Praxis and Theory in Public History Graduate Programs

The National Council on Public History published their findings today on a new study about public history students and their experiences in graduate school. The study is part of a new NCPH initiative called “Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Program” that aims to give prospective public history graduate students more information about the realities of employment in the field and what to expect during their time in graduate school.

Two findings in the study stick out to me:

1. “47% of students held an internship in graduate school.”

2. “Respondents believe that they should have gained greater knowledge of practical skills like grant-writing, budgeting, and technology as opposed to theory.”

There is more than a casual relationship between these two findings. Students are not receiving on-the-job training through internships or classroom projects during their time in graduate school, so many responses indicate a frustration with the amount of theory that appears to be bottled up in discussions that are not useful beyond the classroom walls. That 47% internship rate is shockingly low for a degree that purports to train students for work with the public, and that’s a problem.

Here’s my take on these findings:

I heartily agree with those who call for more training in business-oriented skills in public history training such as grant writing, budgeting, and historical administration. And I find the lack of paid internships for prospective students downright wrong. Public history programs that purport to train their students for work with the public but fail to provide the necessary opportunities to gain experience are doing their students a grave disservice. Public history professors who merely assign books and book reviews an entire semester without also incorporating public history projects need to reexamine their pedagogical practices and find ways to incorporate the talents of their local historical institutions into the curriculum. Some public history programs (I won’t name names) seem to think that slapping “public history” onto their history department guides or reading a book or two about public history in a class makes them a bonified public history program. The reality of public history education is that it takes years of work for public history professors to build relationships with local historical institutions and raise funds to help students attend public history conferences, conduct research, and work internships. If your program doesn’t have a relationship with the outside community or provide internships for you, that program may not be for you!

All of this said, however, I am getting tired of hearing about “too much theory” in public history. I actually believe the opposite and think there’s not enough theory in public history and too often young public historians casually dismiss ideas and concepts that are considered “not practical.” For example, I heard once in a classroom discussion that an essay exploring Michael Frisch’s concept of shared authority in a European museum was “impractical” because the case study took place in a European museum and not an American one…Yes, that really did happen once.

Even if you attend a public history program that offers internships and class projects, you cannot begin to fully understand the nature of your work until you consider the how and why questions that underpin the theoretical concepts of public history. You cannot engage in an educational program or create a museum exhibit about indigenous peoples without reading about Frisch’s shared authority concept. You cannot design a museum exhibit without considering educational theories about the ways people process information, construct knowledge, and interact with museum exhibits. You cannot evaluate the success or failure of your programs without exploring theories of evaluation. You cannot interpret a tough historical topic like slavery without first considering the theories and challenges behind interpreting these topics to a public audience. You cannot begin a career in historic preservation without considering theories behind governmental housing/commercial policy, urban blight, and urban renewal. You cannot begin your training in grant-writing and budgeting without exploring the reasons why historical institutions are struggling for money and considering new theoretical concepts for fundraising, promoting, and changing the missions of these institutions to meet the needs of a 21st century audience. You cannot call yourself a public historian before considering the methods of history and how history itself is a power construct that exposes silences while creating new ones (read Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Barbara Howell and Walter Prevenier, or Michel Foucault for starters). Good praxis is built on a solid foundation of theoretical knowledge. Praxis doesn’t magically appear out of thin air.

On top of all this, it’s important to point out that the nature of public history employment and the wide range of jobs that fall under the “public history” banner ensures that no matter how “practical” your training is, there will be skills and practices in the real world that you will not be trained for in school, and there’s a good chance that you may end up in a completely different field than the one you received “practical training” for. Moreover, working on lots of public history classroom projects and working internships doesn’t ensure that you will have employment at the end of your degree, although it may help.

So here are my questions for those who decry the allegedly excessive amount of theory in public history training today: Given the fact that a public history master’s student has two or three years to complete their degree, what specific theoretical concepts within that limited amount of time should be cut from the public history classroom? What gets cut in favor of a more “practical” training? At the end of the day, public historians are trained to research, interpret, and disseminate historical knowledge; to what extent should we cut out some of this training in favor of a business-oriented curriculum? I’d love to hear readers’ comments and suggestions about these questions.

