Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blog CXXXVI (136): Eight Questions: Public History

Marla Miller is an associate professor of history and director of the public history program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She earned her BA from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and her MA and Ph.D. degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She has won the Organization of American Historians’ Lerner- Scott Prize for the best dissertation in Women’s History and the 1998 Walter Muir Whitehill Prize in Colonial History.  Her primary research interest is U.S. women's work before industrialization. Her book The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (2006) won the Costume Society of America's Millia Davenport Publication Award for the best book in the field for that year. Her most recent book, Betsy Ross and the Making of America (2010)a scholarly biography of that much-misunderstood early American craftswomanwas named to The Washington Post's "Best of 2010" list. She is presently completing work on a microhistory of women, work and landscape in Federal Massachusetts, and a short biography of Massachusetts gownmaker Rebecca Dickinson.

As Director of the History Department's Public History program, Miller teaches courses in Public History, American Material Culture, and Museum and Historic Site Interpretation, and continues to consult with a wide variety of museums and historic sites. The College of Humanities and Fine Arts at UMass Amherst awarder her its Distinguished Teaching Award for the 2006-2007 school year.  In 2012, she and three co-authors released Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a multi-year study funded by the National Park Service Chief Historian's office and hosted by the Organization of American Historians.

What is the greatest strength of your field? In the history profession?
Public history can help the whole discipline of history reclaim its place in important national conversations. Our discipline, many would argue, has been under siege in recent years, along with the humanities more generally. We are seeing the numbers of majors in humanities fields decline, and funding for humanities programs at the state and national levels has shrunk dramatically. We wrote about this a little bit in our recent study of the state of history in the National Park Service, Imperiled Promise: so many Americans misunderstand what history is or can be, thinking it is the dull recitation of unchanging facts rather than a dynamic and ongoing inquiry into the past, and that misapprehension can have disastrous consequences as people sell short the value of historical training or insight, or the ongoing need to fund history research. Public historians, wherever they practice, can help people understand that history is an ever-changing enterprise, a conversation between past and present that is an essential part of meeting contemporary challenges. Public historians have the chance to make a real impact on the world around them.
What is the biggest issue facing your field? The history profession?
A constant problem that has challenged the field of Public History is one of definition. As the National Council of Public History has observed, the meaning of the term is always being debated, which is a challenge in terms of reaching audiences (many people who work in public history do not know or recognize the term, so are not drawn toward the practitioners already gathered around that identity), and also in terms of finding common terms, a shared literature, and other things that help form communities of like-minded people. 
The history profession has struggled with the need to demonstrate its relevance. For most of the 20th century, professional university and college-based historians retreated (for the most part) from public life; as a result, the work historians did too often seemed obscure and arcane to most Americans. In recent years we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in history, but many of the titles filling the shelves of local bookstores are written by journalists rather than professional historians. Only slowly has it become acceptable for historians to set aside the monograph and write for popular audiences. And historians rarely contribute to public discourse by way of op-eds and magazine articles; we hardly ever see historians on the Today show commenting on current events. Too few historians seem willing to put themselves out there and show how their many years of research and teaching gives them something to offer debates on the issues of the day.
What is the most interesting work being done in your field? Why?
Many people are inspired by the work of Nina Simon. Her effort to shift the center of gravity in the nation’s museums and make them more “participatory” is really shaking up museum practice nationwide and has a lot of appeal. I personally am fascinated by the work anthropologist, ethnographer and public historian Cathy Stanton has been doing with some partners in the National Park Service that completely rethinks not just how we interpret agricultural history, but basic categories in resource management, and what constitutes “natural” versus “cultural” resources. The whole enterprise has major implications for how we think about our food supply in the past and in the present. I also think everything going on at the George Mason Center for History and New Media is exciting: they seem to be defining the leading edge of digital history practice, and since so much public history now has a digital angle, they are doing a lot of fascinating work that will change the way public historians practice their craft.
How valuable is teaching in the professional development of a career?
Teaching is communication, whether in the classroom, a historic battlefield, house museum, exhibition, preservation agency or policymaking agency. It is important for any historian to cultivate the skills necessary to explain her or his work to a wide range of audiences, whether it is a roomful of undergraduates, a family visiting a historic site, analysts reading a position statement, or the readers of a blog like this one. The best historians command a range of languages that enable them to speak to peers (drawing on the distinct vocabulary and content of their field when necessary) as well as many other kinds of listeners; they are able to translate the insights of the discipline to non-specialists who also need to know why historical perspective is important to understanding whatever issues or events are at hand. Apprentice historians should be working to improve their fluency in a range of communication modes, from the classroom to the editorial column to the dinner table.
What direction or type of publishing would you advise a new Ph.D. to conduct?
A new Ph.D. aiming at a tenure-track position on a college or university faculty is obligated to do a certain kind of publishing: one should try to have at last one scholarly article in peer-reviewed journal before going on the job market (and perhaps a book review or two), and to have the dissertation under consideration or under contract at a university press. By the year of the tenure decision, that book should be all-but-out (if not out), accompanied by another handful of articles, and a book review or two, again in well-respected journals. As much as the terrain of publication is changing—and changing rapidly—historians aspiring to the tenure track should probably assume that those standards will remain in place for a while yet. 
