Playing to Strength: Teaching Public History at the Turn of the 21st-Century
Miller, Marla R., American Studies International
Historians in the United States are at present deeply engaged in a conversation about the nature and future of graduate education, and the place of public history in it. Over the past several years, sustained institutional energies have been directed toward the review of current conditions in the teaching of public history, and the development of an improved practice that is more consistent and coherent across programs. Several of those efforts have come to fruition in recently-released reports and ongoing studies that assess the key challenges facing the field and suggest specific strategies for improvement. In 2000, the American Historical Association (AHA) directed its Committee on Graduate Education (CGE) to undertake a comprehensive study of current practices in graduate training; their findings and recommendations were published in the December 2003 volume, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century. (2) The AHA CGE followed this study of doctoral programs with an initiative to examine the nature of the master's degree in history, the degree level where most public history education occurs. In 2001, the AHA council also established the Task Force on Public History (TFPH), charged with, among other things, considering "whether degree offerings in higher education institutions--including undergraduate as well as graduate programs--adequately take into account the role public history can and does play in the nation's cultural life and within the profession." The report of the Task Force was delivered before the AHA's annual meeting in January 2004. (3) In these same years, the National Council on Public History (NCPH)--the main professional organization serving public historians broadly defined--has turned its attention to graduate training; the NCPH Committee on Curriculum and Training is currently surveying and assessing a selected group of existing master's degree programs with the goal of developing broad curriculum guidelines for public history programs. Finally, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) dedicated one of the 2004 "State of the Field" sessions ("State of the Field" sessions are a staple element of the OAH's annual meeting, which itself draws almost three thousand historians; these sessions are intended to introduce non-specialists to current trends and practice) to the topic of public history, creating an opportunity for sustained conversation about the state of public history education and the most promising directions for future development. (4)
The impetus behind this present and growing interest in public history from a number of professional quarters can be traced to developments that are both encouraging and troubling. On the one hand, public history programs in the U.S. are reaching a certain state of maturity. The field has clearly reached a collective milestone as a number of programs founded in the 1970s and 1980s have or will achieve landmark anniversaries in the early twenty-first century, including Middle Tennessee State University (which began to offer a concentration in historic preservation as early as 1973), the University of South Carolina and University of California--Santa Barbara (both founded in 1976), Arizona State University (founded in 1980), Loyola University (founded in 1981), Indiana University/ Purdue University Indianapolis (or IUPUI, founded in 1984) and my own institution, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (founded in 1986). In 2004, the NCPH itself reached its twenty-fifth year. Public history is without doubt gaining real ground as an area of emphasis within traditional degree programs. As Connie Schulz of the University of South Carolina has put it, "Public history is becoming a central element in the professional education of all historians in the departments fortunate enough to have a public history component in their curriculum." (5) Today, more than sixty programs across the United States, largely grounded in history departments, offer students a certificate, master's degree, or, in some cases, a Ph.D. in public history. (6) The increased attention paid to public history by the two leading professional organizations--e.g., the AHA's newsletter Perspectives initiated a regular column on public history in 1996, and its task force in 2001, while the OAH launched a Committee on Public History 1981, and a Committee on the National Park Service 1995--constitutes further evidence of changing attitudes within the profession at large. (7)
More cynical observers will suggest that the growing interest in public history courses and programs is the product of an ongoing crisis within the academic job market, which prompts academic advisors to steer aspiring and freshly-minted historians toward the increased opportunities public history positions offer. As the market for tenure-track jobs in colleges and universities has tightened, faculty necessarily began looking for placement opportunities outside higher education. Students, too, anxious about their job prospects and eager to bring the insights of their discipline to broader audiences, have taken the initiative to educate themselves about such possibilities, with or without the help of their faculty members. Pressure from degree candidates in fact helps explain the increasing attention to public history in academic departments, as the rising generation of historians for reasons intellectual, political and practical have begun to demand increased attention to wider definitions of scholarly practice. (8)
Graduate programs are central to the practice of public history in the United States, not just because they help train the rising generation of practitioners, but because the college and university departments that train public historians are themselves important forces in shaping the public history community, locally, regionally, and across the nation. This essay seeks to convey the central elements of recent conversations about public history education, and how to improve its ability to achieve its many aims. It will necessarily focus on graduate education in public history, though there is a serious case to be made for providing undergraduates with greater exposure to how historical insight is conveyed to general audiences. (9) My aim is to summarize and convey the key points of recent studies and discussions concerning public history and graduate education--and graduate education at the master's level in particular, since the doctorate is not yet a demanded credential. After some general overview of this discussion, I will turn to the introductory course itself, since it is the vehicle most readily available to expose students to public history practice in the "systematic, structured way" called for in the TFPH report. Concluding paragraphs will offer some observations about changing contexts for public history educators in the U.S., and to share some recommendations toward the future of public history education.
