Defining success: Seeking clarity or accepting uncertainty?

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A 50-foot (15 m) tape measure produced by the Lufkin Rule Co. in Saginaw, Michigan at some point after 1929 (patent 1,713,807).

How should public history graduate programs measure success? Photo credit: Wikipedia Lufkin tape measure

What constitutes success for a public history graduate program?  A strong placement record?  Student mastery of a set of professional skills?  Or perhaps cultivation of our discipline’s habits of mind?

One might say, “It depends”–on whom you ask, when you ask them, and why you want to know.  But does that ambiguity compromise our ability as program directors to represent our programs accurately and effectively to the students we serve and the administrators who oversee us?  In defining success, should we pursue clarity or get comfortable with uncertainty?

At our session at the 2015 National Council on Public History meeting in Nashville on “Defining Success,” we wrestled with these issues in a series of free-flowing conversations.  While the results were not conclusive, there seemed to be more comfort with ambiguity than we had expected.  As programs, this ambiguity becomes an educational challenge in itself: we want students to come to our programs with a sense of purpose, but once they get there, we want them to be open to new possibilities and to expanding their sense of where they might go.  Can we strike that balance?

Our session emerged from the 2014 NCPH meeting in Monterey, where Benjamin Filene and Kathy Franz facilitated a working group (in which Marla Miller participated) on the sustainability of graduate programs in public history.  That session produced some frank discussion about admissions, enrollments, job placement, and what the NCPH can do to support program directors as they wrestle with a difficult job market, and–as the growing number of programs distributes applicants across more campuses–declining enrollments.  One of the most provocative questions asked in the working group was, “How do we define success for graduates in the field and for our programs?”

Of course we’d all like to see our alums land full-time jobs where they can deploy their training.   But some graduates find work only tangentially related to their degrees, while others sometimes find positions outside of history–at banks, schools, other non-profits–yet “do history” in their spare time.  Are these graduates successful on terms that faculty, or administrators, should recognize?  What about the success associated with a life of the mind, with cultivating a demeanor of engagement and curiosity? Sharpening critical thinking skills?  How would we measure these various outcomes?

Program directors may have definitions of success that are at odds with their deans and chairs, who often want to boost enrollments and may misunderstand the current job market.  Students may define success differently than faculty members, and their perceptions of success can change over time.  To cite just one of several alternate models, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue index defines a “great job” not by what emerges most directly from our training but by what leads to general “workplace engagement,” sense of purpose, and social, financial, community, and physical well-being.

But if our definition is so broad, how we can we measure and report outcomes to our various constituencies?  And how should we communicate our successes to potential applicants if success can take so many different forms?  Our Friday afternoon session set out to tackle these questions.  On walls around the room, we posted four questions: 1) Success is a job at a museum or historic site or…What else counts? 2) How might students, faculty, and administrators define success differently? 3) How can we measure success? and 4) How (and to whom) should we report success?  Individual participants used Post-it notes to respond to these questions.  Next, groups clustered around each of the four stations to talk about these issues in further depth.  Finally, we reconvened as a “committee of the whole” and pooled our insights.  Some upshots for program directors:

  • Communication is key, and more is more.  Programs should be clear about what kinds of training they offer and where they have placed students.  Advising should begin before students enter the program, and advisors should consider student expectations in the admissions process, to make sure that their program is a good match for what the student is looking for.
  • Student” is not a homogeneous category.  First-generation college students, for instance, might define success differently than some of their peers.  Some students might be coming to school to advance in their current jobs, while others are looking to retrain for a new career or are fresh from college.
  • We need to strike a tricky balance between preparing students for the careers they aspire to while also helping to broaden their sense of career possibilities.
  • It’s important to advise students holistically, as people rather than just as students, without losing sight of the specific aims that brought them to our program.
  • We should also consider what constitutes success for employers.  Program directors should keep abreast of the work done by the joint task-force on public history education and employment, formed in 2014 and now surveying employers about the skills and qualities they look for in graduates.  (See the most recent report here.)
  • In reporting, we need to describe outcomes both qualitatively and quantitatively.  As one participant noted, “Administrators look at numbers; students look at personal success and satisfaction; faculty [should] look at both.”

Ultimately, we agreed that program directors should actively try to understand what students want from their education, should be flexible to help them engage with our programs in ways meaningful to them, and should be ready to offer students new possibilities as their ideas shift.  We might start with “What do you aim to get out of this program?  What are your expectations?” and then be open to individualized planning and outcomes.  The session also underscored the importance of long-term relationships.  Our students remain our students long after graduation, and their sense of success will surely evolve over time in ways we need to understand.  Overall, each program and its leaders must be able to articulate their vision of success to students, administrators, and community partners–ethically, honestly, and over and over.

~ Benjamin Filene, Kathleen Franz and Marla Miller direct the public history programs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, American University, and University of Massachusetts Amherst, respectively.

1 comment
  1. Elizabeth Bradley says:

    A very relevant and thought-provoking post.

    The NCPH report is a great resource, but its focus on employers seeking public history applicants limits our knowledge by excluding the experiences of alumni working in related or alternative professions.

    As far as I know, there has not been a published evaluation focusing on the alumni experience. It would be very interesting to see a coded qualitative evaluation of alumni to see how they define their own success, the utility of skills learned in the program, and their own continued engagement with Public History (and/or barriers to continued practice).

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