A perfect storm? (Part 4)

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Continued from Part 3

ship in heavy seaAverting the storm

Let me conclude by reiterating that these personal reflections are offered in the spirit of “NCPH as a big tent,” open and welcoming to all public historians, old hands and new, inside and outside the academy. I have tried to report candidly, if distressingly, on the conversations I am hearing about how public history is making headway or falling short in colleges and universities today, especially at the graduate level. Clearly there is much more to be said. To my way of thinking, the fundamental issue that underpins current concerns is quality, in programs old and new, big and small, mine included. I have suggested both top-down and bottom-up solutions, from program directors to student consumers, with the NCPH membership playing a central role sharing its expertise and experience. Always in the back of my mind are those who are in positions to hire our graduates. Let’s keep talking about all of this.

To summarize and build on what I have said here, NCPH should take these immediate steps:

  • Complete the best practices document on establishing a public history program.
  • Determine what additional best practices documents should be developed. Suggestions are most welcome; feel free to contact me directly.
  • Update the list of program consultants on the NCPH website. We need an expanded list of public history educators who are willing to consult on program development and curriculum. To maximize opportunities for in-person and on-site consultation, the list should be as geographically broad as possible. Anyone wishing to offer their services and be listed should feel free to contact me directly.
  • Develop a student consumer’s guide to public history programs, place it prominently on the NCPH webpage, and publicize its existence widely.

NCPH should also make a multi-year commitment to:

  • Document the big picture by assessing the state of public history in the academy today. Questions to consider (there are certainly others): What is the nature and extent of the job crisis in public history today, beyond the anecdotal evidence? How are programs actually doing with placement of MA students within a year of their graduation? What kinds of jobs are they getting? Are there correlations between placement records and the structure and curriculum of programs? Let’s look at how public history is being taught. Let’s learn who is teaching public history and whether they are practitioners with knowledge of the skills their students will need in public history employment. Let’s look, too, at whether departments are giving their public history faculty the resources they need: staff support, release time, summer salary, eleven-month appointments, dedicated budget lines, appropriate tenure and promotion guidelines. What are the strategies faculty are using to generate their own external and internal funding for programmatic needs? What can history departments do to better advise their undergraduates on public history as a career option? What can we learn from each other and how can we make the best case for public history in the academy in the coming years?
  • Survey employers in the private and public sectors to assess whether there is a disconnect between academic training and real-world skills. What do public history employers in the private sector, the non-profit world, and at all levels of government expect to see in people they hire? Is the MA now the entry-level degree? What are the implications for graduate education as an intellectual enterprise, as a set of inter-disciplinary explorations, and as an arena for technical training?
  • Consider establishing a joint task force as a way to implement these multi-year recommendations. Six years ago NCPH invited the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association to join a “Working Group on Evaluating Public History” to assess the challenges of tenure and promotion for public historians employed by colleges and universities. The NCPH invitation brought together multiple long-standing efforts and on-going conversations in each of these three professional organizations to address an employment problem that was affecting a growing number of their members. Over the next three years, this Working Group produced the pioneering collaborative report “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian,” which was endorsed by the governing boards of NCPH, OAH, and AHA in 2010. Since 2010, the report and its detailed background document have become an invaluable resource for everyone involved in the process: for public historians seeking and negotiating academic offers, for department chairs hiring public historians, for tenure-and-promotion committees evaluating public history work, and for university administrators outside history departments.

Have we reached another moment in the history of public history education that merits a similar joint task force approach? Are the issues big enough? With which other professional organizations should NCPH collaborate? Would it be more efficient for NCPH to do it alone? Is a joint task force the best way for NCPH to make the multi-year commitments to assess both the nature of public history employment today and the state of public history in the academy?

~ Robert Weyeneth is president of NCPH and director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina.

Image: Ship Garthsnaid c. 1920 by Alexander Harper Turner, National Library of New Zealand on Flickr Creative Commons.

  1. One thing to consider–although this is somewhat tangential to Bob’s point–is the benefit of having public historians in every history department, whether or not the department has an actual public history program. Every student in history, whether headed to a public history career, an academic career, or something outside of history altogether, can benefit from the theories and methods of public history. I believe my teaching would have been stronger and more creative if I had had some public history experience before becoming an academic. And certainly I felt the gap in my knowledge and understanding when I became a public historian myself, having had no exposure to or training in the field. Even one course in public history would have contributed to my repertoire significantly.

