"Make it so," but how? Best practices for new public history programs

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clipboardAcademic interest in public history is growing, and an increasing number of history departments are looking for a public historian to train students for public history jobs. But what does it mean to start a public history program? Is it as simple as hiring a PhD with a field in public history and telling them to get going? Is there more to it than that?

Last fall Lara Kelland and Anne Parsons wrote an engaging and well-received post at [email protected]: Help wanted: Thoughts on the recent boom in academic public history jobs. Kelland and Parsons noted a recent trend of academic job ads that asked for public history as one of the fields, and the growth of public history programs. In the comments section of their post was born the idea that NCPH should form a working  group to develop a set of best practices for colleges and universities that are planning on creating a public history program.

The NCPH Program Committee said, “Make it so!” and so we did. Here is the list for working groups in Ottawa, you will see that “Best Practices for Establishing a Public History Program” is number six.

We would like to invite interested NCPH members and other public historians to use this blog post to initiate a discussion that we will continue in Ottawa. Some preliminary questions:

  • What does it take to start a program in public history in terms of people, resources, etc.? Is a single hire enough, or should a cluster of public historians be brought on?
  • What curricular changes from a traditional history program are needed?
  • Are undergraduate programs in public history a good idea?
  • What are some common mistakes for new public history programs to watch out for?
  • What do you think is the most pressing problem we should address?

We would also like to offer a preliminary reading list–feel free to add suggestions in the comments:

Please join the conversation! What do you think are some of the best practices for establishing a public history program?

~ Larry Cebula is Associate Professor of History at Eastern Washington University and Assistant Digital Archivist of the Washington State Archives.

Read the Working Group participants’ case statements here.

  1. Rebecca Shrum says:

    Thanks for this post, Larry, and for getting our conversation in preparation for Ottawa started.

    According to a quick count this morning on the NCPH Guide to Public History Programs page, there are around 60 undergraduate public history programs up and running across the United States. I directed the one at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater for several years. I would answer your question “Are undergraduate public history programs a good idea?” with a strong “yes.” Let me give one example of what such a program can do: At UWW, I worked with students over an extended period of time to discern whether public history was a field they wanted to pursue and, if so, to identify potential graduate programs that could meet their career goals. The program did lots of other things, too–but this is one important element, from my perspective, of a key role undergraduate programs in public history can play.

    1. Anne Lindsay says:

      I agree that public history undergraduate programs are a great idea. It starts students in the process of considering what their career outcomes will be. I think it also introduces our majors to interdisciplinary approaches and challenges them to consider new questions in all of the the other history courses that they take. It will make them stronger applicants to our MA programs and allow them the opportunity to explore fields before making bigger decisions.

  2. Denise Meringolo says:

    The members of the working group are each approaching this question from slightly different angles and with slightly different concerns. Our job will be to focus on common themes and identify some of the reasons to move ahead and some of the reasons to put on the brakes when it comes to establishing Public History programs.

    You can read Working Group members’ original case statements here:

  3. Thanks all. The ultimate goal of the working group (if I understand this correctly) will be to produce a document of recommended best practices for establishing a public history program. Something that a chair and a dean can peruse together as they consider adding public history to their curriculum–but also something that will help protect new directors of public history programs from overwork and unrealistic expectations. My model here is the excellent NCPH Report on Tenure and Promotion for the Engaged Scholar: http://ncph.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/Engaged-Historian.pdf

    That said, here are a few of what I would suggest are best practices for establishing a public history program:

    1. Departments should keep in mind the special obligations of a public historian and take these into account in the workload of the faculty. Finding and coordinating internship opportunities, writing grants, writing new curriculum and course sequences, promoting a public history program, supervising student work including graduate projects, and arranging course field trips and guest lecturers are all burdens above and beyond those of traditional history faculty. Therefore a director of a public history program should be a half-time administrative, half time teaching position.

    2. Departments hiring a public historian should be aware of the NCPH Report on Tenure and Promotion for the Engaged Scholar and should explicitly adopt its recommendations for tenure and promotion in the hiring letter of new faculty.

    3. A public history program costs money beyond the salary of the faculty involved. Field trips, technical equipment, guest speakers, event promotion, and faculty travel must be supported. A public history program needs a yearly budget as well as administrative support.

    4. Departments should be aware that an M.A. in public history is a terminal degree, and be prepared to support its students accordingly. Travel grants to conferences, business cards, and equipment to loan are needed.

    5. Given the broad range in what constitutes public history, it is not reasonable to expect one faculty member to teach every course in a public history sequence. Departments should consider a cluster of hires, or at least setting aside a budget for adjunct instructors each year. Departments should make sure in advance that qualified adjuncts are available in their community.

    That is an ambitious and demanding list, but I feel like we should go big. I see this report as 1) making sure that new public historians are not being set up for failure, and 2) discouraging the proliferation of low-quality, underfunded programs in public history.

    Reactions? Other recommendations?

