Thursday, April 10, 2008

Thursday at the Conference, One Public History Educator's Experience

It has been my highly unscientific observation that academics are a uniquely insecure bunch –always certain that their work isn’t quite good enough or relevant to a larger intellectual community. For public historians working in the ivory tower, that general tendency can be amplified by real isolation. Many of us who are professors of public history are the single professional public historian in our departments. In that context, we can begin to lose sight of the ways in which our work is part of a larger set of professional practices.

One of the great benefits of coming to the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History is that it provides ample evidence that we are not alone. The issues we face in forming relationships with our colleagues, in developing curriculum for our students, and in shaping our role in the larger field of public history professionalism are not personal quirks or short comings –they are emblematic of important intellectual and practical concerns of our field.

I arrived at the Conference somewhat late in the day today, but I’ve already had conversations and encounters that help remind me that my work and my experience are part of a larger professional context.

Late this evening, I had some drinks with a colleague who works in New Jersey. Like me, she is an American Studies PhD and a practicing public historian. We had a lively and enjoyable conversation about a variety of topics ranging from our research interests to the status of American Studies among historians to our common experience growing up on the Jersey Shore. In the course of our talk, she observed that there seems to be an expansion of public history graduate programs. She wondered aloud about the content of these programs, their administration by academics and their value to a generation of students.

Her questions excited me, not only because, as the coordinator of a graduate Public History track, I ask them ALL THE TIME, but also because these are the very questions we as an organization are addressing --with the unique combination of intellectual curiosity, professional practicality and civic mindedness that define our field.

Just prior to this casual conversation, I had participated in a meeting of the standing committee on curriculum and training. Our committee is composed of public historians who administer public history programs and/or teach public history courses at the colleges and university level. Our work compliments the National Council on Public History’s recent efforts to adequately and fully define “public history,” to broaden promotion and tenure guidelines in ways that recognize and reward historical work in the public sector, and to ensure that the next generation of public historians is appropriately trained in both historical methodology and public service.

This year, the committee has produced working drafts of a series of “best practices” documents which we will present to our peers and use as the basis for creating general guidelines for Public History Masters Degree Programs, Certificate Programs, Undergraduate Courses and Internships. While by no means finalized, we hope these documents will provoke further conversation among practitioners and educators in the field of public history. We do not intend them –even in their final form-- to dictate a single "right way" to teach Public History. Rather, we believe that these documents will support the work that public history educators are already doing, and enable them to demonstrate to their colleagues and peers that they are adhering to --and contributing to-- a recognized set of professional standards.

This evening, we began hashing out a preliminary agenda for the committee to pursue in the coming year.

We are interested in conducting a survey regarding the workload, status, title and general experience of public historians in academic departments. In conducting this survey, we would like, eventually, to provide both some hiring guidelines for academic departments interesting in adding a public historian to their faculty as well as some fodder for contract negotiation for prospective and continuing public history faculty members.

In addition, the National Council on Public History webpage recently began publishing original commentary and research in the category of curriculum and training. We would like to encourage public history educators to submit proposals for postings that address particular issues, including:

How best to educate our colleagues about the nature of our work, the context of our scholarship and the value of our community relationships.

How public history educators have responded to the trend toward creating Centers for Public History. What strategies have emerged for ensuring that such entities are centers for intellectual inquiry and curriculum development, not only for the generation of revenue?

What creative strategies have program directors developed for training students to become public historians as distinct from museum technicians or archivists (related fields in which students might find better opportunities for training in Museum Studies or MLS programs)?

Of course, I can only accurately describe my own observations and report on ideas that particularly attracted my attention. At the same time, my formal and informal conversations today reminded me that my observations are not entirely idiosyncratic.

I may be the only active and self-identified public historian in my home department, but I am not alone.

More importantly, I can say for certain that the Curriculum and Training Committee would be delighted to hear more from the blogosphere –questions, suggestions, critique. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet with like minded people whose professional interests touch my own.

1 comment:

Keith Erekson said...

Thanks for these reflections. I am new to the field and this is the first conference I have attended (I enjoyed it very much). I have been wondering about the place of public history in undergraduate and K-12 education (i.e. not solely as advanced career preparation). Any recommendations?