The outlines of public history education as we recognize it today can be traced to the 1950s, when prospective archivists, museum professionals and other public historians began to obtain training via graduate programs in universities. These programs continue to be the primary source of training among practicing public historians, far outstripping the number of students who graduate from "public history" programs. However, by the 1980s, several graduate programs in "applied" or "public" history--more firmly embedded in or tied to traditional disciplinary preparation, though with an aim to employ that training in venues outside the academy--also flourished. (10) During the intervening years, a confluence of forces contributed to the development of public history in academic settings. As the so-called "new social history" flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, a generation of historians embraced subjects and methods that both shaped and reflected developments in museum interpretation, particularly among living history museums. (11) Scholars interested in everyday life turned to new sources of historical insight in order to recover pasts long thought irretrievable; as American material culture study blossomed as a field and method of inquiry (drawing on pioneering French, British, Canadian and American scholarship) historians interested in artifacts and the built environment drew closer to professionals in museums and historic sites, blurring boundaries of scholarly expertise. (12)
Historians whose scholarly interests--and often political inclinations--drew them to the everyday lives of the past found themselves increasingly drawn, too, to participation in interpretive efforts at a variety of museums and historic sites. In the early twentieth century, public history programs were less oriented than they often are today toward museums, archives and historic sites, but rather looked to contribute to public policy and business, which emphasized institutional histories as well as archival work, often related to litigation. However, in these same years, as Jannelle Warren-Findlay has written, though they were" rarely closely connected to the new university public history programs, many social historians in the United States and elsewhere attempted to move their theoretical work beyond the university into the communities they studied, and projects like the American Social History Project and the Power of Place projects in Los Angeles combined documentary research with oral histories and examination of cultural landscapes to restructure the history of people and places to include ordinary people and everyday experiences." (13) While some academics trained in these years embraced a political commitment to forging new relationships between historians and the audiences they served, others expressly sought to find activist outlets for their scholarship. Part of today's professional interest in public history stems from a generation of scholars committed to "making movement history," to cultivating a "pedagogy of hope" that taps historical insight to effect positive change in the present. (14) Historians influenced by such developments alone or in combination would help found applied or public history programs across the U.S.
While the lion's share of public history programs emerged in traditional history departments, at some institutions the American Studies department also proved a natural home for these interests. George Washington University's Center for the Study of Public History and Public Culture, for example, is associated with its American studies department. (15) At Pennsylvania State University, public history offerings are also housed in the American studies program, while Brown University's well-known program in American civilization also hosts its master of arts in museum studies. The interdisciplinary nature of American studies, as well as its usually-close relationship with material culture studies, has meant that scholars associated with this field of inquiry have also forged productive relationships with museums and historic sites, and so also see training students to work in those areas a natural application of their skill and training. On many campuses, students and faculty in American studies and history share scholarly interests, community resources and pedagogical and career objectives, and so coordinate curricula, cross-list courses, and co-sponsor events of interest to both academic communities.
Graduate programs responded to the upsurge of interest in public history in a variety of ways, from dedicated degree programs to areas of emphasis to single courses taught by interested faculty members. However, while training in public history has become part of formal graduate education over the past three decades, it has not been altogether integrated into graduate training, but rather generally exists as ancillary to it, an option for some, but not all students--and too often considered an option for student unable (not disinclined) to pursue traditional tenure-track positions at colleges or universities. In fact, one survey of doctoral candidates across the humanities revealed that "historians are more aware of nonacademic careers than are graduate students in any other humanities discipline. But this knowledge only makes them more committed to an academic career, not less." (16)
More than any other issue, public history educators are concerned with what seems to be an intractable division between "academic" (as it is so often called) and "public" history. This apparent tension between theory and practice is by no means unique to the historical profession: a wide variety of fields--e.g. journalism, filmmaking, nursing, and education--have a "vocational" component, and so also host sustained debates about the "theory/practice nexus." (17) Public historians, in the field and in the academy, are acutely aware that traditionally-trained historians have for decades largely dismissed the practical skills required by public historians, suggesting that historians who choose museum work, training in archival management, or any one of a host of options have done so mainly because they were for some reason unsuccessful in their pursuit of the Ph.D. and/or a tenure-track job. Recent studies indicate that this sense that public historians are regarded as "second-class citizens" within the history profession persists: assessments of the divide between public and academic historians range from gap to gulf, but all agree that there is a significant split between the two, to the disadvantage of public history. The AHA CGE survey, for example, affirmed that a "deeply held and obstructive sense of hierarchy" persists across the profession; faculty positions continued to be considered the preferred reward for an advanced degree, while students who choose careers in public history too-often feel that they are considered their department's less-than-successful graduates. (18)
Part of this tangle of perceptions and assumptions is caught up in a number of other, related phenomena that are far too complex and nettlesome to consider fully here, but their presence should be accounted for in any consideration of public history training. The proportion of female students enrolled in public history programs is notable. (19) Many students contemplating training in public history do so for reasons both pragmatic and intellectual; for reasons that have to do with other life choices, they are often uninterested in relocating to any community in which they can find a tenure-track position, and instead have either already committed to working in a particular locale, or anticipate needing to be able to work in some capacity as a historian in a community determined by other factors, often where their partner has a job. Put another way, public history careers have been especially appealing to women who want to find ways to balance the demands of both family and career. (20) The notable presence of women in public history careers is inevitably mired in other longstanding and equally hierarchical thinking within the profession, as tenure-track jobs were long reserved for men, with public history careers providing options for female graduates, who were assumed to be less talented, or to have a lesser need for (or claim on) academic positions. This bias was exacerbated by a certain academic dismissiveness, even condescension, toward the legions of untrained (or self-trained) women who founded and maintained museums and historic sites through the twentieth-century. The persistent bias that shapes …
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Publication information: Article title: Playing to Strength: Teaching Public History at the Turn of the 21st-Century. Contributors: Miller, Marla R. - Author. Journal title: American Studies International. Volume: 42. Issue: 2-3 Publication date: June-October 2004. Page number: 174+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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