A culinary school model for public history programs

, , , ,

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the number of academic public history programs, the saturation of the job market, and concern about the training students are receiving (see Robert Weyeneth’s article “A Perfect Storm”).  Curtailing the number of public history programs, growing the public history market, and accrediting programs are all big challenges. I’d like to propose a small change: that potential students gain work experience BEFORE they enter an academic program.

Does the culinary school model hold promise for public history education?  Photo credit: Bill Way, HPRMan on Flickr

What would happen if public history programs demanded that applicants worked in the public history field before they could apply to an academic program? Culinary schools have long used this model and have required that applicants have kitchen experience before they apply to a program. In fact, there are lots of similarities between culinary arts degree programs and public history programs. Both require expensive training for highly competitive positions for low wages.  The number of academic culinary schools has also exploded in recent years, and fierce debates rage in the culinary world about the value of academic degrees vs. apprenticeships, the cost and type of internships, and the value of specialization in a field requiring a broad range of skills. (For a good article laying out the different approaches, see “Culinary School: The Pros and Cons of Culinary Education.”)  Many culinary schools require that potential applicants must work at least six months in a kitchen before they can apply for academic training. Typically these requirements do not distinguish from work in a Michelin-starred restaurant or a local diner. The schools value work experience because they believe working in a kitchen provides potential students with at least a basic understanding of the long hours, high stress, and low pay common in the restaurant world. By working before studying, potential students can also learn their strengths and weaknesses and begin to focus on a field of expertise that will help guide their academic culinary career. (For a good example of requirements see the Culinary Institute of America, although they now only require that the student has the experience before they attend, not before applying.)

Could public history adopt a similar model? I see some distinct advantages:

  1. Required work experience would help focus students on what aspect of public history they are most interested in BEFORE they begin coursework or apply for internships. Once students are enrolled in an academic program, their work experience would help them more effectively pick their classes and electives. Interested in museum education? — take education electives! Administration? — take some business classes! In addition, if the student already knows they have no passion for collections work or fundraising, they won’t use a valuable internship simply to narrow down their career options.
  2. Work experience would raise students’ awareness of the variety of skills a public history career requires. Most entry-level jobs require not only historical skills but also customer service, management skills, janitorial abilities, among others. Although you can tell students what it’s like, only work experience can make it real. Public history faculty claim they try to give potential applicants a realistic picture of what it’s like to work in the field.  However, wouldn’t some real experience have more of an impact? Ideally, knowing what the job is like might dissuade some marginal students from pursuing a career in a very competitive marketplace.
  3. Employers want students to have real job experience. At an American Association for State and Local History Association (AASLH) conference session in Birmingham in September 2013, Kristen Gwinn-Becker, Chief Executive Officer of HistoryIT, argued that proof that a potential employee can show up on time to work every day is more important than historical subject knowledge. She stated that job hunters must have at least some previous work experience and that paid work is almost always better than internships. (The session was “Forging Business and Academic Alliances in Training Historians for the 21st-Century Marketplace” — Patrick Moore, Chair).

Requiring students to have some real-world experience under their belt isn’t a panacea for what ails the public history field, but such a requirement could bring incremental improvement. It seems to me that the larger discussions often get bogged down, and nothing gets done.  Perhaps by changing one small aspect, we can begin to address the larger issues.

Certainly this idea needs more work, and the details need to be hammered out. If, as Weyeneth assumes, the “Master of Arts degree has replaced the Bachelor’s degree as the minimal ticket of admission or union card into white collar employment,” what would need to change in the public history employment culture so that those with a Bachelor of Arts degree would be serious contenders for entry-level jobs, so they could gain the kind of work experience I’m suggesting? Should internships (paid or unpaid) count as work experience? (Some culinary schools allow this, others do not.) What are the other barriers to implementing this model? Where are the holes? Comment and continue the discussion!

Trevor Jones, Director of Museum Collections and Exhibitions, Kentucky Historical Society

  1. Margo Shea says:

    It is an interesting idea and your points are valid. However, I fear it is also more than likely to enable students of privilege to break into the field while creating more barriers for those already underrepresented in our programs.

    It is not just “the money” that keeps students from poor and working class families from breaking into the cultural sector. Not only are the narratives made visible in the cultural sector often exclusive but the spaces themselves — museums, historic sites, historical societies, etc. — are very much coded in ways that are implicitly or explicitly unwelcoming of difference. It’s already enough of a closed club. Why would we reject curious, interested, motivated students who see a public history program as an opening just because their class, race, gender identification, geographic home place(s), etc. have until that point not made it possible to gain hands on experience in the cultural sector?

  2. Craig Friend says:

    In our own application process, we do give weight to previous practical experience. But unlike a kitchen where workers experience all aspects of the profession, a worker at a museum, for example, does not necessary have exposure to archival management, historic preservation, new media, or other public history specializations. This is not to dismiss the usefulness of early work experience in a public history venue (because I very much agree that such an internship or job would provide significant work experience), but for such an idea to be truly successful, it would require not just a reconfiguration among public history programs but in the public history institutions themselves–to provide the type of all-encompassing apprenticeships that would aid a student in imagining her/his professional future. This actually makes the idea of a BA-level certificate in public history more palatable to me, if that certificate includes substantial internship opportunities at a public history site. I wonder if the KHS would be interested in providing a pilot program, maybe in collaboration with the aspiring certificate program at Eastern Kentucky, to explore the promises and pitfalls of such a scheme.

  3. Sarah Wassberg says:

    I had prior work experience in the field before getting my MA in Public History and it made a WORLD of difference. I took off 2 years between undergrad and grad school and worked part-time at a small, just starting up living history farm. I also had done a summer-long internship assisting the director of a cultural festival in college and I worked part-time in my college archives and very part-time (4-6 hours per week) at a local historic house museum. It helped me realize that although I love exhibit design and interpretation, I hated archival work and collections weren’t really for me. Because of this, I was WAY better prepared to make the most of my grad classes (I also worked through grad school – I got jobs based on my prior work experience) than the rest of my classmates (19 – the largest that program had ever had for one year).

    That being said – for many students it will be difficult to find paid work in museums. Unlike restaurants, where entry level positions like dishwasher and host/ess require absolutely no prior experience and pay at least minimum wage, many museums are often hard-put to find funding even for not-so-entry-level positions like tour guide and gift shop cashier. Those positions are now primarily done by volunteers.

    So. I agree that programs should require at least 6 months of prior experience, but I think that the requirement of paid experience is going to be unattainable for most people, particularly those in poorer or rural areas, which as another commenter said is going to bias the privileged and wealthy.

    I also agree that cross-disciplinary coursework should be more heartily encouraged (such as with education, design/construction, business/management, and public/non-profit administration).

  4. Ellen Litwicki says:

    I see this as an interesting possibility, but it would also penalize regions like mine, where only two of the many museums and archives have even a paid curator. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone from this area to have paid experience, I think.

  5. Mary Rizzo says:

    I, too, had public history experience (though I didn’t know to call it that) before going to grad school (but not in public history). That experience made it possible for me to transition from the academic job market to public history successfully in many ways, so I like this idea but it only works IF public history programs and public history institutions agree that unpaid internships are terrible for our work. If that can happen (a big if) than we can start to address Margo’s extremely accurate point by creating job programs that can also be focused on recruiting diverse people to the field.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *