Does it count? Promotion, tenure, and evaluation of public history scholarship
06 December 2017 – Modupe Labode
Whenever public historians first began working in academic units, it is likely that soon after, their peers questioned whether public history scholarship—exhibitions, class projects, and reports—counted toward tenure. “Count” is academic shorthand for work that is considered to be scholarship or research. Public history scholarship, which often employs highly collaborative, interdisciplinary methodologies, sometimes flummoxes those used to assessing peer-reviewed books and articles published by academic presses, and classifying academics’ work as either research, service, or teaching. Moreover, in this framework, service is often devalued, which has obvious implications when fellow academics categorize public history scholarship as service.
In the early 2000s, NCPH took an important step toward addressing the evaluation of public history scholarship when it convened a joint working group with the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. The result was the 2010 white paper and report “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian,” which included best practices and recommendations. Six years after the report’s release, Greg Smoak, who served on the original working group, organized a workshop at the 2016 NCPH annual meeting at which several of us discussed how we had used the guidelines as we went through the tenure process. In an energetic discussion, we agreed that the guidelines were essential, but not sufficient. Some of the issues that we explored included: explaining public history to evaluators; strategies for finding project reviewers and writers of tenure-review letters; and the limits of educating evaluators, or “managing up” as a form of self-advocacy, especially when unit chairs or committees were unfamiliar with public history scholarship. Many history departments require a monograph along with peer-reviewed articles for promotion, a policy that necessarily puts strenuous demands on tenure-track public historians. We had sharp divisions about “equivalency,” that is, whether or not public history projects should be considered the equivalent of peer-reviewed articles or books for the purpose of evaluating scholarship.
In recent weeks, NCPH’s public history educators’ listserv has lit up with questions and advice about how history departments should count the work of public historians toward tenure. Even departments that expressly search for and hire public historians appear to be unprepared to evaluate public history scholarship. Whether such departments are unaware of the report or have not fully integrated the recommendations is not clear. As the listserv conversations indicate, public historians in academic departments continue to be faced with explaining, and even justifying, their work at critical points in their careers.
This issue is close to me. When the report was released, I was a tenure-track public historian with the title “public scholar” in my official job description. I found the report invaluable as I negotiated various level of evaluation. I was also working in a university that promoted “community engagement” and “public scholarship,” but that did not include these terms in the campus promotion and tenure guidelines (a gap that has since been addressed). When I submitted my dossier for tenure and promotion, I used several publications in peer-reviewed journals and a series of museum studies and public history projects to demonstrate “excellence in research.” I was denied tenure. The university’s chief academic officer gave me the opportunity to re-submit my dossier on the basis of the campus’ “balanced case” category, in which a candidate’s dossier exhibits “balanced strengths that promise excellent overall performance” and includes peer reviews demonstrating strength in teaching, research, and service. On the second attempt, the university awarded me tenure and promotion to associate professor.
Public historians have clearly been using the guidelines and discussing our experiences and stories. However, we haven’t captured and shared our strategies, nor has there been a central place to house resources. In response to a suggestion made on the public history educators’ listserv, NCPH will create space on the website for resources, suggested readings, and sample candidate’s statements. To complement this effort, the [email protected] editors invite readers to write posts that delve into the issues surrounding this multifaceted topic. Ideally, posts will consider questions raised on the listserv and in numerous conversations, such as the following:
- Do we need tools, guidelines, and best practices for documenting and evaluating public history projects?
- How can tenured and tenure-track faculty support and evaluate the work of public historians employed as lecturers and contingent faculty?
- Many public historians may recognize the issues that Kathleen Fitzpatrick thoughtfully explored in a 2014 talk about digital humanities and the promotion and tenure process. How can NCPH support the evaluation of digital public history projects and public historians who do digital projects?
- How do public historians who belong to underrepresented groups—as experienced by race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, citizenship, disability, and other factors—negotiate the process of academic evaluation? The response of public historians to the twitter chat that Monica L. Mercado hosted with Patricia A Matthew about her edited collection Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure indicates a need for particular attention to these intersections.
- Can public historians create alliances with scholars who may not identify as public historians, but are deeply interested in promoting and recognizing public-facing, community-engaged scholarship? For example, Keisha Blain and Ibram Kendi recently called for academic departments and promotion and tenure committees to make “public scholarship the expectation—not the exception.”
- What guidance do interdisciplinary programs that have public activism at their core provide public historians? How has the discussion about public scholarship changed as academic organizations, such as the American Sociological Association, join the conversation that the Modern Language Association, Imagining America, and NCPH began in the early 2000s? And to go back to basics, what lessons do the foundational thinkers of community engagement—such as Ernst Boyer—and public history provide?
- Kerry Ann Rockquemore argues that academics need mentors and sponsors, people who support you when you are not in the room. What are effective strategies that tenured public historians can use to be effective mentors and sponsors for those on the long road to tenure?
- The tenure process is hierarchical and is often opaque at its core. How can we reconcile this high-stakes evaluation with the central public history concepts of collaboration and shared authority?
~ Modupe Labode is an associate professor of history and museum studies and public scholar of African American history and museums at IUPUI. She is a member of the NCPH board of directors.
 For a quick briefing on “equivalencies,” see Denise Meringolo’s blog post “Design and Build” and the discussion in the comment section.
 Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, “How to Avoid a Post-Scholar America,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2017.