A considerable amount of ink (and blog space) has been devoted to the articles written last fall by Anthony Grafton, president of the American Historical Association at the time, and AHA Executive Director James Grossman on the state of the job market for history Ph.D.’s. Still, there is more to be said about their arguments from the perspective of public history. Grafton and Grossman address the shrinking number of tenure-track jobs for graduate history students and advocate a re-orientation of graduate programs in order to prepare students for careers outside the academy, many of which fall under the public history rubric. As a historian-in-training hoping to bridge academic and public history in my still-distant professional career (and, I should add, as a student in the same department at Princeton where Professor Grafton teaches), I have more than a passing interest in this debate.
I’ll leave readers to evaluate on their own the arguments presented in Grafton and Grossman’s original essay, which they further elucidated here, as well as the trenchant critique offered by historian Jesse Lemisch in his exchanges with the authors. (Grafton also contributed an incisive portrait of public history as practiced at the Museum of the City of New York.) I cite this now months-long discussion because, at least for this brief moment, the putative boundaries of the “legitimate” practice of historical scholarship are an open question. As Princeton’s graduate history program prepares to launch its own public history initiative this spring, partially inspired by these articles, I’ve thought a lot about the “job crisis” debate. What should be our response as public historians? The question seems as good as any with which to begin my contribution to this blog.
Public historians inside and outside academic departments should welcome Grafton and Grossman’s advocacy of our work and their call to bring elements of public history into doctoral program curricula. Furthermore, we should emphasize–as Grafton and Grossman do–that public history is not a back-up career and that jobs in museums, archives, and preservation are not consolation prizes. I suspect that most public historians came to the discipline as I did, from a place of conviction–with a desire to blend scholarship, civic engagement, and education. For public historians, those with and without academic appointments, collaborating with diverse stakeholders in the community outside the boundaries of the campus or the museum is challenging and rewarding, yielding a product that could not have been produced solely in our offices or study carrels.
My formative training in public history came as an M.A. student at UMass Amherst. I interned with a local organization–the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail–often sitting around a conference table with local historians, public officials, church deacons, public librarians, community activists, and my own professors, all of whom approached the various projects with unique but equally relevant perspectives. The “shared authority” (to borrow Michael Frisch’s phrase) implicit in these collaborations has its own potential pitfalls, but it is central to the business of bringing history to a wider audience. And as the presence of my UMass professors at those meetings indicates, one need not view academic and public history as a zero-sum game. Many historians already engage the communities around them, applying their scholarly training to contemporary issues.
Finally, if Grafton and Grossman offer an opening to public historians, they also present grounds for sober reflection on the future of our discipline. Current public history graduate students should articulate our own responses to the state of the job market. After all, public history, no less than academic history, confronts a diminution of employment opportunities and the declining availability of public and private funding–as many people noted in posted responses to Grafton and Grossman’s articles. We need to ask if M.A. certificate programs are keeping up with trends in public history employment and guiding students accordingly; if public history curricula contain the proper balance of scholarly and practical training; and if opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration on our campuses are being utilized. I would also argue that graduate students with a public history orientation can help change attitudes in the historical profession by advocating for public history within their departments and their respective professional organizations, as well as by modeling the principles of the sub-discipline: unselfish cooperation, a concern for audience, and intellectual flexibility.
Jesse Lemisch argues in his critique that “[h]istory is worth fighting for, and its importance goes far beyond the current vogue for saleable skills and narrow vocational justifications for education.” Lemisch is challenging what he perceives as Grafton and Grossman’s “accommodation” to the evisceration of public education, but I would propose splitting the difference in this particular disagreement. History is indeed worth fighting for, but the public history ethos of collaboration and community engagement is a critical tool in making the case to local and national communities (as well as legislatures) that the study of the past helps shape our present and our future. As Lemisch suggests, this defense of history education and scholarship is deeply, unavoidably political, but that’s a subject for future posts.
~ Richard Anderson is a Doctoral student in 20th-century American history at Princeton University.
[EDITORS’ NOTE: As a follow-up to Richard Anderson’s post, we want to briefly mention a few related conversations and resources about nonacademic careers for graduate students in the humanities. Public historians have been active participants in these dialogues; see for example, Beyond Academe, #alt-academy, and The Versatile PhD. This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list, and we welcome additional discussion in the comments!]