Creating a Public History Program

Public history is having a bit of a renaissance right now. The data is a few years old now, but in 2008, job announcements in public history rose 27.9 percent. There was an increase the following year.[1] Most in the history profession will note 2008 not only as the year of the recession, but also as a year that saw a sharp downturn in the already-atrocious academic job market. This job market data refers to faculty jobs to train public history, but it is indicative of an increased focus by history departments to expand or introduce public history curricula.

For the past year, I have been working as a consultant as the University of New Hampshire at Manchester weighs the creation of a new public history curriculum. We are currently considering two options. The first is a public history BA program. The second is a public history track within the history department that will give students some background in public history, but require fewer credits. Depending on enrollment and faculty availability, it could be developed into a minor in public history.

The department currently offers a traditional BA, but hopes to expand its offerings and include traditional public history, as well as coursework in digital and spatial history. As Briann Greenfield and Bruce Reinholdt show, the expansion of public history has complicated its definition, as well as the role of the teacher.[2] Are public history faculty museums or other professionals whose main professional lives are outside of the classroom, as they have often been in the past? Or, are they primarily teacher-scholars with considerable experience in public history? UNHM’s public historian fits the latter description. I am primarily an academic historian, but I have a background in museums, archives, and digital preservation.

The creation of an undergraduate degree requires a careful consideration of its purpose. Most careers in public history require a graduate degree, and indeed, public history training has often been the domain of graduate programs. We are creating our undergraduate program with the assumption that our students will eventually matriculate at a graduate program—be it library school, museums studies, historic preservation, or something else. What we hope to accomplish with the proposed undergraduate program is not only to ensure that graduates are historically literate, but also to provide opportunities for students to learn about different directions in public history so that they can make informed choices in selecting graduate programs.

Graduate school, whether at the doctoral or master’s level is conventionally seen as an apprenticeship. A good graduate program will, ideally, pay considerable attention to socializing its students towards their chosen profession. Students who are socialized at the undergraduate level have a bigger advantage. While no program can guarantee post-collegiate employment, studies have consistently shown that internships are important for career development.[3] The job market for public historians is competitive. Internships (when substantive) provide work experience and networking opportunities. But internships can either be a practicum requirement as part of a course, or a standalone course with the internship as the main focus. Having internships as a practicum requirement within a course has the advantage that the program can reserve more credits for history content.

At present, we are testing interest by offering electives in public history each spring, and planning a study to see if the demand is there. We anticipate that implementation of an official program is at least another year away. The creation of an undergraduate public history program is not altogether uncharted territory. According to the National Council on Public History, there are approximately 80 departments with some form of undergraduate certificate or degree program. Our challenge will be not only to create a public history program, but also one that enables our students to distinguish themselves.

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[1] Anne Parsons, “Help Wanted: Thoughts on the Recent Boom in Academic Pubic History Jobs,” Public History Commons, September 17, 2012.

[2] Briann Greenfield and Bruce Reinhold, “Teaching American History the Public History Way.” Report from the website of the National Council of Public History.

[3] Brian Burnsed, “Degrees are Great, but Internships Make a Difference.” U.S. News and World Report (15 April 2010); Jacqueline Smith, “Internships May Be the Easiest Way to a Job in 2013,” Forbes, December 6, 2012; and Brett Arends, “How Summer Can Change Your Future,” Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2014.

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