Viewpoints

Should We All Become Public Historians? Some Responses

Wendy Holliday, Sandy Treadway, and Peter Knupfer, January 1998

Editor's Note: The March 1997 President's Desk column, "Should We All Become Public Historians?" by Joyce Appleby elicited several responses. Here we publish a selection.

Dear Professor Appleby:

Your recent invitation to let you know what we think about becoming more public-minded historians is welcome. I am a recently-minted PhD (1995), who decided to embark upon a less traditional career path, at least initially. I moved to the Hopi Reservation, and I am now the Hopi Tribe's archivist and historian. I also teach the U.S. history survey course on the reservation through local community colleges. Last year I applied for a teaching job in the Southwest because I would like to remain in this region and figure out a way to blend a commitment to college teaching and public history. When I interviewed for the job at the AHA annual meeting, I ran into a lot of old friends, colleagues, and professors who asked me what I was doing at the meeting. On hearing of the interview, some replied, somewhat condescendingly, "So you are going to join us (in academia) after all." In contrast, others, especially graduate students and recent PhDs were enthusiastic and supportive of my job with the Hopi Tribe, and wondered why I was considering a change.

These two reactions point to one of the real problems with the historical profession becoming more public-minded. When I first announced my intention not to enter the job market for a while and to go to the Hopi Reservation, many faculty members were confused. It was only when that great tenure-track job did not materialize that they agreed that it might be a good (or at least not bad) thing to do. When I did not go on the job market again the next year, some seemed to think that I had abandoned academia entirely. The impression that I get from these conversations is that what I do for the Hopi Tribe (original research, archiving, grant writing, and building coalitions with Native American archives) is not considered terribly important or academic. The fact that many of my graduate student friends immediately "get it" reflects a yearning for more career options, and ones that connect with the public. Although probably not true in all graduate programs, most PhD candidates at my former school are not trained in methods and issues in public history, nor are they encouraged to think of anything outside of a tenure-track job in a research university as "success." If students teach at smaller colleges or go into public history, the "bad job market" is to blame. Indeed, jobs are difficult to find, but many students seek smaller schools and nonacademic jobs because academic politics and tenure requirements do not appeal to them.

Initially, I attributed my disinterest in publishing my dissertation to three long years of research and writing. After interviewing for a tenure-track job, however, I realized that there is something much deeper involved. The work that excites and inspires me has more to do with helping a community than anything else. My dissertation does not engage me in this way. Many see academia completely closed off to me because I am not very interested in publishing my dissertation and have put my energies elsewhere. Establishing the Hopi Archives, for example, is not something that one can put on a c.v. to get jobs and tenure.

The only way to become more "public-minded historians" is to address some of these issues. We need to talk to graduate students and see how they would like to be trained. We need to give them the practical tools to produce something aside from monographs. Perhaps most important, we need to give them the support they need if they choose to become truly public historians. It needs to be a viable option. The "choice" that I made, which became clear when talking to faculty members about joining, leaving, and rejoining academia, reveals that many historians do separate academic and public history. And the confusion and condescension that often underlies these statements reveals which choice they believe is more worthy. Until this changes, the history profession will be split into two camps, two choices, both of which will be diminished.

—Wendy Holliday
Historian, Hopi Cultural Preservation Office

Dear Professor Appleby:

Congratulations on your superb (and long-overdue) piece in the March 1997 issue of Perspectives titled "Should We All Become Public Historians?" You are right on the money, and I hope that your article is taken to heart by all in our profession.

I have been involved in "public history" (a term I abhor and much prefer your closing phrase, "public-minded historians") for virtually all of my professional career. I received my PhD in 1978, when the job market was just awful, and after teaching in a short-term position with little hope of finding a tenure-track job, I took a position at the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) as an editor in the library's historical publications program. I am still at the library and am now the deputy director. I have managed to publish a number of things, though research and writing time has become increasingly limited, but my most significant professional contribution has been in managing a reorganization and major cultural shift at the library. Helping to engineer the amazing improvements in the way we acquire, preserve, and make accessible to researchers our 83 million manuscripts and 1.5 million books, periodicals, newspapers, photographs, and other items, as well as helping to launch new initiatives such as our wonderful Web page and exhibition program, has been tremendously satisfying. I know that the results of these efforts will have more impact on the study of Virginia and Southern history than anything I could ever write! Sadly, very few of my college and university professor friends understand this.

I totally agree with your recommendation that all historians need to reestablish the vital link with the general public that earlier generations of historians had. Speaking to organizations such as women's clubs, Rotaries, local historical societies, or making television and radio appearances and participating in history fairs is an excellent way to do this--the opportunities are out there, for the public craves good history. I often talk about Virginia women's history to local groups of all kinds, speaking about something that my audiences think they already know about while quietly working in some of the new interpretive frameworks and perspectives, inviting the audiences to think anew about the past without their quite realizing what they are doing. There are ways to introduce the subtleties and some radical new notions without precipitating controversy, with the result being a better informed and more thoughtful public.

Academic historians in the past 25 years have tended to look down their noses at "community service" and public outreach such as this and so often their scholarship is written for each other, not a more general audience--which is one reason the academy is under attack from so many quarters. I hope that articles such as yours (as well as today's economic and political realities) will help turn this situation around.

I applaud, too, your concern for the plight of the adjunct professors. There is no easy solution to this, but colleges and universities are exploiting this labor pool and they need to be called on the carpet for it.

I hope that the response to your piece has been universally positive. Your leadership on this and so many issues during your AHA presidency is very much appreciated!

—Sandy Treadway
Deputy Director, The Library of Virginia

Dear Professor Appleby:

I wanted to say how very much I appreciated your commonsense piece in AHA Perspectives. I became an informal public historian when I was a gypsy scholar teaching as an adjunct in Phoenix. I took on some contract work for the Apaches concerning water rights litigation and I worked to help develop a new history museum in Phoenix. It would be worthwhile to encourage other adjuncts to do this, not only to supplement income, but also to develop a new appreciation of local history.

I took that experience with me into the classroom. Here at K-State, our junior seminar for majors, required of all history majors and of secondary education students, normally entails a big paper. I have been working on alternatives to the paper addressed to an academic audience, and I've used public and local history to do it. I still want to achieve the objective of intensive historical writing and analysis, but I want students to consider a different audience--the nonacademic. So, last year when I taught the seminar, I divided the students into groups, each group devoted to a project developed in cooperation with our local county museum. That museum is desperately short of staff and resources, so we picked projects that needed doing:

  1. A redesign of a crumbling "pioneer" log cabin in our city park. Students created a completely new plan for it, including cost estimates, exhibits, and structural changes.
  2. Two "traveling trunks" on local history for elementary schools. One of these trunks was about one-room schoolhouses (the county owns one as an historical site), and included interviews with former students, photographs, games for kids to play, sample curricula, etc.
  3. An information packet for a prospective grant proposal to restore two WPA murals held by the museum. The students researched the artists, the style, the era, and wrote up a pr&eacutecis.
  4. A website for the museum, including several special online exhibits (one of them about the history of the Konza Prairie, K-State's biological preserve outside of town).

The students also discussed, online and in class, the Smithsonian Hiroshima controversy (there's a good web site about it), and wrote papers about how they might locate and develop historical resources to write the history of the "flood of '93" here in the Manhattan area.

The museum was delighted by the results, and is using them in a variety of ways. The students were very enthusiastic, and I will probably do this again, albeit under a different course name.

Sorry this is so long, but it was inspired by your good words about doing history for the public, as opposed to public history.

—Peter Knupfer
Kansas State University