Saturday, April 12, 2008

Diversity: Expanding our Professional Boundaries

This morning, I attended a breakfast meeting of public history educators as well as a facilitated discussion about “best practices” for Public History graduate education. At both sessions, we discussed the progress made by the organization’s Curriculum and Training Committee and opened up discussion about issues of major concern to us as scholars, as public historians and as teachers.

The primary topic of discussion at our breakfast meeting was diversity. David Glassberg, from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was the first to broach the subject as a problem in faculty hiring, but it soon became apparent, that public history educators share a concern about the lack of diversity in our field. It is impossible not to observe that public history remains largely the domain of whites who are disproportionately represented among faculty, student populations, and practitioners, not to mention among those we call stakeholders and audiences.

There are a few projects seeking to address this very problem. At the University of South Carolina, Connie Shulz and Robert Weyeneth developed an NEH funded Summer Institute designed to introduce public history to college teachers who serve historically underrepresented student communities. The institute focused attention on African American historic sites and encouraged teachers to link academic inquiry in the classroom to issues of preservation and the profession of public history. The University of South Carolina Public History Program website contains a link to information about this project, and Shulz and Weyeneth encourage other colleges and universities to adopt and adapt their model.

While the University of South Carolina tackled the problem of diversity by providing professional training to college teachers, other public history educators at the breakfast called for more deliberate recruitment of students of color. Calinda Lee, from Loyola University in Chicago, asked us to consider the ways in which diversity issues are related to the economics of graduate education. Many programs provide most if not all of their graduate funding to PhD students, placing students pursuing a terminal MA at a disadvantage. Lee also observed that intense mentoring relationships are crucial to the success of public history students. She urged public history departments to create mechanisms –formal if necessary—to ensure that students of color are actively recruited into public history programs, and then supported in their effort to complete the degree and find work.

Several colleagues observed that active recruitment and nurturing of relationships must extend beyond students to include new community partnerships. Public History programs should actively seek out opportunities to work as equal partners with African American museums and community institutions. Whenever possible, we should invite public history practitioners from these sites to teach regular courses as well.

At our facilitated discussion of best practices, a roomful of public history educators discussed draft documents by the Curriculum and Training Committee which recommend requirements for graduate training. For the most part, there seemed to be little disagreement over the basic framework of public history graduate education: grounding in historical methodology and historiography, hands-on experience in the form of internships, an introductory course in public history, and some culminating project to demonstrate student proficiency. At the same time, there was fruitful conversation about the variety in public history programs’ specializations, structure and curriculum.

In the course of this conversation, it became clear that we must also include a discussion of adjunct labor in our best practices recommendations. The use of adjunct labor is a sticking point in the historical profession and in academia more broadly. At the same time, it is crucial for students of public history to study with practitioners who bring both intellectual insight and first-hand, practical experience to the classroom. Further, because public history encompasses many potential areas of expertise, it is not possible for any single public history educator to be able to cover all of the possible fields.

Because the issue of adjunct labor also touches the issue of diversity, the Curriculum and Training Committee might be able to provide some recommendations about how to form mutually valuable partnerships with under-served and underrepresented historical professionals and institutions. While this is certainly not the only answer to the problem of homogeneity in the field, it might open up opportunities for ensuring that our field becomes more inclusive and therefore better equipped to serve the needs of 21st century citizenship.

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