Perspectives on Public History: What Knowledge, Skills, and Experiences are Essential for the Public History Professional?

Public history sessionNote: This post is the third in a series of posts on sessions presented at the 123rd Annual Meeting. See also the introduction to this series, the first post on “Teaching and Learning through a Teaching American History Grant,” and the second post on “A Historical Conundrum.”

Although many who study history pursue academic careers, there are those who want to exercise their knowledge outside the academy. This dichotomy between public and academic historians can create somewhat of a rivalry between the two career tracks. Though both are part of the history profession, academic historians often view public historians as scholars light because of the alleged lack of analytical sophistication needed for a career in public history, as opposed to working in an academic setting.

This rivalry, argued Kathleen Steeves from the National Council for History Education, is blown a bit out of proportion. While academic historians focus primarily on research, public historians focus on promoting engaged scholarship. Steeves outlined four points that demonstrate public history’s intellectual breadth, which in a way curbs the scholar light argument.

First, although academic research is typically associated with universities, public historians do their fair share of dealing with topics such as the changing meaning of history, how history is conveyed today, commercial use of history, and political manipulation of history, to name just a few. Whether at a university or out in the public, all historians help shape the understanding of history.

Secondly, for those thinking of a career in public history, Steeves suggested the importance of maintaining a level of flexibility, especially with research. Public historians often get thrust into research projects they know little to nothing about, which can be both exciting and unnerving (especially when coupled with tight deadlines); however, delving into research projects outside of public historians’ pool of knowledge forces them to step out of their specialty box.

Thirdly, public historians have to brace themselves for competing historical narratives and interpretations, a complication that often plagues the study of history. The harsh reality of historic research in a public realm is that historians might have an authoritative power overseeing their research, dictating what narrative or interpretation they want the historians to take. In other words, public historians sometimes have a power balance to deal with in their research.

The final point Steeves made is that public historians work primarily with, as their title suggests, the public; therefore, their research and writing has to reach a broader audience than those in a strictly scholarly setting.

Next up, David Kieran from George Washington University talked about the importance of experience for public historians, especially as more historians move from the academy into the public realm. Historians are faced with the growing need for special training in various historical jobs rather than a broad study of history. History professors are now faced with the need to develop new curricula to satisfy those students who want history jobs that are not on the tenure track. Kieran also believes that historians need to be more open to technology. “The future,” he said, “belongs to cyber historians.” No matter what, though, a thorough study of history equips historians with unique research and writing skills needed in any job.

And finally, Raymond Smock from the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies and Shepherd University and Anne Mitchell Whisnant from UNC-Chapel Hill continued Kieran’s argument that historians need more specialized training, adding that such training has begun to gain more recognition. In a 2007 symposium, public and academic historians discussed common beliefs and formed a working definition of public history. In a survey conducted after the symposium, both groups of historians agreed with the crossover in content, particularly in research and writing skills. The question now is how public historians should balance practicum with theory to prepare for a career post-graduation. Smock and Whisnant encouraged interdepartmental collaboration so students studying public history can take a breadth of classes; however, many historians grapple with this idea of breadth over depth. Furthermore, how do public historians build their academic program? The answer may very well lie in tweaking the conventional university system.

The session profiled here was chaired by Spencer R. Crew, George Mason University. It was a roundtable, graduate student, and public history session and took place on Saturday, January 3, 2009, at the 123rd annual meeting.

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