Whether you are still in school, a recent graduate of a public history program, or looking to change positions, NCPH offers a job listing, updated weekly, to aid in your search.
Additional Career Links:
“Advising Undergraduates about Career Opportunities in Public History.” Melissa Bingmann. AHA Perspectives on History, March 2009.
“History for Dollars,” David Brooks column for the New York Times, June 7, 2010.
“Ten Ways to Gain Experience in Preservation” website from the National Trust for Historic Preservation Career Center
“Careers for History Majors, A Miniguide from the American Historical Association”
“Careers in Public History,” webpage from the American Historical Association
“Beyond Academe” website (for graduate students)
“Beginning a Job Search” webpage
Promotion and Tenure
How should public history work be recognized and rewarded in promotion and tenure decisions?
“Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian,” a report offering best practices for evaluating public history scholarship in history departments, was adopted by the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Executive Board on April 8, NCPH’s Board of Directors on June 3, and the American Historical Association (AHA) Council on June 5, 2010.
Public history work, the report confirms, is generally overlooked in a “tenure process that emphasizes single-authored monographs and articles at the expense of other types of scholarly productions.” Despite increasing interest in public history, public scholarship, and other forms of civic engagement in colleges and universities, current standards in history departments and deans’ offices for evaluating historical scholarship “do not reflect the great variety of historical practice undertaken by faculty members.” Even departments that hire faculty specifically to teach public history often neglect to reward those historians for carrying out the range of public history activities required in their jobs.
The report provides clear advice for college and university administrators, department chairs, and faculty. It begins with an overview of existing promotion and tenure standards, analyzes the growing interest of college and university administrators in community engagement, and suggests how public history work should be evaluated as scholarship, teaching, and service. The committee that conducted this study hopes it will have ramifications beyond academia, perhaps in organizations, such as federal or state agencies, where the work of public historians is evaluated in promotion decisions.
Reflecting a long conversation on the subject stretching back to the early 1990s, “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Historian” is, in a sense, the culmination of the work of multiple NCPH, AHA, and OAH committees over the years. The AHA Task Force on Public History’s 2004 report had exhorted the association to reopen the discussion about what counts in the work of history faculty. Participants in a town hall meeting convened by the OAH Committee on Public History at the 2007 OAH Annual Meeting emphasized the urgency of addressing how departments evaluate public history work. In April 2007, the NCPH Board of Directors voted to undertake a formal study of this issue, inviting the AHA and the OAH to form the Working Group on Evaluating Public History, which authored the current report.
“Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian” also builds upon the 2008 report of Imagining America, a national consortium of colleges and universities dedicated to public scholarship and engagement in the arts and humanities. Imaging America’s report, “Scholarship in Public,” concluded that if colleges and universities truly want to embrace public engagement as an institutional value, they must not only establish a tenure process that expands the definition of “what counts” for purposes of tenure, but also create a broader definition of “who counts” in terms of peer review. The NCPH, OAH, AHA report also makes this point.
How I Became a Public Historian
Before I became a public historian, I was a museum professional. Over the course of my work and my education, I have come to think of those two professional identities as complementary but distinct.
As an undergraduate American Studies major, I found my way into museum work through an internship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. There, I had the good fortune to work for Edith Mayo, who was the women’s history expert in what was then called the Division of Political History. Mayo took me under her wing and through the locked doors of the museum’s collections, where I handled artifacts that didn’t simply interest me. They moved me.
As a student of American history and culture, I had been trained to believe that historians were objective and that the most scholarly historical narratives were therefore unemotional. So, I tried to hide the fact that the banners crafted by the National Woman’s Party and the jailhouse door pin Alice Paul gave to protestors who were arrested outside Woodrow Wilson’s White House quite literally brought tears to my eyes.
I quickly discovered that the Smithsonian’s exhibits moved our visitors, too. I often answered letters from visitors moved with pride–or with anger–by the installation of particular artifacts or the interpretation of particular pasts. Typically, I responded to these missives with little more than a nod to emotion and with far more than a page-worth of historical context to explain the interpretive process behind museum display. I’m certain these letters didn’t answer the real question most visitors were trying to ask: is there space for me in this history?
I left the Smithsonian in 1995, after accepting a job as the curator of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. When stakeholders at the Jewish Historical Society—visitors, donors, members, community organizers—discovered that I was neither a native Washingtonian nor Jewish, they asked me some variation of the same question: “Why do you care?” Invariably the question was not a defensive one. Rather, it conveyed a real curiosity about my role in the life of the community.
And, indeed, I had no satisfactory answer.
Their question forced me to confront the fact that I might love history and appreciate artifacts, I might be an excellent researcher and a good writer, but I did not know anything about what it meant to be a public historian. I did not know what my role should be in helping a community define itself. I did not know how to be both scholarly and of service.
The past is meaningful in the development of community ties; no amount of intellectual distance will change that. For me, the necessary work of balancing service-oriented interest in community life with scholarly interest in historical research and narrative makes public history exciting—not to mention frustrating, awe-inspiring, and rewarding.
Today, I am an Assistant Professor of History and coordinator of the public history track in the Department of History, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I am honored to be training the next generation of public historians who will respond to visitor outrage with more empathy than I felt free to express when I began my career 17 years ago. As an active member of the National Council on Public History, I find that I am among friends who understand in a personal and profound manner that history and emotion are not mutually exclusive—nor are service and scholarship.
When I was nine, my father, an attorney with a passion for history, told me that historians worked in archives where they read and worked with objects from the past. That, combined with all the stories my older sister told me about Henry VIII and his wives, was enough to get me hooked: I couldn’t imagine anything better than being an historian.
At Vassar College, I majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies while fulfilling the requirements for a history major. After college, I worked at The Walters Art Gallery. I loved the emphasis which museums placed on public education.
When I began my doctorate in history, I believed that historians worked not only as professors but also as curators, researchers, documentary film makers, and archivists. Unfortunately, during my five years in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, my understanding of what historians could do narrowed. Like most of my peers, I became convinced that historians, at least the “best” historians, worked only in universities. It was no surprise, then, that I wound up becoming a tenure-track professor.
Teaching was wonderful but many aspects of academia frustrated me. Although I always changed the books and assignments, my classes had to cover the same basic principles, year in and year out. Additionally, I believed that ground-breaking historical research should be written for both historians and people like my father—non-historians who could use history to gain insight into current issues. But tenure and promotion did not reward historians who wrote for the general public. In fact, many academics seemed to spurn civic engagement altogether.
Gradually, I came to see academia as providing not a refuge but rather a retreat from the world and, in 2000, I decided to re-enter the world. If I knew what the term “public historian” meant at that time, I probably believed that I could never become one because my education was in European medical history. But that spring, I interviewed to be an historian for the US Public Health Service. When I tentatively mentioned that my background was not in American history, my interviewer told me that the most important skill which a public historian needed was the ability to grow and learn.
For public historians, there is no such thing as a typical day. I frequently work with reporters, film makers, Congressional legislators and other researchers, educating them on the history of medicine. I love never knowing what questions I will be asked! I also work with Save Ellis Island and other historic sites, helping to preserve and restore these sites. More recently, I curated an exhibit on the history of nursing and I provided an historical analysis of flu pandemics to government officials planning for a new outbreak. I also lecture at universities, historic sites and community centers. Best of all, I am researching and writing a book for both historians and the general public on the history of federally funded sex education.
For me, public history has opened new doors into how I understand and practice history. Visit Alexandra’s web site at http://www.beyondacademe.com/.