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.