“History on the Edge”: Call for proposals for 2015 NCPH Annual Meeting

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Music clubs on Broadway, Nashville. Photo credit: Chuck Kramer

The 2015 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History will take place from April 15-18, 2015, in Nashville, Tennessee.  The conference theme is “History on the Edge.”

Edges are where exciting things happen. Some are stark boundaries, marking clear beginnings and ends, while others are blurred contact zones. Edges can be places of creativity where diverse people, ideas, and cultures meet and flourish.

They can be sites of uncertainty, risk, and opportunity. Edgy topics and practices call our longstanding assumptions into question. In Nashville, we invite public historians to consider the edges of what we do and who we are. What is on the horizon for public history? What happens on the porous boundaries of public history when we collaborate with other disciplines and new audiences? What can public historians contribute to addressing the cutting edge questions of our societies? Join us to discuss, debate, and question “history on the edge.” Continue reading

Survey announcement: Help us gather data for the Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide

ship in heavy seaDuring the coming year the National Council on Public History will prepare a Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide. The Consumer’s Guide will serve as a tool for anyone weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a degree or certificate in public history. Robert Weyeneth, president of the NCPH and director of the public history program at the University of South Carolina, outlined the rationale for the Consumer’s Guide last September in a series of posts for History@Work. Collectively titled “A Perfect Storm,” the posts addressed the widely held perception that a “jobs crisis” exists in the field of public history. Weyeneth argued that NCPH can and should commit its organizational resources to ensuring that public history programs offer the highest quality training to the next generation of practitioners, who will undoubtedly face a highly competitive job market.

As a first step toward producing the Consumer’s Guide, the New Professional and Graduate Student Committee of NCPH announced plans earlier this winter for a survey soliciting feedback from History@Work readers. The committee will participate in creating the Consumer’s Guide, and we are eager to hear from current public history students, long-established professionals, and everyone in-between. What kind of information do you think the NCPH should include in the Consumer’s Guide? Please follow this link and answer a few survey questions. Your feedback is indispensable to the process of crafting a Graduate Program Consumer’s Guide that will benefit our field and the next generation of practitioners. We hope that the survey will also stimulate discussions that continue during the upcoming NCPH meeting in Monterey.

~ New Professional and Graduate Student Committee

A cry for help: collegial syllabus revision

By Berdea (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo credit: Berdea, via Wikimedia Commons

My public history courses are complicated.

Over the eight years since I took over as Director of Public History at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I have found myself juggling and re-juggling course content, trying to achieve just the right mix of reading, discussion, research, and practice. I worry constantly about how to balance quality control and authority against student creativity and development. This worry manifests in every decision I make about each course: How much description of the assignment should I include? Which readings will be most effective for advancing students’ understanding of both the roots and the practice of core methodologies? How can I break assignments into manageable bites? What is the difference between graduate and undergraduate study in public history? What are the learning goals? What kinds of assignments will be enjoyable and meaningful for students? Continue reading

Student consumer’s guide

ship in heavy seaIn September of last year,History@Work published a series of posts by Robert Weyeneth, president of NCPH and Director of the Public History Program at the University of South Carolina. Collectively titled “A Perfect Storm,” the posts addressed what Weyeneth identified as a broadly shared concern among public history professionals (inside and outside academia) that a jobs crisis exists in the field. Weyeneth used the series to consider how NCPH should and could respond organizationally to the storm. This post, from NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee, represents one aspect of the organization’s response to the putative jobs crisis.

Before describing our committee’s goals, we would like to briefly summarize Weyeneth’s points. He wrote that the “perfect storm” combines the proliferation of public history programs, especially master’s-level certificate programs, with the accompanying growth in the number of public history MA’s, the dearth of entry-level jobs in the field for these new public historians, the range in quality of training received by some of these graduates, and the mismatch between program curricula and the demands of the contemporary public history job market. Weyeneth argued that quality, not quantity, is the fundamental issue related to public history employment. Certificate programs are not necessarily pumping out too many MA’s, but they may not be equipping their graduates with the skills appropriate for the “twentieth-first-century economy and the digital revolution.”

Weyeneth concluded that NCPH, as the major professional organization for the field, can do much to encourage and facilitate high-quality graduate training for the next generation of public historians. Drawing on the example of the organization’s best-practices documents for undergraduate programs, certificate programs, and internships, Weyeneth proposed that NCPH produce a student consumer’s guide to public history programs. This new guide will empower students to be “more active and critical consumers of education.” It will provide information about various programs and also equip prospective applicants with a set of questions to ask “when they study websites, e-mail program directors, or visit campuses.” The consumer’s guide will enable students to find the program with the right fit and, in turn, identify the career paths they desire.

In the coming weeks, the New Professional and Graduate Student Committee will solicit feedback from readers through a tool like Survey Monkey. We want to capture a range of experiences and perspectives, so we are eager to hear from current public history students, long-established professionals, and everyone in between. Our survey will ask what kind of information you think NCPH should include in the consumer’s guide. Based on your own experience, what knowledge or resources do you think would best enable people to actively shape their own graduate student experience and navigate the field as new professionals? What do you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your public history career? Keep an eye out for our call for feedback in a subsequent post. The practice of public history is inherently collaborative, and we hope you will join with us to shape the future of public history education.