  2. I think that there needs to be a bigger and better effort to clearly define what exactly public history IS, how it differs from academic history (for lack of a better term), and why it is important.

    I also think that universities and colleges who offer programs in public history and other forms of museums studies need to better prepare their students for the real world of museum jobs. That means better training in corollary fields (non-profit administration, business management, grants and fundraising, marketing and PR, web design and database management, etc.) that many graduates will find themselves working with in addition to the more familiar jobs of education, events, curatorial, archival, interpretive, and exhibit work. In addition, universities need to be honest (brutally honest) about the salaries (or hourly pay rate) many students will be facing upon graduation. Not everyone can work at the Smithsonian and honestly, lots of small historical societies and museums NEED people with professional training and are the most likely to be students’ and recent graduates’ first job or even volunteer experience. The pay rate at these places is pretty paltry. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t agitate for better pay and better financial support of history museums (not to mention a better national profile). But being honest about the time it takes to get a “real” full-time job in the field is only going to help graduate students be realistic about their options and also how dedicated they are to the field.

    If you can’t stand the thought of earning less than $35,000 per year for the first 5-10 years of your career, then maybe museum work is not for you. Yeah, there are people out there who earn a lot more than that, but how many of them have graduated since 2005? Not many. The jobs are simply not there and career advancement is simply not available even for those who do have jobs in the field (most job movement tends to be horizontal, not vertical). Maybe someday that will change, but for now, brutal honesty is the best policy.

    Finally, I would argue that public history MA fields would do themselves and their graduates a big fat favor by skipping the traditional thesis or written exam route for matriculation and instead taking a page from art majors and having a real-world project (with a “what I learned” paper) as the final examination. Small museums could get the benefit of grad students doing exhibits, collections rehousing, collections database upgrades, web redesign, interpretive plans, historic register applications, grant writing, and more for free. And students would get real-world experience they could put on their resumes. If students don’t want to do a project? Make them do research papers with original research about MUSEUMS (not just history). Imagine all the topics that could be covered. Volunteer board governance! The reality of collections management practices! Statistics on digital visitorship! Visitor engagement research! The possibilities are endless and the field of museums and how they operate is seriously under studied, and usually studied by people outside the field.

    Okay – this is getting ridiculously long, but it boils down to this, I think: We have to stop thinking and acting (and being treated) like the younger, less-intelligent step-brother of academic history and instead embrace public history in its own right with all of its awesomeness. Which might ultimately mean separating public history programs from history departments. *gasp!* Maybe. Just maybe.

  3. Marianne babal says:

    I do think there is an oversupply of recent grads and new professionals being churned out of these grad programs. Looking at the list of programs in the ncph guide, i have to say i dont think ive ever met faculty or students from half of those institutions at an Ncph meeting. and judging by the number of job listings for faculty teaching “public history” i wonder if the growth realized in the public history field has in large measure been creation of teaching jobs. assigning junior faculty to create or staff these programs, whether or not they have any experience or knowledge of public history is part of the problem. Its created an intake system with no qualitative or quantitative analysis of outcome. Unfortunately more a cash cow for universities than career prep for students. yes, ncph should offer information to students so they can become better consumers. Standard measurement criteria for placements? Those programs whose graduates are getting jobs will stand out. Find out what employers want. Others are asking the same questions. See what can be gleaned from that. There is alot of info by HR professionals. Do they get to work as part of a team? Lead a team? Appreciate the generational diversity of the workplace and know how to operate within that? Make your students aware of realities, because, sadly, competiton for scarce resources and jobs is indeed the new normal.

  4. Paul Sadin says:

    There are so many different layers to this topic, I think this would make an excellent working group or discussion table at a future NCPH conference!

  5. Trevor Jones says:

    As an employer, I support exploring the disconnect between academic training and real world skills. Unfortunately too many graduates do not have the skills my institution requires. I need employees with strong critical thinking and writing skills, but I also need them to be able to safely pick up an artifact and conduct an education program. Too many academic programs focus on the theory of public history and not enough on the practice — and I don’t hire their graduates.

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