“I really hope there are no dead mice inside this box!” and “Has anyone seen my white gloves?” are not phrases heard too often in the classroom. But in professor Deirdre Clemente’s public history courses, students learn by doing – by getting off campus and into the community.
Clemente’s classes have worked outside in 110-degree weather, gotten harassed by an overly friendly coyote, and even ordered pizza at midnight because the installation just wasn’t finished. However, no one could have prepared for the Spring 2020 H. 750 course – a service-learning extravaganza focused on the Walking Box Ranch, a 1930s historic property built by Hollywood stars Clara Bow and Rex Bel outside of Searchlight, Nevada.
Their mission was set the first day of class in a meeting with their community partner, Friends of Walking Box Ranch (FWBR). The class would research, plan, and orchestrate a one-day, multi-faceted public event that brought UNLV students, faculty, and staff, along with nature enthusiasts, preservation types, journalists, artists, and local Searchlight residents to the property.
Over the course of the semester, students worked with FWBR members and BLM anthropologists, land managers, and press people who helped to shape the academic and practical elements of the service-learning course. These professionals offered students relevant course readings, career advice, and hands-on demonstrations of how to open 90-year-old windows.
In turn, the class gave their collaborators direction on how to up their social media game, a collection of oral histories of the ranch’s various owners, and a treasure trove of assembled, cataloged, and digitized photographs of the history of the Ranch plucked from the archives of UNLV Special Collections.
“Public history is, at its very heart, a collaborative endeavor, pulling together the academy, other institutions, and local partners,” says Clemente.
Central to the class was an enormous task – cataloging and organizing the nearly 2,000 objects of the Walking Box Ranch collection to be used as part of the interpretation of the property. Willed to UNLV by Rex Bell, Jr., this collection is a mixed bag of stuff. There are hundreds of metal scraps that upon closer examination are rusted animal traps, broken welding equipment, and tags for cattle. There are cowboy hats signed by silent screen stars, as well as Clara Bow’s makeup case and her favorite kimono. The objects needed to be sorted, studied, and documented in order to ascertain what could be returned to the ranch and what needed to find another long-term home.
Students brought in experts from UNLV to offer insight into what some of the crazy stuff actually was. A geologist with a background in ranching finally decoded a mysterious object – a long, hollow pipe with a thick wire running through it and an exposed loop on the end was actually a snake catcher. As a final project, one student created a lesson plan for teachers to use to teach the history of ranching and mining in Nevada.
“These kinds of interactions and active collaborations are central to the mission of Dr. Clemente's program, but also central to the mission of our College and University,” noted Jennifer Keene, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
Clemente’s service-learning classes always provide a deliverable that is specifically needed by the community partner. With this in mind, two students wrote walking tours focused on indigenous plant life around the property. Another curated an exhibition on Clara Bow to be exhibited at the Nevada Women’s Film Fest, a collaboration with Brett Levner in the UNLV film department. Others worked directly with the interpretative team at BLM to make a twelve-foot timeline to span the walls of the welcome center.
To round out onsite practice with classroom-based learning, students participated in workshops, orchestrated a wild-but-useful photoshoot, and spent an afternoon peer-editing press releases. Students also made a video “teaser” meant to be used on social media to invite the community to an onsite event at the ranch, scheduled for May of 2020.
Soon, however, the fate of Clemente’s H. 750 Spring 2020 class would be significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There would be no “Ranch Day” event in May. Students would not be able to explain their newfound interest in ranch domestic life to a local woman who had visited the property as a child or make their classmates taste mesquite pods.
While students and community partners were disappointed, ultimately Clemente realized that the Spring 2020 H. 750 class was not a failure – it was just different than what they had originally envisioned.
“The lesson learned was perhaps more in keeping with the ‘roll with it’ spirit that defines public history. Sometimes ‘the best laid plans’ don’t result in success as you first defined it,” said Clemente.
The bulk of the work done by Clemente’s students has made it into the real world. Since the class ended, almost every project has moved forward. Some incrementally and other with giant leaps. Visitors to the ranch can go on a walking tour created by one of the students. BLM is getting the money for the production of the timeline. Best of all, Clara Bow’s custom-made furniture is returning to the Ranch after 80 years and the 150-word labels written by students will help visitors understand the objects in their original context.
Clemente notes, “Our service learning delivers for our students, but also for our partners who may lack the resources, know-how, and/or people-power to do the work themselves. They need us and we need them.”
Jim Stanger, Board President of Friends of Walking Box Ranch, stated, “Although we are passionate about seeing the ranch site preserved and made available to the public, few in our organization had the breadth of knowledge about the site to speak with any sort of acumen before collaborating with the Public History team.”
In spite of the impact the pandemic had on Clemente’s service-learning class goals, students were still able to deliver. And, some of them continue to deliver. From the cohort of students in the 2020 class, five now work professionally in the field. These are students with UNLV MA degrees in history who are living and working in our city.
Not too often do we see students engage in a spirited discussion about whether or not to scrape the rust off of old pitch forks. Clemente’s students clearly understood the issue is not the rust, but about the history that the rust represents – and this understanding enabled them to push forward in spite of the pandemic.
The UNLV office of community engagement administers four university-wide awards each academic year to recognize campus individuals for their exceptional community engagement in the areas of service learning, community-based research, faculty/staff community outreach, and student service.