~ New Professional and Graduate Student Committee

Digital Sandbox: Building a community of digital humanists

Each participant in the Digital Sandbox workshop received a flash drive containing supplementary materials for each session. Photo credit: Christine Crosby.

Each participant in the Digital Sandbox workshop received a flash drive containing supplementary materials for each session. Photo credit: Christine Crosby

There is a misconception in our American culture that young professionals are proficient at using technology. However, discussions among historians, humanists, and prospective employers indicate that many public history graduates are entering the field without practical training or consideration of the complex intersection between digital technology and public history.

Indeed, one study found that only 36% of public history programs are actively “preparing their students to create or author digital history or new media resources.” In a recent History@Work post, Robert Weyeneth expounded upon this lack of digital literacy among graduate students as just one part of a “perfect storm” that threatens the field of public history. The concerns he expresses are legitimate. As graduate students, we understand that we are emerging as public history professionals in the midst of a remarkable digital transformation. If we do not commit to attaining at least a basic level of technological proficiency, we will be left behind. Continue reading

What’s your NCPH story? A year-end reflection

people at tables

The speed-networking event is a popular regular feature of NCPH conferences.  Photo credit:  NCPH

It’s holiday time, and I’m turning from teaching and work to gift-giving.  As in most years, my shopping includes making financial gifts to organizations I support.  In the past, I’ve focused on political advocacy and service groups rather than professional societies like the National Council on Public History.  I’ve tended to believe I’m already doing enough for them when I send my membership dues.

For some organizations, this may be true.  But NCPH is different.  As a board member, I’m intensely involved.  But with Twitter, Facebook, the newsletter, History@Work, and pre-conference planning, I’m learning from my NCPH connections all the time.  This organization—which sits at a crossroads of professional, political, and personal—is my year-round public history community. Continue reading

Reading the artifact: From inquiry to interpretation

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

turn signal

A Nash Motor Home, one of the artifacts “read” in the RASI class.  Photo credit: Canada Science and Technology Museum, Nash Motor Car Company, 1983.0258, 2012

On the final day of Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI), each group was required to present its artifact to an audience of other participants, museum staff, and volunteers. Throughout the morning, artifacts that had initially seemed ambiguous and daunting at the start of the week were slowly separated into layers of meaning and their hidden histories were recounted. A small piano was revealed to be a portable ecclesiastical device used in religious sermons; a Gestetner printing press was exposed as a post-war business venture for a Japanese immigrant; a cannon-shaped lens viewer proved to be one of the first novelty cameras; a radiography device turned out to be one of the earliest home service x-ray machines; and a Nash Motor Home was an intact summer retreat, complete with additions such as a wooden arm that came down to signal a turn.

In our presentations, we were challenged to consider various methods suitable for presenting research on artifacts, from traditional slide show presentations to performances. Continue reading

A culinary school model for public history programs

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the number of academic public history programs, the saturation of the job market, and concern about the training students are receiving (see Robert Weyeneth’s article “A Perfect Storm”).  Curtailing the number of public history programs, growing the public history market, and accrediting programs are all big challenges. I’d like to propose a small change: that potential students gain work experience BEFORE they enter an academic program.

Does the culinary school model hold promise for public history education?  Photo credit: Bill Way, HPRMan on Flickr

What would happen if public history programs demanded that applicants worked in the public history field before they could apply to an academic program? Culinary schools have long used this model and have required that applicants have kitchen experience before they apply to a program. In fact, there are lots of similarities between culinary arts degree programs and public history programs. Continue reading

Digital history for undergraduates….without the coding

Slippery Rock University students selecting images for History Pin at the Lawrence County Historical Society. Photo courtesy Aaron Cowan.

Slippery Rock University students selecting images for HistoryPin at the Lawrence County Historical Society. Photo credit: Aaron Cowan.

The digital humanities are rapidly transforming both the discipline of history and the pedagogy of public history.  When I taught my first Introduction to Public History course six years ago, my course schedule had two weeks devoted to digital history; today it occupies more than half of the semester.

Digital history presents several obstacles for introductory-level students, though.  For all the claims about the millennial generation’s tech literacy, they are more adept as consumers than creators.  This is perhaps even more true at institutions like my own – a mid-size state university with a student body drawn largely from the suburban and rural counties in a 100-mile radius.  More than half of them are first-generation college students.  These supposed “digital natives” use smartphones and Twitter with relative ease but rarely have had access to the educational enrichment programs or expensive technology that might give them familiarity with computer programming.  Within the confines of a 15-week academic term, learning the intricacies of Javascript or Google Earth databases from scratch AND deploying those for a digital history project seemed unrealistic.

And yet, just telling students about all the possibilities of digital history and demonstrating some tools on a classroom screen seemed flat and sterile.  I wanted more experiential learning and some way to allow undergraduates to understand the potential of digital history and create a presentable public history project, without the technical skills proving an insurmountable barrier.

Continue reading