Friday, September 13, 2013

A Crisis in Public History?

Robert Weyneth, President of the National Council on Public History and director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina, notes five disturbing trends in the field of public history.

1. There are too many graduate programs in public history

2.  There are too many new MAs.

3.  These newly minted public history graduates are not finding jobs.

4.  Some public history graduate students are poorly trained by new MA programs that still don't know what they are doing.

5.  Some MA programs have not kept up with the digital revolution.

Read Weyeneth's 4-part series at History@Work beginning here.

Here is a taste:

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.  
Most of Weyeneth's posts focus on graduate programs in public history.  At Messiah College we recently revamped our public history undergraduate concentration to include courses in local history (with an oral history component), archaeology, digital history, teaching history, and a host of interdisciplinary offerings including courses in GIS mapping, web design, business management, event planning, public writing, museum studies, and documentary film-making.  (Our "Introduction to Public History" course and our internship requirement remain at the heart of the program).

Some of the students who enroll in this program will pursue graduate school in public history and eventually careers in the field. Others, I hope, will pursue graduate school or careers in other fields, drawing upon the transferable skills they will glean from their history major and the more specific skills they will glean from the public history concentration. 

In other words, despite Weyeneth's "perfect storm," I am still hopeful that undergraduate programs in public history still serve a useful purpose. At Messiah, our program is rooted in public engagement, service-learning, and the power of history to shape and transform communities.  We like to think that it contributes well to the mission of the college.