A perfect storm? (Part 1)

Categories: In the Academy
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EDITOR’S NOTE:  This four-part post by Robert Weyeneth, President of the National Council on Public History and director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina, is also printed in the September 2013 NCPH newsletter.  To add your comments, go to Part 4 of the post.

ship in heavy seaTo many, it looks like the perfect storm: five disturbing trends coming together to spawn a monster disaster. Here’s the meteorological analysis.  (1) There are now too many public history programs in colleges and universities, especially at the graduate level.  (2) They are producing record numbers of new MAs, probably too many.  (3) These newly minted public historians are not finding good entry-level jobs in the field.  (4) Some of the new graduates aren’t finding jobs because they are poorly trained—by new public history programs that are struggling to figure out what they should be doing.  (5) Even graduates of long-established programs aren’t getting jobs—because their stodgy curricula haven’t kept up with the realities of the twenty-first-century economy and the digital revolution.

These are observations I hear regularly from colleagues whom I respect. Some conclude that the National Council on Public History should actively discourage the creation of new programs. Let’s look at some of the issues raised by these alarming observations and consider what NCPH might do consistent with its impulse to welcome all aboard the “big ark.”

Are there too many public history programs in higher education?

The NCPH Guide to Public History Programs lists a total of 221 programs at the graduate and undergraduate levels in ten countries. Two hundred of these are in North America alone, and 138 of those are graduate programs. From one perspective, this is a remarkable story of success.  Just in the United States, 45 of the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) offer some form of public history education. From another perspective, program proliferation may be a genuine problem, at least in graduate education in the United States—but who’s to say what a sustainable number of programs is?  Job placements are one measure of sustainability and success, and academic program reviewers in deans’ offices and prospective students with multiple options are ever mindful of statistics like that. Thinking about the issue in this way, it may be a problem of quality not quantity.

Personally, I don’t think that the tide can be turned back because the recent and rapid growth of programs and courses is rooted in multiple causes. Public history at the undergraduate level helps history departments answer the question “What can I do with a history major?” Graduate and undergraduate courses in public history help university administrators show that their institutions are “civically engaged.” Graduate study in public history provides career directions for students who want to practice history but not teach, to shape public attitudes about the past, to participate in collaborative projects, to find connections to issues of social justice, to make history meaningful. For faculty, it’s fun and rewarding to “do” and teach public history. Faculty, students, and alumni from all sorts of programs—undergraduate and graduate, decades-old programs and scrappy new ones,  those with a local focus and those with an international reach—are doing exciting, important, and path-breaking work. From the standpoint of potential employers—everyone from museum administrators to historical consulting firms, from big federal agencies to small historical societies, from state departments of transportation to city planning offices—a wide and deep pool of applicants should be welcome news.

Are there too many programs? It’s hard to say.

Is there a job crisis in public history? 

Without question, the Great Recession has taken its toll, as have the slashing and sequestering of budgets at the local, state, provincial, and federal levels, where many public history jobs have traditionally been funded in the public sector. People are losing jobs, positions are going unfilled, many individuals are doing the work once done by two, three, or more colleagues. Some who were once planning to retire soon are holding onto jobs to build back retirement funds, postponing others’ prospects for mid-level advancement.  Entry-level jobs are scarcer, more temporary, with fewer benefits. Historical consultants are finding fewer opportunities for contract work. Cultural institutions, heritage agencies, museums and historic sites, archives and libraries are being scrutinized as never before for their relevance to modern life, and some are being eliminated entirely or dismantled to the point of dysfunction. The Great Recession reduced positions in the museum world, but doubts about the economic and cultural viability of historic house museums and outdoor museums pre-dated the global crisis, and they continue to erode employment in the museum sector. Historians are reluctant to use the term “unprecedented,” but some wonder if the grim news is perhaps the new normal. On the other hand, state and federal law continue to mandate processes of environmental and historical review, which in turn creates employment opportunities for historians and preservationists. The digital revolution is energizing and expanding opportunities in all fields of public history, perhaps no more so than in library, archival, and information science. Reducing the salaries and lowering the threshold degree requirements for some curator and local museum director jobs is part of these unfortunate trends but, ironically, the belt-tightening has opened up these positions to recent recipients of the MA eager to have the job, the title, and the pay.

The pain of friends, colleagues, and family members, as well as the numbing impact of cutbacks on close-by local institutions, give all of this a very personal feel for me. However, in all candor, I have to say that graduates of our public history program are consistently finding jobs—and good jobs—in the field, right out of school. My impression is that colleagues in similar programs at other universities say the same thing. Obviously, a desire to live in a particular part of the country or a specific city is going to reduce the odds of finding a good first job. But if one is geographically portable, I think our program and many other programs continue to have strong placement records.

Clearly this is just anecdotal evidence from programs for which I have personal knowledge. But it is suggestive. We need hard data.

For the remainder of this piece, let me focus on graduate education in public history, on the assumption that the Master of Arts degree has replaced the Bachelor’s degree as the minimal ticket of admission or union card into white collar employment.

Part 2 follows.  To add your comments, go to Part 4 of the post.