Students interested in broadening their practice to include public history work should also be aware of the joint report prepared by the National Council on Public History (NCPH), Organization of American Historians (OAH) and American Historical Association), "Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian", which suggests that the academy needs to develop new understandings of what contributions to scholarship actually look like for public historians—which includes intellectual products well beyond the traditional monograph or journal article. Readers who want to understand the present and future state of publishing in public history might also want to check out a series of posts on the NCPH’s blog History@Work; as that organization contemplates plans for its own journal, we get a glimpse into what the scholarly journals of the future might look like. 
But Ph.D. historians who are considering a broader range of possible occupations won’t necessarily want or need to follow that path. Again, versatility is key. People steering toward a museum career might find it more valuable to publish some exhibition reviews. People hoping to land a job in historic preservation should learn to write nominations to the National Register of Historic Places or the National Historic Landmarks program (tutorials are available at http://www.nps.gov/nhl/webinars.htm).
What issues affect most the development of a career: family, school resources, popularity of field, reputation of alma matter, etc.?
I think one’s family does play a big role in shaping careers—as it should. People often have to make career choices around the needs of others, whether it be the job of a spouse, the need to stay close to aging parents, to keep one’s kids in a particular school, or some other factor. Many people who have chosen to work as public historians did so in part to preserve some sort of geographic flexibility—rather than pursuing an academic job market that might take them anywhere in the country, they diversified their skill set and career goals in order to enlarge opportunities at home. In that case, the popularity of their field of study or the reputation of their school or advisors becomes less important than the real-world experience they were able to accumulate in the course of their doctoral work—in that case, things like grantwriting, digital history skills, exhibition design, public program development, budget management and other abilities become more important.
What advice would you give to an undergrad interested in working on a Ph.D. in history?
Make sure you need that degree. Do not just march on through the credentials, but wait and see what you will need to do the work you want to do. Public historians do not necessarily need the Ph.D. Many find that they can do the work they want to do after completing the MA. I strongly advise undergraduates not to go “straight through”—taking some time between the BA and the MA helps you make much better decisions about which grad program to enter and makes you a better student once there. And in the field of public history, we urge people to take a few years after the MA and work in the field, which will help you determine whether another degree is even needed, and if so, what kind of training you need to take the next step that is right for you. Undergraduates would do well to look closely at sites like The Versatile PhD, Beyond Academe, and the American Historical Association’s resources for graduate students as they research their options. 
If you do decide to go on, Margaret Peacock’s advice elsewhere in this series seems sound [See Blog CXXIX (129): Eight Questions: Modern European History] .
What advice would you give to a new Ph.D. unable to find employment in a history department?
The question assumes that people think of employment in a history department as their obvious first choice; is that intentional? Because I am not sure that that is true. Many people, for some of the practical reasons mentioned above, are not necessarily looking for a job in a history department, and other people would prefer a workplace with different features—a museum where they work with learners of all ages, for example, rather than only college-age students, or a government agency where they can help shape public policy. Some historians truly enjoy the creative aspects of administrative positions in humanities organization, and find those challenges more engaging than those associated with traditional research and publication, or the college classroom. The profession as a whole is slowly coming around to the idea (which public historians have embraced for some time) that there are many ways that historical insight contributes to public life. The America Historical Association not long ago published a paper staking out this position, that jobs outside Academe should no longer be considered “Plan B,” and that graduate training in History is going to have to reorient itself to the actual landscape of history occupations. This is a topic that has been unfolding for some years now, supported in part by a couple of key websites, including Beyond Academe and The Versatile Ph.D. These sites help people think more broadly about the skills their graduate training has cultivated, and encourage them to consider applying them in a broader range of settings. At UMass Amherst, our graduates have landed tenure-track jobs, but also positions as administrators in humanities centers, offices across higher ed, the federal government, publishing houses and of course museums and historic sites.
So, in terms of advising any doctoral student hoping to find any job after graduation, I would say the most important thing is to cross-train: do not work to prepare yourself for only one outcome, but rather make yourself as versatile as possible. While you are learning the skills of research and writing that graduate work confers, and mastering the content of your fields of study, do not neglect other skill sets. If you get a chance to master some digital skills, do it. If you can find a job on campus that helps you develop your administrative and managerial abilities, do that. Consider internships, even at the doctoral level, that give you valuable workplace skills in areas like fundraising, budgeting, program development and implementation, historic preservation planning or whatever else seems relevant to your academic interests and potential career applications. The history workplace of the future—whether in traditional history departments or elsewhere—is going to demand that employees wear multiple hats, and bring more to the table than academic training alone.

1 comment:

  1. "Public history can help the whole discipline of history reclaim its place in important national conversations."

    Bravo, Marla Miller! This is exactly correct.

    A friend of mine recently said, "I am tired of writing articles for 20 people." Public History offers us the opportunity to reconnect our professional selves to our selves as citizens, if we are willing to take it.

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