By Selena Wilke. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
In 2007, a professor at a Texas university began a thread on H-Oralhist, the oral history listserv. “I am up for tenure next fall,” she wrote, “and am struggling to prove to my dean that the gathering, transcribing, editing and archiving of oral history is ‘scholarship.’ I am regularly applauded for the fact that I have begun an oral history program, trained forty undergraduate and graduate students in oral history methodology, gathered and processed over eighty-five interviews (in the past three years), and reconnected dozens of former students with our university (I began a ‘former student’ oral history project). Despite all of this, the dean of my college does not seem to recognize this as valuable, original scholarship. She is very supportive and enthusiastic about the oral history program, it just seems I need to help her redefine it.”
Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer
Doing public history, in all its diverse manifestations, requires certain specialized habits of mind. One of the most vital but also the most mysterious is synthesis.
When I begin work on an exhibition, such as the one I’ve been developing for the past two years, I read as many books and talk to as many people as I can, and then–I wait. I wait to wake up at 5 am with an exhibit concept plan fully formed in my head. I wait to discover an important idea by talking it out with a friend over coffee. I wait to be suddenly struck in the middle of a meeting with the solution to a convoluted conceptual problem that I immediately scribble down as if I’m taking notes on whatever the meeting is actually about. I wait–and I trust the process because I know it works and because I have developed and exercised my synthetic powers before and I know that they require patience. In comes 100 scholarly monographs, out comes 30 accessible fifty-word labels, without fail.
Though it can feel magical, especially once you’ve internalized the work it takes, synthesis is a creative skill that public historians can learn and teach. Continue reading
History and Reconstruction project storyteller Denise Valentine (center), psychologist Dr. Thomas Gordon (right), members of the cohort, and friends. Photo credit: Courtesy of Phillip Seitz
How can public historians and their audiences come to terms with the traumatic and ongoing legacies of racism and slavery in the United States? This is the question motivating a project I’m currently working on in Philadelphia with a group of ex-offenders, ages 21 to 72. The project is a collaboration with Reconstruction Inc., a grass-roots group (William Goldsby, chair) that supports returning citizens as well as youth at risk and lifetime prisoners. Continue reading
A ‘top gun’ introduction to public history course for general education might be simpler than you’d think.
In 2006, when I arrived as “the public history hire” at DePaul University, in Chicago, my charge was to create an undergraduate public history concentration
for history majors. At the time, the only public history course actively being taught was “Introduction to Public History,” a lower division course that served the university’s general education requirements. I decided that this course should stay on the books and that it would be one of two required courses (along with the internship) for would-be public history concentrators.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure my decision to keep this course on the books was a result of my being a bit overwhelmed. Not being native to Chicago and as a new tenure-line Assistant Professor with this public history charge, much of my time was absorbed with the business of forging new community connections while also designing (and getting approval for) an entirely new repertoire of public history courses. What? The “Introduction to Public History” has already been approved? Great! More time to develop internship prospects!
Within a few quarters, I resurrected the public history internship and developed a bevy of other courses: “Doing Local and Community History;” “Oral History Project;” “Women, Gender, and Public History;” “Living History and Historical Interpretation: American Historical Memory” (among others)–all courses for history majors and minors. Evaluations tended to be strong, but the “Introduction to Public History” course? I just couldn’t seem to ever get it quite right. Continue reading
This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus. Photo credit: South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina
Written on the landscape of the University of South Carolina is an untold yet well-documented story of slavery. Enslaved people constructed the buildings of the university’s antebellum predecessor, South Carolina College, attended to the wants of white students and faculty, and performed countless tasks essential to running the college. This story is not unique in the history of American colleges and universities. Even in places where slavery was not widespread, the profits from slavery helped fund institutions of higher learning. Scholars have been slow to examine American universities’ historical association with slavery, and universities have been even slower to acknowledge it. The current momentum, however, favors expanding the discussion of these complicated topics. Continue reading
Prompted by Suse Cairn’s June musings on whether museum professionals need theory in their working lives, we posed the same question via social media about public historians and gathered a handful of responses:
I think theory and reflexive thought is fascinating and, ideally, useful for planning project goals and critiquing ourselves as authors. In grad school, though, it seemed easier to discuss both theory and practice because we had down time together in work-like spaces of computer labs and student lounges, and, with similar classes, we were coming to the discussion with similar background information. Those factors seem harder to find or create in work situations. ~ Elizabeth Almlie (Historic Preservation Specialist, South Dakota State Historical Society)
I remember well the day that I received my first copy of my first book, Independence Hall in American Memory. I picked it up in person from the offices of the University of Pennsylvania Press and could barely manage the walk home because of the temptation to stop, admire the beautiful dust jacket, open those pages, smell that new-book smell, and read. Every page contained memories of places, people, and experiences of piecing together a history that spanned more than two hundred years in a building’s life and nearly a decade of mine.
With that book, first published in 2002, I achieved tenure and promotion, and I was pleased to generate some new conversation about the long history of a landmark most commonly associated with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But while the monograph opened some doors (and perhaps some minds), it also carried with it some inherent limitations. Continue reading
Well, not quite all. Let me elaborate.
Riding a highwheel bicycle at the Smithsonian Institution. Photo courtesy of author.
How many times has someone told you that you have the coolest job? I’ve heard this comment at various points in my career, and admittedly, I have had the opportunity to work on some really fun history projects. One in particular—the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition—was truly one of the best. My friends kept telling me to write about these experiences. The time I received a grizzly bear in the mail. My trip on the Lewis and Clark trail with teachers from reservation schools. The meeting of tribal advisors. I decided that if I didn’t record the stories, I would soon forget them. So I began to write. As I wrote about my Lewis and Clark experiences, I thought of earlier projects that molded my thinking about history. I kept writing. I wrote whenever I felt inspired, in the evenings and on weekends. Ultimately a book idea formed, and I ended up with eighteen eclectic chapters about history projects from throughout my career. Because I have worked at some rather high-profile institutions that a wide audience would recognize, I began to think that just maybe someone would be willing to pay to read my stories. Continue reading
Regular visitors to the Public History Commons may have noticed that we’ve undergone a slight facelift recently. The History@Work blog, initially the sole occupant of this site, has gradually been joined by other projects: the News Feed, The Public Historian’s digital space, and now our new Library. To try to keep our interface clear and easy to navigate, we’ve bumped the blog down a little bit on the page and simplified the navigation bar. We hope readers are finding their way around without too much trouble.
We’re also excited to introduce the Library to you. Although still in its very early stages, it represents an important step in a larger project of creating flexible platforms for publication and communication and ways for our print and digital projects to cross-pollinate more easily. We’re starting to get a sense of the possibilities through two recent collaborations, one of which revolves around Richard Rabinowitz’s award-winning article “Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the ‘Slavery in New York’ Exhibition.” Continue reading