What "counts" as a public history dissertation? Some views from the field

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stack of booksAs I approach my second year of doctoral studies in history, I find myself thinking often about dissertation topics. These ruminations may be premature. General exams have not even clouded my horizon yet. Still, I feel a special burden to choose topics wisely because I hope to secure an academic job teaching in a public history program. My dissertation will need to engage certain key arguments in the historiography of my twentieth-century American subfield, while also exhibiting a commitment to the methods and values of public history. I feel compelled to spend these early years establishing a foundation for a dissertation that will speak to several communities at once: academic historians, public history professionals, and a general audience of citizens, especially those with a connection to the place I study.

I recently solicited thoughts on what “counts” as a public history dissertation from faculty members at several public history certificate programs. Specifically, I asked: When reviewing applications for a public history faculty position, what do you look for in an applicant’s dissertation? The feedback I received suggests that I have been slightly misguided in searching for an ideal topic. The overwhelming consensus was that an applicant’s approach to a topic is much more important than the particular subject matter. Another theme running through my correspondence was the tension between pragmatism and core principles among public historians entering the academic job market.

Allison Marsh, professor of history at the University of South Carolina, wrote that she looks for a dissertation–regardless of topic–to help illuminate the ways in which the public “comes to understand information” and interact with the past. Professor Marsh also stressed that the use of a specific methodology does not, by itself, confirm one’s public history credentials. Nonetheless, Marla Miller–professor of history and Public History Program director at UMass Amherst–suggested that an applicant’s dissertation should ideally demonstrate mastery of a particular methodology, such as material culture or oral history. She looks for “evidence of sophisticated use (and discussion) of the method,” which is logical because public history programs often expect faculty to teach methods-based courses.

Another theme of the feedback I received was that the theoretical framework of the applicant’s dissertation should make sense to faculty members who may not share a public history orientation but nonetheless participate in the hiring decisions of their departments. Jannelle Warren-Findley, history professor and public history faculty member at Arizona State University, advises students “to write for the department as a whole, not the public history program” in order to demonstrate one’s ability to serve all aspects of the department’s educational mission. Professor Findley observed that departments with established public history programs may be more open-minded, but she stressed that the wariness of many academics toward public history is an unfortunate reality of the job market.

Alongside the pragmatic suggestion that a dissertation should give department traditionalists their historiographical bread-and-butter, I received comments that tacked in the opposite direction. Several respondents wrote that they look for an applicant to make his or her work accessible to non-academic audiences and multiple publics. South Carolina’s Allison Marsh offered the simple but rarely followed advice that a dissertation should be clearly written and free of “impenetrable” academic jargon. If not, the applicant would be unlikely to communicate effectively with non-specialist audiences.

Similarly, David Glassberg, founder of the UMass Amherst Public History Program and a professor of history, told me he likes to see that an applicant has or will “develop his/her research for public outreach digitally or for a museum exhibit as well as for a scholarly monograph.”

Most provocatively, Temple University public history coordinator Professor Seth Bruggeman argued that a public history dissertation should “[p]erform a service to” and even emerge out of “conversation with a constituency, stakeholder, or community beyond the academy.” (The service could be support for a community development initiative or the creation of an oral or document-based archive, he noted.) Rather than the usual hobbyhorse of  “relevance,” Professor Bruggeman looks for “immediacy,” by which he means that the dissertation “must intervene in a problem or question to which answers have the potential to make on-the-ground impact right now.” Such scholarly interventions could take the form of addressing a localized environmental problem with historical roots. Yet Professor Bruggeman also advocates a broader taking up of scholarly arms to combat political misuses of history and–I would add–attacks against both academic historians and public history professionals.

The expectation of immediacy and service is a tall order for a doctoral dissertation, but one that I welcome. Likewise, I appreciate the pragmatic charge to position one’s dissertation within the relevant historiography in a manner that satisfies academic traditionalists. Public history needs rigorous scholarship, and academic history needs faculty willing and able to engage communities and problems beyond the campus. Hopefully, my generational cohort of public history graduate students will be able to answer both calls.

I would welcome feedback from other graduate students. What challenges have you encountered framing your research questions and crafting your dissertation? Does the idealism/pragmatism tension ring true to you? I would also appreciate hearing from other public history faculty. What issues have I missed or over-emphasized? I hope we can continue this critical conversation.

~ Richard Anderson is a doctoral student in twentieth-century American history at Princeton University

  1. Kristen says:

    I earned my PhD in public history this past May, so my thoughts on your post are based on the goals I had for myself during the program as well as the experience I’ve had on the job market. You may be putting more on the dissertation than is warranted. It has two purposes: so you can earn the degree and to give you a basis for some publications. You will get a job based on experience as a whole, and the dissertation is only a small part of that. I discussed it in a small paragraph in my cover letter and it is discussed on my portfolio, but the only question I got relating to it during a recent successful interview process was: your research is on x, how would you apply that in our location?

    If your goal is to teach public history, it will be your public history experience that will make you an attractive candidate. What sort of work have you done with communities and “in the field”? Some of this will be the dissertation and that should make a contribution to public history, but you will have other experience as well. You will have designed exhibits, written NR nominations, created heritage tourism plans, etc.

    As a graduate student, I worked with professors who made sure my historical research was solid and with public history professors who had spent several years working in the field, unrelated to the academy. It was that later group that helped me really “get” how public history works on the ground and in communities. I assume, and it helped me get one job, at least, that departments looking for a public historian will be looking for that balance and versatility. We will see how that continues to work out for me. 😉

    All that to say, find a topic that will help you connect to people where the context is your historical field. Get as much other ph experience as you can, and get finished. I found looking at NCPH’s tenure suggestions helpful as well. Seems like you are on the right track to me. Let’s hope we both are! Good luck!

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