Teaching Public History
Jonathan Spence, May 2004
One of the things that I had not anticipated at all when I began to study history in graduate school at the end of the fifties was that the history profession itself would generate its own dynamics of travel and exploration in what was loosely termed a “lecture circuit.” But the on-the-road detours of the lecturer, whenever she or he can arrange a few days’ break from teaching, or briefly interrupt a research leave, provide a rich source of variety within what might otherwise become an academic routine. Despite the time demanded, and the often daunting logistics of contemporary travel, the main joy of it lies in the constant surprises: new landscapes, whether urban or rural, beauteous or battered; new people, of all ages and interests; new questions, from unexpected vantage points, that force one to think through not just one’s own chosen subject matter but sometimes one’s basic intellectual premises; and hitherto unmet colleagues in one’s own research area and far outside it, along with former students who are now becoming the new professionals in the field, and whose own adventures and career vicissitudes and successes often keep you talking with them late into the evening. Chinese history, it should be added, is a fun subject to take on the road, because even those who have no academic or research interest in Chinese studies as such have a general interest in the country and its people, and accept the fact that China has a real role to play in the future of the United States.
So it was that a few months ago, in my newly and somewhat nervously assumed role as president-elect of the AHA, I was sitting in a comfortable and gently lighted conference room in Greenville, North Carolina, on the campus of East Carolina University, being introduced to a cross section of the history faculty. The conversation was unstructured and wide-ranging, depending on people’s current interests. People came and went, as I had been told they would, based on the demands of their teaching schedules, office hours, committee assignments. Then a new name, and an area of specialization that had not come up before: Gerald Prokopowicz, teaching area public history. The introduction came at an opportune moment for me. This might fit really well, I thought, with an idea that was vaguely forming in my mind—namely, that in my new role in the AHA, it would be interesting to myself and others to learn more about the many professional uses of, and approaches to, history in general. I had been thinking of asking Judith Schiff in the archives, and Ellen Hammond in the library, to share some of their knowledge and experience with us. Might Prokopowicz be willing to do the same? Could we keep in touch? “Yes,” he replied, to both questions. And he was as good as his word.
Spence: How did you become a public historian?
Prokopowicz: My initial interest in history was largely the result of visits to places like the Detroit Historical Museum, where my father worked briefly, and the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields. When it came time to choose a career, I “wisely” chose to go to law school rather than try to make a living as a historian, but it was no use. History was what I wanted to do, and after a few years practicing law, I decided to follow what seemed to be my calling and applied to graduate school. I spent seven years at Harvard, writing a dissertation on the Army of the Ohio—and worrying about future employment.
When I was nearing completion of my dissertation in 1993, I was contacted by a museum that was looking for a full-time historian. The idea of working outside of academia had not occurred to me, but considering the state of the job market, the offer was one that I could not refuse. It turned out to be in many ways a great opportunity. I had unlimited access to a substantial research archive. The museum was about to relocate, and I was able to play a central role in the conceptualization, writing, and design of its permanent exhibit at the new location. Through that exhibit, “Abraham Lincoln and the American Experiment,” I have been able to share my interpretation of antebellum and Civil War era American history with almost half a million people to date, a far larger audience than I could have reached in almost any other way.
I did not realize at first, however, that what I was doing was “public history.” In 2003, when I began looking for an opportunity to teach full time, I saw ads in Perspectives for positions in public history. Your predecessor once confessed in this column that he didn’t know what “public history” was when he became president of the AHA, so I feel no shame in admitting that I had to look it up, too. I discovered that because I was not working in a university, the writing, research, teaching, and public speaking that I had been doing for the previous nine years was not just practicing history, it was “public history.” I felt like Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain when he learned that “prose” was what he had been speaking all his life.
Spence: It is certainly both a privilege and a challenge to reach out to half a million people, as well as an opportunity that most of us never have. But doing something is not necessarily the same as teaching it, as we well know. You got the opportunity to join the history department at East Carolina University in 2003 to teach public history. Considering that you had not formally studied public history, how did you go about designing courses in the subject?
Prokopowicz: I started with the proposition that a public historian must first be a historian. For me, this means that my teaching is divided between courses in my area of research interest (the Civil War era), survey courses, and public history courses. For my students in Introduction to Public History, this means that they start the course by writing a substantial research paper, to give them a grounding in historical research and writing, and to make sure that every student has some degree of understanding of a specific historical topic. For the rest of the semester, as we looked at different aspects of the practice of public history, in museums, archives, government, private practice, the media, education, and so on, the students had a foundation that they could apply to each of those examples.
I find that I am not unusual among professors of public history in being trained as an academic historian, and never having taken a course in public history. In fact, the idea of public history courses being taught by people with graduate degrees in public history rather troubles me.
Spence: Why is that?
Prokopowicz: Public history is a format (or rather a wide variety of formats) in which historians can practice their craft, but it is not a substantive area of history. Those of us who learned the craft in a traditional academic program, and then picked up the practical aspects of public history on the job, are examples to our students that the first requirement for a public history career is the study of history itself. If departments begin to hire teachers of public history whose primary qualifications are advanced degrees and publications in the field of public history itself, they run the risk of following the same path that too many schools of education have followed, turning out graduates who are masters of whatever theories are in vogue at their institutions, but lacking any real knowledge of the subjects they are about to teach.
