A perfect storm? (Part 2)

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Continued from Part 1

ship in heavy seaWhat can NCPH do?   

The alarmed observations with which I began single out the rising numbers of both programs and graduates, but it seems to me that the real issue is quality. I believe that NCPH can address the issue of quality control from two different but related angles. First, it can speak directly to public history program directors and educators about best practices, equipping them with the knowledge and insights of deep experience in administering and teaching public history. Second, it can speak directly to prospective students about being smarter consumers of their education – encouraging them to seek quality, recognize it, and gravitate to it – so they have the best chances to secure one of those good entry-level (or in some cases advanced) public history jobs. For practitioners who hire historians in the public and private sectors, this is a “pipeline” approach that will help universities supply a smart and versatile work force over the long term.

Quality Control for Programs

Credentialing. Some in NCPH and others in kindred organizations in related fields are calling for professional societies to begin “credentialing” or “certifying” programs by setting minimum standards and then enforcing them by denying admission of “sub-standard” programs to the “guild.” I’ve been an NCPH member long enough to remember similar calls twenty years ago at the conference breakfasts that bring together public history educators and program directors at our annual meetings. Personally then, and as NCPH president now, I am very uncomfortable with this approach to the issue of quality control. One, it’s hostile rather than welcoming, and a great strength of NCPH has always been the unpretentious friendliness of our organization and our conferences. Two, is logistics: who would do the policing and enforcing? NCPH has scarce resources and, in any event, probably doesn’t have the interest or will. Rather than trying to patrol the curricula, right now NCPH is institutionally focused on the excitement of a field that is both globalizing (which of course opens up jobs) and digitizing (which also opens up jobs, even as it raises the question of the role for technical training in pubic history curricula based in humanities-oriented history departments).

Best practices. Where a national and international professional organization can play a role in promoting program quality is through “best practices” documents. I think of this as a friendly alternative to credentialing—and potentially more effective. NCPH has a deep bench of experience in public history education, and over recent years it has been assembling this wisdom into a set of online resources. There are NCPH best practices documents on M.A. programs, public history for undergraduates, internships, and certificate programs.  Over the years, our curriculum and training committee has also developed lists of recommended readings on provocative case studies, controversial history, and oral history.  NCPH has an increasing number of new members from the academy, as well as many first-time attendees to our conferences. Many of them are brimming with questions about how to establish public history programs, how to teach public history, how to take the classroom into the field, and so forth. We want to hear these questions from our new colleagues. We need to make the expertise of our many veterans more widely available. Now in the works is an NCPH best practices document on establishing a public history program. When completed, I expect that it will have some helpful “red flags” that will signal when a university should not establish a program. As NCPH moves forward to develop this and other best practice documents, it should do so mindful that “one-size-fits-all” solutions are inappropriate and that there are multiple excellent models for structuring successful programs and building upon unique local resources.

The deep bench of experience and expertise. Another immediately available resource is the cohort of NCPH veterans who are eager to offer expert advice to universities about public history programs and curricula. NCPH maintains a list of these individuals on its website.  We need to expand this list to be more geographically diverse, to maximize opportunities for in-person and on-site consultation, which can be invaluable for program evaluation, even in the age of internet, e-mail, and social media.

Is there a disconnect between public history training and the skills that employers want?  This is a big question but not a new one. I’ve heard this complaint for almost twenty years now, particularly from the private sector. In the past, the misgivings about the training of public historians in graduate school have singled out time management skills, the ability to work against real deadlines, grant-writing experience, and knowledge of budgets and budgeting. Today, we hear complaints in a similar vein and, in addition, that newly minted MAs lack familiarity with basic business practices, with technical writing, with working as a member of a team, with imagining creative ways to meet client demands. Some employers lament the inability of their new hires to “think outside the box” to assess the intellectual contours of a specific project and to consider a range of methodologies and modes of inquiry. There are also expectations for basic (if not advanced) digital proficiency, including building spreadsheets, designing websites, working with big data, and using GIS.  While some of these expectations fit comfortably into the teaching mission of history departments, others are technical skills barely known to most historians. Once upon a time employers could spend a year or so getting new hires up to speed, but the business climate facing many companies today has created an environment where new employees must hit the ground running. NCPH Vice-President Patrick Moore has already announced that he is keen to make addressing this skills issue a priority of his presidency.

Teachers who are practitioners. One trend that may be exacerbating the skills deficit in public history curricula is that more and more teachers of public history are not actually practitioners themselves. In some cases, they may have classroom learning in public history, but not the practical experience from working as a museum curator or a preservation consultant, for example. Often new faculty hires are asked to teach public history courses or even to start public history programs, on the assumption that as new PhDs they must certainly know something about public history. Equally concerning is the dismissive view that “anyone can teach public history.” And, finally, the nature of much PhD training contributes to the trend. The shortcomings of our own PhD program are instructive. Our department encourages PhD students to take advantage of the strengths of our Public History Program, which has always been determinedly focused on the MA.  Although we offer a PhD in history, rather than public history, students can declare a second or third “outside” field in public history. This requires that they take (only) two or three seminars in the field, do an internship, and pass a comprehensive examination. While our PhD students get some exposure to public history methods and experience, they are getting far less than if they earned an MA in Public History on the way to the PhD, the preferred course of study in my opinion. Compounding the problem, our funding packages discourage PhD students from getting additional hands-on experience through working in a public history assistantship, because teaching assistantships are paid at a considerably higher stipend (by the department) than the externally funded practical assistantships (some of which we have lost to the contractions of the Great Recession). Even savvy students who know they need more experience can’t afford the financial sacrifice. Going forward, the challenges for our program—and likely for others—will be to get able PhD students more deeply into the trenches of public history before they go into their own classrooms as new faculty.

While my remarks have focused on quality control in MA programs – as these supply the largest number of new public historians on the job market and their success in the job search, or lack of it, is of visible concern for all of us – the dilemma of professors who are not practitioners is a less apparent problem in the academy. This is a reminder that colleagues will want to take a long look at both MA and PhD programs.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This four-part post by Robert Weyeneth, President of the National Council on Public History and director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina, is also printed in the September 2013 NCPH newsletter. Part 3 follows. To add your comments, go to Part 4 of the post.

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