Saturday, January 12, 2013

Public History vs. Public Humanities

Over at History@Work, the blog of the National Council on Public History, Anne Parsons and Lara Kelland sort out the difference between Public History and Public Humanities.  Here is a taste:

...Anne received her MA in public history at New York University, a program that resides largely in the history department. The program provided her with a strong skill set for museum work and public history scholarship. In contrast, Lara trained at the University of Chicago in its Master of Arts Program in Humanities, designing an interdisciplinary degree that brought together different skill sets to her museum studies inquiry. The public humanities degree at University of Chicago, for instance, allowed students to design their own degree in various disciplines, enabling students to train themselves in ways that would be useful for their intended profession. A similar sentiment was expressed at the meeting of this past year’s NCPH Working Group on Imagining New Careers in Public History, where discussion about training MAs with business skills flourished. We might greatly benefit from looking to public humanities programs as a model for teaching students transferrable skills and broad cultural approaches. In one example, the University of Chicago’s MAPH program consistently places students in publishing, journalism, and teaching jobs, as well as other cultural sector jobs in visual and dramatic arts and public humanities organizations. According to one administrator of the program, graduates of broad humanities training are well-positioned to connect ideas generated within the academy to public spaces, events, and projects.

Beyond changes in public history curriculum, we would also be well-served to better connect what we already do to a broader array of cultural work. The kinship between our current professional moment and the rise of public humanities cannot be underemphasized. Public historians have many specific skills to bring to this conversation, our engagement with public memory and civil dialogue among them. Reimagining public history training as bringing skills of historical analysis into an array of jobs outside of museums and historic sites strikes at the heart of our field. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen persuasively demonstrated that popular conceptions of the past reside within the walls of the museum, but that quotidian historical consciousness is woven throughout social relations and the cultural sphere. We might do well to promote the value of historical scholarship broadly within the cultural sector, and empower our students to imagine their skills transferring to a wide array of professions and jobs beyond historic institutions.

This turn towards public humanities would provide students with the opportunity to self-design their education and foster more interdisciplinary training to equip them with the broad skills necessary for professional success across industries and sectors. Thinking about public humanities also redefines what counts as public history work. Proponents of liberal arts training have long fended off criticisms that broadly trained critical thinkers are poorly equipped for the real world. Yet despite the criticisms lobbied at the generalist training of liberal arts education, some of the richest suggestions involve not becoming narrow in the transmission of skills, but rather redefining the broad principles that guide the curriculum and pedagogy. Beyond this, we could take cues from both the alternative academic careers community and public humanities circles.

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