U of FL’s Preservation Institute: Nantucket

Students conducting social science field research at PI:N.
Students conducting social science field research at PI:N.

Since 1972, over 600 students have participated in the University of Florida’s historic preservation summer field school on the island of Nantucket (Massachusetts, USA) known as “Preservation Institute:Nantucket” or “PI:N”. Students need not be previously enrolled at the U of FL for courses; the main requirement is that students must normally have a bachelor’s degree. Students from all disciplinary backgrounds are welcome.

For most of its history, the major focus of this program, which is the oldest of its kind in the country, was on the documentation of the historic environment. For the past few years, however, under its new director, Morris Hylton, III, the scope of the program has broadened to include World Heritage and planning aspects, including the use of applied social sciences in built heritage conservation practice. I am not aware of any other field school with this latter component. (I should also note that under Prof. Hylton’s guidance, the program now also offers students to ability to gain experience in laser scanning the built environment, which is also rather unique.)

Since 2011, I have been a guest lecturer in PI:N, teaching applied social science methods to students. While I provide a broad overview of qualitative and quantitative social science research methods and how they fit into built heritage conservation practice, I focus on the type of methodologies and methods that can be quickly utilized in short field sessions; in many ways, this pragmatic, efficient approach to applied research mirrors the same conditions of professional planning practice that doesn’t have the time and money to conduct social science research over long periods of time. While my students are aware of the limitations of rapid methods, they also understand that they are easier to apply toward practice.

This year, PI:N students were able to try qualitative case studies using interviews and non-participant observation along with survey research. One of the things that works really well in this context is that the students get a much better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative methodologies because all students address the same research question, but come at it from different perspectives. Each year, I work with students to come up with a guiding research question and specific sub-questions that they answer with the data they gather and analyze. This year, the students were trying answer the question as to why people come to Nantucket, focusing on the image of the island, people’s familiarity with its history, specific aspects of value, and expectations.

I thought the students did a particularly good job this year in their data gathering, analysis, and group presentation, with many insightful observations and a clear interest in understanding the relationship between people and place. What is wonderful about this experience is that I learn more about Nantucket and the people who live and visit here than I ever would as a simple visitor. There’s a good deal of depth of understanding that everyone, including myself, appreciates in the process.

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