“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.

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Reflections on the founding of NCPH

In recent months the NCPH Council of Past Presidents has discussed ways to honor some of the individuals who founded the National Council on Public History in 1980. As a result, at the 2015 NCPH Annual Meeting in Nashville, G. Wesley Johnson and Robert Pomeroy will receive the inaugural NCPH Founders Award, and they and others of the first NCPH generation will be invited to participate in an oral history project to be organized by the Council of Past Presidents. In this post, two past presidents, Ted Karamanski (Loyola University Chicago), and Rebecca Conard (Middle Tennessee State University) offer their personal reflections on the contributions of Johnson and Pomeroy to the organization and the field. For a brief history of NCPH’s early years, see Barb Howe’s “Reflections on an Idea: NCPH’s First Decade,” The Public Historian, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Summer 1989). Continue reading

Rethinking diversity: Dr. Rhonda Jones, public history is sexy

This is the fourth post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field. Each post in this series is based upon oral interviews conducted with public history professionals. Each interview was conducted in a traditional interview question and answer format. All interviews were edited and condensed based on relevancy and to retain a reasonable length for the posts.

Joshua Trower works a table at the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, North Carolina to provide outreach for the Pope House Museum, under the City of Raleigh Museum, in Raleigh, NC.

North Carolina Central University student Joshua Trower works a table at the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, North Carolina, to provide outreach for the Pope House Museum, under the City of Raleigh Museum, in Raleigh, NC. Photo credit: Joshua Trower

Dr. Rhonda Jones is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Public History graduate program at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. [1]  As one of the few Historically Black Colleges or Universities offering graduate level study in public history, museum studies, or library sciences, Jones sets a standard for public history instruction, training, and practice. By exposing her cohort of emerging public historians, which is comprised almost entirely of students of color, to innovative, practical coursework and diverse fieldwork opportunities, Jones is committed to training capable, well-rounded practitioners whose skills are coveted in any field. Jones offers fresh perspectives on graduate-level training, public history as it relates to students of color, and the state of diversity in the field.

AT: Tell me about yourself.

RJ: I discovered public history as an undergraduate at Howard University, and I worked with my mentor who directed the program, Dr. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. My first fieldwork experience was working at the Mary McLeod Bethune Museum . . . from there I had [an] experience doing heritage tourism. I was involved with an oral history project with the DC Humanities Council where we interviewed African Americans who had migrated from the South and came to Washington who were living in a senior housing complex. We hosted a series of events that eventually became a documentary. After I graduated, I worked for a little while, didn’t do anything in history, and decided to come back to graduate school and went to Howard for my Master’s in Public History with the intent of working at a museum and doing education and public programming. When I finished the Master’s, I thought, “I’m doing really well, and I might as well just stick with my Doctorate,” because by then 9/11 happened, the bottom fell out, and there was really no place for me to go. Graduating in 2003, my first job was at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke where I managed the Behind the Veil Project.

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Rethinking diversity: Chris Taylor, molding future public historians

2013 Fellows at the MN Historical Society Collections |Courtesy Chris Taylor

2013 Fellows at the Minnesota Historical Society Collections.  Photo credit: Chris Taylor

This is the third post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field. Each post in this series is based upon oral interviews conducted with public history professionals. Each interview was conducted in a traditional interview question and answer format. All interviews were edited and condensed based on relevancy and to retain a reasonable length for the posts.

In developing this series, I sought out examples of public historians who are combating the diversity issue in creative and proactive ways. I looked for individuals who not only hoped to change the pool of future public historians but who employed tangible solutions that other museums and institutions could build on. One such individual is Chris Taylor, Diversity Outreach Program Manager at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).

Like many of the students he works with, Taylor took a nontraditional pathway to public history. His background in social sciences and education provided him with a unique opportunity to engage in the year-long Coca Cola Museum Fellows program, which exposed him to topics surrounding diversity and inclusion in museums. The experience inspired him to pursue a History Museum Studies graduate degree at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, which is led by pioneering African American museum professional Gretchen Sullivan Sorin. As a young museum professional, Taylor implemented a program at MHS modeled after the Coca Cola Museum Fellows program, and the MHS program has enjoyed nine years of success. In fact, the MHS Diversity Outreach Program was recently named the Diversity Outreach Department, making the society one of the only historical institutions in the United States to establish a permanent department focused solely on increasing its diversity and inclusion efforts.

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Rethinking diversity: Modupe Labode and Juanita Moore

This is the second post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field. Each post in this series is based upon oral interviews conducted with public history professionals. Each interview was conducted in a traditional interview question and answer format. All interviews were edited and condensed based on relevancy and to retain a reasonable length for the posts.

Dr. Modupe Labode and Students | Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Labode.

Dr. Modupe Labode with students. Photo credit: Courtesy of Labode.

I began my exploration of this topic by interviewing two public historians who have proven track records addressing diversity issues in public history: Modupe Labode, Assistant Professor of History and Museum Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Juanita Moore, President and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, Michigan.

At the National Council on Public History (NCPH) Annual Meeting in 2009, Labode helped spearhead a working group titled “How do we get there? Racial and ethnic diversity in the public history profession,” which served as a platform to “discuss the profession’s lack of diversity and share ideas about remedying the situation.”[1] As the CEO and President of the nation’s largest African American history museum, Moore has achieved a stellar career as a public historian of color, and she remains committed to mentoring and providing opportunities to other public historians as they enter the field. My conversations with each of these women demonstrated that though some changes have been made, there is still much work to be done to bolster the field of public history to include those from diverse backgrounds.

Why does our field suffer from a lack of diverse professionals?

According to Labode, individuals that are historically underrepresented in museums are generally underrepresented in the humanities field. This plays a major part in reflecting what we see in public history. Consider Moore’s point that, for a while, museum professionals did not come from fields as specific as public history or even from graduate programs. Thus, the field potentially fails to attract diverse professionals because they may be engaged in fields or graduate programs without direct links to public history. Furthermore, many are unsure of how to enter the field in the first place. I can attest to this issue: as an undergraduate student, neither my academic mentors nor advisors were able to point me in the direction I needed to take to pursue museum work. It was only after I endured several exhaustive appointments with a career counselor and took a series of online exams that prearranged my career goals that I was even made aware of public history. Continue reading