I see public history as a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is defined by its connection to public audiences, and can only continue to thrive and develop in constant contact with the public. As soon as it is isolated in the university classroom, it begins to lose whatever it is that distinguishes it from academic history. Public history only became recognized as a separate field after too many academic historians lost interest in educating and communicating with the public. If public history were to be taught primarily by classroom-trained specialists instead of practitioners, it would eventually lose its public dimension. Wouldn’t it be ironic if a field that exists in response to the proliferation of obscure, jargon-filled, theory-driven, highly specialized history were itself to become an obscure, jargon-filled, theory-driven specialty? I would much prefer to see universities training good historians who go on to practice public history, not training theorists who go on to teach other theorists.
Spence: Certainly, many college and university history teachers are going to wince when they hear what they do described as representing an “obscure, jargon-filled, theory-driven” approach to the past, although probably many of us feel there is much truth to it. And yet there seems to be a bit of a paradox here in your own position: from what you have just said, it sounds as though you see a very limited role for public history instruction.
Prokopowicz: Not at all. I see a very limited role for public history as an academic specialty (or at least I hope its role as such is very limited), but I think that as a career path it has great potential to help solve some of the overriding problems within our profession. Most obviously, public history provides one way to respond to the employment crisis. What can you say to undergraduates who have been bitten by the history bug, and come into your office to ask about making a career out of their passion for the past? If you show them the employment statistics for PhD holders looking for tenure-track positions, the only ones who will want to go to graduate school will be the independently wealthy or the irrationally optimistic.
Public history gives us a meaningful alternative. A master’s degree in history, with a concentration in public history, gives the student an opportunity to study history on a professional level, and to see if he or she has the discipline and intellect to write a thesis. Internships and field work let students test the career waters for themselves. There is no pot of gold at the end of the Master of Public History rainbow, to be sure, but employment prospects are more varied than just university teaching. For the student who concludes that history as a career demands too many sacrifices, there is still the enormous cost-benefit advantage of finding this out after only a two-year program instead of seven or more years of doctoral training. The undergraduate concentration in public history carries many of the same benefits. It lets history-minded students get a sense of what the public history world offers in terms of careers, and begins to sharpen the skills they will need if they choose to follow that path.
Spence: Is the benefit of public history programs then primarily vocational?
Prokopowicz: From the student’s point of view, it probably is. But I think that professional training in public history has the potential to benefit society as whole. Consider where most people learn their history: museums, popular history books, and historical novels, movies by Mel Gibson or Oliver Stone, visits to historic sites, the History Channel, the Internet, and so on. Then consider what most professional historians do: teach university classes and write scholarly books and articles. There’s a huge popular appetite for history, and almost none of it is met by the work of professional historians. Try asking your non-academic friends if they are interested in history, and sooner rather than later you’ll find ones who say they are. Then ask them to name a historian (other than yourself), and watch them pause. “Uhh … David McCullough? Ken Burns? Doris Kearns Goodwin?” If they can name an academically trained professional historian, they’re exceptional.
There is a broken connection between the people who want to consume history and the profession that produces it. We can’t force the public to consume history in the forms we are producing: there aren’t enough seats in our lecture halls to fit them all, and the public isn’t about to start subscribing to our professional journals. We need to do something different, and one of the things that we can do is to infiltrate the sources from which the public gets its history. If people learn about history from museums, then let’s be the ones who train the museum historians. If they learn about history from the History Channel, then let’s produce more talented MA history graduates to compete for jobs there. Many people who practice public history today have no training at all in history, or perhaps a bachelor’s degree. If we can make it possible for the next generation of historical society presidents, and archivists, and curators, and battlefield guides, and preservation consultants, and so on, to be people with graduate-level training in public history, we can improve the level of historical discourse throughout society as a whole.
Spence: Certainly the idea of a “broken connection” is one that many of us have been, and are being, forced to think about, as we look at our own worlds and those around us. At the same time, I catch a certain optimism in what you are saying, that the connection can be welded back together again. Do you think there is a possibility of this happening?
Prokopowicz: I think it is already happening. Twenty or thirty years ago, the best way to get a job in a museum was to start as a volunteer and wait for openings. Now many museums require some kind of professional preparation, in public history or museum studies. The professionalization of public history is at least a hundred years behind the professionalization of academic history, but I think it is underway. Students who have public history training and internship experience already have a growing advantage in the job market.
I don’t think we will ever see a time when graduate training will be absolutely required for public historians, as it is for academic historians, if only because the definition of public history is too amorphous and too constantly evolving. But we take our victories one at a time. Every student who completes a public history degree and puts it to work, instead of trying and failing to complete the PhD course and then find meaningful employment, is a personal victory; and every person working in public history who has been exposed to the professional training of an MA program constitutes a newly forged link in the broken connection between professional historians and the public.
—Jonathan Spence (Yale Univ.) is president of the AHA. Gerald Prokopowicz teaches public and Civil War history at East Carolina University.