    1. Carrie Barske says:

      I think these are all excellent suggestions! I believe that if colleges and universities knew what they need to do to have a well run, successful program from the beginning, we would see the quality of programs and the products they produce increase exponentially. As some of the readings above suggest, we need to make sure that graduates of public history programs are well trained and prepared to enter the job market or else we run the risk of harming the field more than we are helping it. To be sure we are helping our students gain the skills they need, we need to be sure of university support and that we, as public history faculty, have the time and resources we need to make sure our students can succeed. I think all of your points are valid and should be seriously considered by this working group and other public historians.

    2. Anne Lindsay says:

      Larry, can you claify the idea that an MA in public history is a terminal degree? I am not sure what you mean. Some positions in public history are looking for PhDs, not MAs.

    3. Kelly Enright says:

      These are wonderful considerations. I am leading a program at a small college and have found administrative expectations are that I teach every field of PH. My background is in museums and interpretation – and I can stretch that quite broadly – but am finding it necessary to convince my colleagues to hire an adjunct for oral history. I worry this makes me look incompetent to those unaware of the differences in our specializations.

  4. Denise Meringolo says:

    Are there conditions under which it would be inadvisable for a Department to begin a public history program? What kind of questions should chairs and administrators ask BEFORE embarking on the challenging work of establishing the best program possible?

    1. Anne Lindsay says:

      Denise, I think this is an important point. I think one big tell is how open a university is to interdisciplinary course work. If we look at the “best practices” documents for public history most of them mention interdisciplinary coursework. If you have an institution that has very strict silos, where students are not encouraged or allowed to explore outside of their discipline, or that has a strong cohort system, this may be an indicator that public history will not work well.

      1. Carrie Barske says:

        I think a university needs to be aware of the resources in the community before deciding if starting a program is advisable. Are there opportunities for internships for students within the community? Are there organizations that the program can partner with? Is the community receptive to the idea of a program? In some places these resources may be limited, making the process of starting a program more difficult.

  5. Jay Price says:

    I agree with Larry’s overview. There are great points to consider. A couple of additional thoughts:

    1) A program is only as strong as the resources nearby. Indeed, those resources will shape and guide the nature of the program. That is why, as I see it, those programs that are in or close to state capitals or a major national park or presidential library or tourist community are at a distinct advantage in terms of opportunities for internships, research, and networking. If not, then the program needs to be really honest in what it can or cannot provide.

    2) Those setting up programs need to ask how strong the library/archive/museum system is on campus. The stronger those are, the better. Also keep in mind nonprofit administation courses, fundraising, marketing, and media.

    3) Be aware of what else is in the region, including library science programs, museum studies progams, etc. They might be potential competitors…or allies…depending on the dynamics. It also requires the program to think about how its graduates will compete in a job market of increasingly specialized professions.

    4) With this in mind: be very careful and thoughtful about the curriculum (and who teaches it). Is there enough space in the curriculum to give students a good grounding in history AND make sure they have a solid set of skills to allow them to function out in the world.

    5) Finally, be honest about what the local and regional job market really is like. Is the state historical society well funded and expanding in particular areas or laying off people because its budget just got slashed? Is the primary expression of public history the local historical museum that relies on volunteers and has a director who is expected to be the fundraiser and jack/jill of all trains AND work part time for $20,000 a year? Are there corporations that need those who specialize in digital records? In other words, is your program filling a recognized need in the area or just pumping out graduates who need to compete in an already saturated job market?

    Here, indeed, is, as I see it, the crux of the issue: Too many programs have been created primarily to boost enrollment in history departments, not because there was a need in the community for professionals with certain skills. Let the NEED in the community/area/market dictate what is established and how it functions. “We need to have more opportunities for our students…and hence make our department more attractive” sounds great, but is the wrong reason to have a program.

    1. Kelly Enright says:

      Thanks for these. #4 is of particular concern to me in developing an undergraduate program. “Is there enough space in the curriculum to give students a good grounding in history AND make sure they have a solid set of skills to allow them to function out in the world.” Should traditional history content and methods courses be abandoned for public history specific ones? Which courses from the history major can be replaced with public history courses and still ensure students have the basic skills and knowledge of the field?

      1. Anne Lindsay says:

        I think traditional content and methods courses must still be part of an undergraduate program. You must be a good historian to be a good public historian. There are essential historical skill sets needed.

        1. Kelly Enright says:

          I agree and after reading Katz’s AHA article, it seems students really do need a better grounding in content and research skills. In order to add courses in PH (intro, museum studies, historic pres, etc.) to their course load, however, some traditional requirements of the History major will have to be sacrificed. Is is appropriate to substitute them for non-western or non-American history requirements?

  6. Daniel Vivian says:

    I’d like to add a couple points to the discussion. First, as far as curriculum is concerned, I would suggest that it’s becoming tougher for new programs to get established. There are several reason for this. First, work in the field is becoming more diversified. While traditional categories such as museums, archives, and historic preservation are still relevant, other jobs don’t fit easily into any of these. Positions focused on programming and outreach at museums and historical societies are good examples. They require a wide range of skills (like most PH jobs) and, in particular, the ability to nurture, encourage, and stimulate interest among diverse constituencies. These skills are not easily learned, nor are they necessarily taught in most programs.

