Academic Civic Engagement class partners with Faribault nature preserve to tell story of complex past
Antony Adler ’06 led an applied Academic Civic Engagement course this spring, History Beyond the Walls, in which the class used public history to explore the complicated past of the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault.
The land we’re on has a history. Few know that better than the students of HIST 216: History Beyond the Walls. An applied Academic Civic Engagement (ACE) course taught spring term by Lecturer in History Antony Adler ’06, the class used public history to explore the complicated past of a place only 20 miles from Northfield.
History Beyond the Walls centered on a partnership with the River Bend Nature Center (RBNC) in Faribault. The RBNC is a nature preserve that was opened in 1980 to provide environmental education and recreation opportunities to Faribault and surrounding communities. Although the opening of the RBNC is relatively recent, it sits on land with a deep and complex history.
“The story that could be told about that site is much bigger than the story of an institution in Faribault,” Adler said.
Like much of southern Minnesota, the land where the RBNC is now located was originally territory of the Dakota Nation, and was transferred to the U.S. government by the Treaty of Mendota in 1851. In 1879, what came to be known as the Faribault State Hospital was built, an institution for people with mental disabilities. The hospital permanently closed in 1998.
The State Hospital was then converted into the Minnesota Correctional Facility, the largest medium-security prison in Minnesota. The prison is still in operation and shares land with the RBNC, directly overlooking parts of the preserve.
Adler’s students worked directly with the RBNC to untangle these layers of history.
“What my students were doing is teasing that apart, saying that these are the topics that hold important stories worth telling,” Adler said.
The class’s project involved collecting oral interviews from people involved in the establishment of the RBNC, creating a timeline and map, and combining these elements into a website that documents the overall history of the RBNC land. The ultimate goal of the project was to tell the story of the nature center, support a complex understanding of the land and explore how the history of the site remains relevant to the RBNC today.
The students’ work will ultimately help the RBNC develop a historical interpretive plan for the site. The interviews the students conducted will also be housed at the Rice County Historical Society.
“Even beyond the work they completed for the RBNC, they’ve created important historical records for future historians,” Adler said. “They’ve done a lot!”
History Beyond the Walls is one of many ACE courses, which are taught every term at Carleton. Usually featuring a civic engagement project, ACE courses explore how course content can connect to real, local community work and social change. This particular course was last taught in 2019, but this is the first time it has partnered with the RBNC.
Adler noted that structuring the class as an ACE course came with both benefits and challenges.
“Unlike a regular Carleton class, where I know where we’re going at the end, when you’re starting a project like this, you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” Adler said. “That can be very challenging, because there can be dead ends. You don’t know where the research is going to take you, but that’s also the adventure of it.”
The timeline also presented a challenge, as the 10-week Carleton term can be difficult to align with the longer-term schedules of community partners. However, according to Adler, this served as a great exercise in accountability and producing a body of professional-quality work within a predetermined time frame.
“You have something at the end of the class that you can point to,” he said.
In addition to the project with the RBNC, the course served as a broader introduction to public history. Adler, who majored in history at Carleton before earning an M.A. in museology and Ph.D. in history from University of Washington, talked a lot with his students about museum exhibit design and working with community partners.
One section of the course, for example, covered the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) along with a range of other public history topics. Adler also brought in several guest speakers who work in museums, including the NAGPRA coordinator at the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography and the exhibit director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle.
Adler reflected on how these discussions about current practices in public history and museum studies paralleled the students’ work with the RBNC.
“I see some of the concerns and some of the ethical implications of that work reflected in our own project as well, at least in the way that we’re thinking about what we’re doing,” he said. “We’ve been looking at the history of the state hospital and the institutions that were established on that land. It’s a hard, challenging history to deal with. It’s a story of people who were subject to neglect, abuse and violence. Doing that in a careful way—thinking about what it means for restorative justice, thinking about the value of public history and the importance of telling stories that haven’t been told—that’s how I saw the connection.”
The history of the RBNC’s land connects to troubling and difficult histories in both Faribault and the U.S. generally. A significant piece of the institution’s history is the prevalence of forced sterilization, which connects to the larger history of eugenics in the U.S.
Adler reflected that there is no easy way to confront the horrific things that can appear in archives. It’s an issue he himself grapples with, stemming from this class as well as another he teaches on the history of science that deals with research on human subjects.
“Because [the histories] are challenging and horrific, it’s important that they not be forgotten,” he said. “You can recognize the historical importance of something without delving into the horror of it. But if you’re dealing with archival material, sometimes that’s just what you encounter. There are no content warnings when you’re in the archive. But my students handled it really well.”
The specifics of History Beyond the Walls as a course are shifting and temporary. Adler says that the next time this class is offered, it may be taught by a different member of the history faculty, with a different project, in a slightly different way. Even so, he is thrilled with the lasting impact his students were able to make for the RBNC and their work in documenting an important history.
“I was very impressed with this group,” he said. “They did a great job of tackling a very complex story.”