revising them, in addition to getting to know this gallery. But how many worksheets have I created at NMAJH, anticipating how students would use them without testing them myself?

There’s not too much longer until PhilAesthetic opens, and I can’t wait to jump into the galleries to talk about the Black Arts Movement. But in the meantime, I’m reminded what it’s like to explore a new museum for the very first time, hunting down facts and images that may seem obvious to seasoned staff, but not to me.

Some thoughts while I prepare to both be and have an intern…

I’ve just finished my second week, and first full day, of my internship at the African-American Museum of Philadelphia, and I haven’t really done anything blog-worthy yet. And I’m perfectly okay with this! Instead of jumping into my eventual projects, I’ve had a useful and meditative introduction to what will be my second home over the summer, as well as a chance to compare it to what I remember of being an intern at NMAJH…

Internships at NMAJH, at least in my department, can be pretty precarious. Behind the scenes, we have plenty of interesting, meaty projects people can work on. (That’s how I became involved in Becoming American!) But it’s a very fast-paced department, with multiple large projects happening at once that often overwhelm. We often rely on “learning by doing,” digesting new information through the process of preparing new curricula and docent guides, or through attending the trainings and lectures we arrange for docents.

So I was pleasantly surprised when, at my first full day of my AAMP internship, we all sat down for about 3 hours to discuss a number of scholarly articles relating to their upcoming exhibition, PhilAesthetic. We had been given the articles as homework — overviews of the Black Arts Movement as well as features on specific artists like Richard Mayhew. This was an incredible help for me: I’m relatively new to both African-American history and art history, so the readings made it easy for me to feel out of my depths. Taking the time to discuss the information helped me to gain ease in discussing these issues, an ease which will become important for leading tours where, as a white person, I’ll be expected to talk about the Black Arts Movement and how artists worked through issues related to oppression, resistance, and identity.

This has gotten me thinking about how non-Jewish interns at NMAJH, particularly those in education who will give a tour at some point, have acclimated to our subject matter. To be fair, it’s not a direct comparison; the exhibition’s narrative focuses on Jews as an ethnic group, more than a religion or culture. For example, knowing about kashrut (dietary restrictions) is only important for interpreting the story of the Trefa Banquet. Issues of Jewish identity, fears of intermarriage, disagreements between denominations, and other trickier topics. Meanwhile, if I give a tour of PhilAesthetic, I may have to discuss Amiri Baraka’s controversial views on what it means to be “Black enough,” using violence to end racism, and sexism…

(A side note disclaimer that, of course, NMAJH has non-Jewish staff and docents. But they all pretty much started years before me, so by the time I started, they had all gotten used to the “office culture”…)

Perhaps I’m just getting too hung up on these issues of identity and speaking about groups you are or aren’t a part of. I’ve long been fascinated by ideas of “belonging” and “exclusion,” and so it’s been so interesting to see how those ideas function in ethnographic museums. Until now, I’ve been focused on observing visitors in this situation, but how does it affect staff as well? A non-Jewish friend commented to me the other day that she’s always thought that she wasn’t allowed to go to Jewish museums, but I’ve even had other friends ask if they have to be Jewish to respond to job ads. (No, of course not, that’s illegal!) What level of knowledge does a non-Jewish or non-Black person need to give tours at NMAJH or AAMP, and how much ownership of that knowledge can/should they take?

These are humongous questions that I’ve been interested in exploring (although I’ve been struggling to fit them into the mold of a thesis project). But in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what I can do for our interns, especially our non-Jewish ones, to help them be comfortable with our environment and content. I’ve always been a huge proponent of checking in, encouraging questions, defining Hebrew terms, etc, but is that enough? Or am I just making too big a deal out of what’s actually a non-issue?