    In addition, stronger critical discourse in the field has changed what graduate programs need to do. Whereas many programs once focused on training for particular types of jobs, students are now expected to have a grasp of debates about audiences, methods of engagement, the relationship between professional historians and the public, and so on. This is a good thing; these have helped elevate public history to a distinct form of historical practice. They have given public historians a stake in shaping what history is and the future of the discipline. Yet they also require specialized training of a kind that reaches beyond the basics. Realistic planning about what students need to have in order to be successful ought to be fundamental. Simply offering some public history courses isn’t enough; the field is already too competitive.

    The proliferation of public history programs has also changed the educational landscape. While there is still a great deal that can be done with basic courses and strong relationships with local and regional partners, new challenges need to be addressed. Specialization, for one. As public history training becomes more common, specialized areas of emphasis will distinguish graduates of one program from others. Digital history is already doing this, to some degree. It seems to me that new programs would do well not only to ask if they have adequate institutional resources and local partners but, as important, whether they can grow and contribute something useful to the field. Well-established programs are highly evolved. Are there opportunities to add something that is not already present? This is a crucial question. For some programs, it may mean the difference between having a path for long-term development or not.

    Larry’s point about taking advantage of course offerings in other departments is a good one. I would add a cautionary note, however. Just because courses are offered in relevant subjects doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be useful to public historians. Some may need to be modified, even if only in a limited way. Whether instructors will be willing to do this is an open question. Junior faculty don’t have much leverage in this regard. The dean’s office is the best place for direction of this sort to come from. Also, if courses offered by other departments are needed to sustain a program, it’s important that they be offered regularly. Again, new public-history faculty are not well-equipped to make sure they are. Some sort of coordination above the department level is needed.

    Finally, I would also like to push back a bit, hopefully in a constructive way, on some of the premises that got this conversation started. Without question, over-producing public historians is a bad idea, and establishing new programs without adequate forethought and planning is also. But at the same time, I am skeptical about our ability to anticipate future demand. The number of jobs in public history will surely remain limited, and who knows what the future holds. But, compared to “traditional” graduate programs, public history has a lot going for it. The field has always been innovative and entrepreneurial, and many people have made careers for themselves not by looking for jobs, but by creating them. Figuring out how to market and make use of strong historical skills is the hallmark of many a consulting career, after all. Further, public historians have changed the historical profession for the better. By taking public engagement seriously and working to developing engaging and compelling methods of presentation, we have helped to (1) make the discipline more relevant and (2) develop a more vibrant, more democratic historical culture. These are significant accomplishments. So, while there is reason to consider overproduction and minimum standards, perhaps we should also be thinking about unrealized potential. Ultimately, we want to see better-trained public historians coming out of graduate programs across the country. Thinking hard about what the field still has to achieve and how we can make public history more central to contemporary historical practice should be vital to this discussion.

  7. Sarah Doherty says:

    In reading everyone’s comments thus far I have noticed two themes that seem to be common concerns. First, what are the demands of the market, needs of the student body of a particular school and logistics for establishing a new public history program? Second, how should the public history professor be treated in a department of faculty that does not dedicate as much time to an engaged or applied practice of history with the public? What special accommodations should be made in tenure review of public historians and how can this be reconciled in departments that only consider peer-reviewed articles and books as legitimate indicators of scholarly productivity? I agree with Dan that some of the traditional program subcategories don’t seem to neatly fit the types of jobs on today’s market. However, I do think there is an opportunity to work in some of the market’s contemporary demands of certain knowledge sets like audience engagement, digital/new media, etc. into subcategories like museum studies, archives through adapting the way we teach courses a bit and helping students carefully select internships that can expose them to important practical skill sets. I am also very interested to hear further discussion about when the establishment of a new public history program may not be in the best interest of a department.

  8. Jay Price says:

    I came across this comment on Facebook about the teaching of art. I am wondering if it also applies, in some ways, to the teaching of public history. Thoughts?

    “Often enough in the fine arts department the students are coddled for four or more years, and then released into the real world where the are served a harsh awakening that it’s not just about them out there. I have often seen young would be artists confronted with this reality go back for a masters degree, to get more of the training that didn’t make artists out of them in the first place. If you really unpack this with them, you find out they intend to teach. The best of them will, and the best of their students will be teachers as well. There are plenty of teachers out there who have never made a living as artists and their teachers and their teachers’ teachers didn’t either. They have in fact only contempt for those of us out here who actually do it as a vocation. The sudden rise of popularity of the new ateliers across the country and in Italy is a response to a small but growing number of students who would like to make a living painting and have figured out they will need to know a lot about painting in order to do it. I believe that small but growing atelier movement probably holds the promise of a new American art. — Stapleton Kearns–a fine curmudgeon.”

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