Public history student swaps mobcap for hard hat

Willowbank students squaring and carving stone.  Photo credit: Juliana Glassco

Willowbank students squaring and carving stone. Photo credit: Juliana Glassco

It is often said that everyone should work in the customer service industry at some point in their lives so that they can understand what it’s like to interact with the world from the other side of the cash register. I feel the same way about traditional building trades. Anyone who works with old buildings should spend at least a few days learning about what it takes to be a carpenter, plasterer, mason, or blacksmith. As a student in a course of study in heritage conservation (called historic preservation in the United States) at Willowbank School, a small private college in southern Ontario, that is precisely what I do.

Willowbank’s curriculum blends hands-on experience with design, heritage management, and theory. Professional craftspeople–and architects, historians, planners, conservators, and others–take time away from their jobs to teach a group of students from diverse backgrounds about their profession. Every day is a lesson in humility and patience. At its heart, being a student here is about cultivating respect for the many perspectives, skills, and disciplines that interact with “heritage” in all of its varied forms. In studying these points of intersection, we are unlocking potential for cross-disciplinary creativity, communication, and collaboration. Continue reading

Report from the task force on public history education and employment

Graphic from public history employers' survey showing skills in demand for entry-level employees. Image credit: Public History Education and Employment Task Force

Graphic from public history employers’ survey, showing skills in demand for entry-level employees. Image credit: Public History Education and Employment Task Force

Are there too many public history programs? Where is the field going, and what can professional organizations do to ensure that it remains vital in the years to come? For the past year, a task force organized by the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the American Association for State and Local History has investigated questions about the current landscape of public history training and employment. Inspired in part by Robert Weyeneth’s essay “A Perfect Storm?,” the task force is charged with gathering data on several key questions. We want to know what skills and abilities employers look for when hiring professionals in the early stages of their careers, where they see the field of public history going, and what skills and expertise will be more highly valued in the future. We want to know if training, particularly at the graduate level, is preparing students for professional employment and long-term career growth. Finally, we want to know what professional organizations can do to ensure production of well-trained public historians and ensure the general health of the field. At a time when concerns about the number of graduate public history programs and possible “overproduction” have become common, we need reliable information about these concerns. Continue reading

Can public history play? A conference pop-up preview

swirls of light

Photo credit: Rick Harrison

It’s the week of the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting, and you’re getting ready to jet off to the Volunteer State.

You’ve watched the requisite Tennessee-based movies: The Thing Called Love, Inherit the Wind, and The Blind Side.

You’ve got your must-do list all set–a visit to the Grand Ole Opry (wait, since when is that in a suburban shopping center?), a night out at the Blue Bird Café, and a lunch date with your college roommate at The Wild Cow.

Now, like all good public historians, you pull up the program and begin to map out your conference schedule.

  • THATCamp NCPH Boot Camp on Wednesday afternoon? Check.
  • “History on the Cutting Edge” on Saturday and the Nashville Crime Walking Tour Friday? Add those to the list.
  • And speed networking on Thursday morning? You definitely want to make time for that.

But wait. You have a free two hours on Thursday afternoon. How will you ever fill the time? Continue reading

You can do better

Wikipedia 101 workshop at the 2014 NCPH Annual Meeting in Monterey, CA. Photo credit: Courtesy of NCPH.

Wikipedia 101 workshop at the 2014 NCPH Annual Meeting in Monterey, CA. Photo credit: NCPH

In 2011, the Professional Development Committee developed a set of guidelines for annual meeting workshops. We see workshops as providing hands-on and participatory experiences which impart practical information, rather than the typical conference presentation or “show and tell” case studies. With these guidelines in place, the committee has begun to think about a broader curriculum of professional development opportunities to serve the needs of National Council on Public History members. To do so, we are seeking your input though a brief survey. Continue reading

Proposing a Business and History program

 

Tag cloud from Centre for Regulation and Market Analysis conference in Adelaide, South Australia. Image credit: University of South Australia

Some nineteen categories of public history programs are now offered. Many offer skills and knowledge useful for specialized businesses (archival practices, business histories, publishing). None prepare history students for general business careers. Business and History is designed to fill this void by linking historians’ methods to solving problems common to private enterprise. Continue reading

“What are you going to do with a history degree?” Helping students navigate a graduate degree and career in public history

Public History Navigator. Screenshot courtesy Adina Langer

Public History Navigator screenshot

Every history major is familiar with this question, and while a few undergraduates may have an answer at the ready, many aren’t exactly sure what they want to do with their degree. For the past year and a half, the NCPH New Professional and Graduate Student Committee has worked hard to create a resource to better prepare undergraduates and graduate students to enter and succeed in the public history profession:

The Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Public History Graduate Program

Section one of this two-part guide investigates how to choose and apply to a graduate program and encourages students to find the right program and degree for their ultimate career goals. The second section includes tips on making the most of graduate school and how students can make themselves more marketable for the job hunt. Continue reading

Developing your synthetic powers

Photo credit: Suzanne Fischer.

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

Top Gun “Introduction to Public History” for general education?

By Kucingbiru13 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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

Twenty questions for consultants

By Berdea (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo credit: Berdea, Wikimedia Commons

Providing assistance to individuals considering careers in consulting remains an ongoing task of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Consultants Committee. In October 2012 and September 2014, forums held on Versatile PhD opened up discussions that generated valuable data that Consultants Committee members are using in devising initiatives to achieve this end. Both forums were populated with practitioners who represented a number of disciplines, including history. In particular, the forums gave graduate students, postgraduates, and other interested parties in the humanities and the social sciences the opportunity to ask practicing professionals about the business of consulting. The questions posed–the most germane of which are compiled here, in distilled form–can serve to guide the committee in its efforts to address the concerns and meet the needs of those who are considering a career in consulting. Indeed, this is an opportunity to be seized.

Continue reading