“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

My dark secret, or How I learned to stop hating American history and start loving it

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Brian Joyner. Photo credit: Michael Spain Smith

Several years back, I was a new public history practitioner working for the National Park Service (NPS).  A series of fortuitous events led me to the NPS: a stint at a historical society, a freelance job for the Smithsonian, an informational interview with the NPS Office of Diversity and Special Projects, and a quick gig with a partner organization. I started enthusiastically editing and writing about historic preservation and diverse communities, but I was carrying a dark secret: I knew little about preservation or public history. Yes, I was a history major from the University of Maryland (Go Terps!), but my senior paper was on the Conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity and most of my studies were in topics that predated the North American colonies by at least 1000 years.

The truth was that United States history bored me and made me angry. 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

Tools for digital history: Google Map Engine Lite

Google mapThe turn to spatial history has been aided by the explosion of digital mapping tools. While there are many options for mapping out there (including HistoryPin as described by Aaron Cowan in a History@Work post earlier this year), one look at the projects being completed by leaders in the field like the Stanford Visualization Lab is both inspiring and terrifying. How did they do that? Could I do that?

If you’re me, the answer is “not yet” (and not without a team and funding). But I’m increasingly interested in learning to make maps as part of my professional and scholarly work and wanted to stretch my digital muscles in some new ways. I just needed some data and a story that would be best told through a map. Continue reading

Reading the artifact: From inquiry to interpretation

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.

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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

Ripple effects: The US government shut down and public history training

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Image: Flickr user Bryan Mills.

I was editing a student’s master’s thesis and came across a note stating that she could not access two key images because they were only available on the Websites of the United States Geological Survey and the United States Department of Agriculture. I was discussing another student’s research paper and tried to access a part of the Library of Congress’s Website that was unavailable. In conducting my own research, I tried to consult census.gov and got this message: “Due to the lapse in government funding, census.gov sites, services, and all online survey collection requests will be unavailable until further notice.” Minor annoyances, perhaps, but the cumulative effect of each dead end is to degrade the learning environment and restrict productive work for both students and faculty.

One of my colleagues and our first-year graduate students are preparing for a field trip to Washington, DC. The itinerary includes visits to the Smithsonian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and National Mall. Can you imagine taking a group of museum studies graduate students to Washington and not getting to see any of these things? Continue reading