The floor is yours.


13 thoughts on “Praxis and Theory in Public History Graduate Programs

  1. On the note of theory, all the theory that I know and have learned has been from friends, findings on my own, etc. I really wish my grad school classes had taught us some theory. I’ve found that most historians, for some reason, don’t understand theory and/or don’t like theory. Everything is theory.

    1. I can’t agree more with these sentiments, Andrew. I received a great amount of theory in my historical methods and intro to public history classes, but any discussion of theory was otherwise limited during undergrad and graduate school. I’m all about theory and love discussing it.

      1. At UH, sadly, there isn’t even a historical methods seminar. I wish there had been even one course that specifically went over various theoretical approaches and perspectives.

        One reason I really like theory is that it makes it easier to understand and discuss things since we’re trained in such narrow areas and it’s impossible to know anywhere near everything about even one thing – but when theory, say the notion of a social construction, the unconscious, think description, etc, it’s possible to more easily go into new situations or hear new information and have various ways to talk about it, process it, etc.

        I wish I knew more theory!

        We should start some kind of society or group, “HISTORIANS FOR THEORY!” 🙂

    2. I like your idea, Andrew! Historians for theory!

      On a somewhat related note, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by a history prof that they dislike teaching historical methods. I would LOVE to teach historical methods and think it’s probably the most important class a history student will take during their time in school, whether in undergrad, grad school, or both.

  2. The #1 requirement for a profession is a distinct body of knowledge. If you don’t understand that body of knowledge, you can’t do well in the profession. That’s primarily the theory. Something like grant writing appears to me to be a mechanical function that can easily be taught on the job. You have a list of requirements that go into the request and a template for putting the request together and then you have a request for a grant. Historical administration and budgeting are also things you can learn on the job through the model provided by the folks who are already in position and through mentoring on the job. You can learn the basics in class, but the real ins-and-outs seem to me to be best learned hands-on, on the job. Are there cases where someone is hired directly out of school to be the sole public historian at a site?

    1. Hi Al,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that many of the skills you mention are to a large extent best taught on the job. To answer your question, based on my experience working for the National Council on Public History this year I can say that there are some small, local historical societies and museums throughout the country that rely on a sole “Executive Director” to run all operations of that institution, including fundraising, grant-writing, and exhibit design. Most of these jobs pay around $30,000 or $40,000 annually and sometimes rely on new graduates to fill these positions. Others recent public history graduates sometimes choose to become independent consultants who essentially offer their services on a contractual basis. Both of these job types require a knowledge of the “mechanical” and functions of a business that not typically discussed in a public history programs, but I (along with many others) am not sure how to best fit some training for these jobs into a short two or three year curriculum that’s already loaded with training for researching and communicating the stuff of history to public audiences.

    2. And at least the way things tend to work out, part of that “distinct body of knowledge” is knowing the “real ins-and-outs.” Knowledge, theory, and the more “basic” skills, need to be discussed together. Sure, there is always learning that occurs on the job, much of it can only occur once a person is in a job, but to take something like teaching, for example, people need practice and knowledge before they are given charge of a classroom. Even with something like grant writing – grants are so important that employers want people who already know how to write grants and who have already won grants sometimes. I was looking at some job ads for a few seconds a few days ago and one of them–for a job that you wouldn’t suspect–said successful grant writing experience needed.

  3. Nick–I’m so glad you wrote this post! I did a nine month internship before I began my MA degree and I gained very valuable and extensive work experiences during that time. However, I noticed a huge difference in how my knowledge of that experience changed during my public history study. I came back the next summer with a brand new capacity for my work and just through about my work differently and–most importantly–critically. I’ve noticed a huge difference between myself and those that did not go for a master’s degree.

    Now the double-edged sword is that like Al mentioned that something like grant writing can be learned on the job….except employers won’t hire you unless you already have that experience for 2-3 years. That’s why internships are necessary. Unfortunately, internships don’t guarantee jobs anymore. Grads are taking on several internships before finding a job and some of these positions are unpaid. This is a serious problem, because it cheapens our profession as a whole. I have been having a ton of issues with this lately. Like it doesn’t cross their minds that I should be paid because I’m a student and therefore should work for free. That attitude needs to change!

    What I see as a real issue are public history educators not being clear or upfront about the job search after graduation. As mentors, they need to be explicit to students they advise about how to get hard or soft job skills through internships, coursework, or volunteer work. Students need to take it upon themselves to network their butts off and learn how to sell themselves as future colleagues. Most jobs are not advertised and if your first job isn’t through your internship, then you’ll likely have some challenges ahead. Public history grads need to hustle!

    1. Hi Angie,

      Thank you for this wonderful comment and for sharing your perspective. Your point about internships not guaranteeing jobs is unfortunately true. I believe internships are necessary during graduate school and can be extremely rewarding learning experiences, but oftentimes those internships don’t translate to employment with that institution. Both of my internships during graduate school were just that – internships. There was zero chance of me continuing in a full-time capacity with either employer after school (which is also a big reason why I ended up leaving Indiana after graduation). I had to get out there and start working my connections to try and find something else. Thankfully I did.

      I also agree that professors need to be clearer about the realities of the job market and do more more to clarify the connections between praxis and theory in public history education. When it comes to interpreting this supposed lack of “practical” training, I think a lot of it may just be a lack of communication between professor and student.

  4. Nick,

    This is a really strong post and I agree on both counts. I really don’t see how you could prepare yourself for working in the field if your training only consisted of classroom instruction.

    I will also join the chorus of the pro-theory crowd. The aversion to “theory” among young public historians often seems to be a thinly veiled way of saying “reading is hard.” It’s a disgrace that people are essentially going through graduate school for two to three years fully convinced that they grasp historical methods without actually exploring the wide umbrella of “theory.” Walter Benjamin should not be an obscure figure to historians and the mere mention of Michel Foucault should not result in meaningless tirades that you can boil down to “reading is hard.” Frankly it’s an embarrassment when I hear my fellow young historians express such sentiments because they come from a smug sense of security in one’s own capabilities that border on the delusional. Why would anyone go to graduate school already fully convinced of their own worldview, especially in the humanities? Isn’t the death of certainty and meta-narratives one of the big takeaways of twentieth-century thought? Is this not taught in undergrad history programs? If the concept of “shared authority” is going to be repeated as a mantra, don’t you think that the same students who use that phrase as a buzzword should think about sharing intellectual authority? Isn’t being able to pluck different aspects of various intellectual theories and methods-especially shifting back and forth between them like lenses-one of the great strengths of historical thinking? There are many ways to use theory without writing impenetrable jargon (see Gaddis’ footnotes in The Landscape of History).

    As a side note, going through Weber’s Protestant Ethic in my Methodology Class really gave me an insight into this somewhat cultish obsession with so-called practicality (and let’s be honest here, as humanities scholars, practicality is one of the last things we should be trumpeting). The language of the boardroom is woefully inadequate at promoting genuine historical inquiry, but is there anything younger scholars can do to buck this trend? I’m skeptical. My blog comment are all that I can offer to stem the inevitable tide.

    1. Hi Nick,

      This comment is really wonderful, and I heartily agree with everything in it. During my time in graduate school there were certainly times when the “too much theory” tirades seemed to imply a larger complaint about too much history and too much reading in class. And I think there’s a bit of confusion from some public history students about the purpose of a graduate-level humanities degree. We’re being trained to be critical thinkers and problem solvers; “practicality” seems to be code for “solution-based education,” but you can’t start considering solutions to your problems until you start digging through the weeds of theory and exploring multiple ways of solving your problems.

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