Saturday, April 4, 2009

Public History Educators: Bearing Witness as an Ethical Imperative

At this morning’s breakfast for public history educators, I was reminded again of the imperative of bearing witness. The annual breakfast meeting serves as an information gathering session for members of the NCPH Curriculum and Training Committee. This morning, listening to the questions raised by our colleagues who teach public history in colleges and universities across the country, there was ample reason for optimism about the future of public history. There was also a clearly articulated urgency regarding our role as advocates; participants agreed that we must speak for both the value of history and the needs of our students and colleagues during dire economic times.

On the positive side of the equation, the number of public history programs, concentrations and courses continues to expand. A significant number of people at the breakfast identified themselves as either coordinating new programs or working to extend public history course offerings and degree opportunities in their home institutions. Further, the expansion of public history is fostering a transformation in history education and scholarship more generally. Public history educators are engaged scholars, working to develop or improve partnerships with museums, archives, historical societies, secondary schools and other institutions. Such partnerships are mutually beneficial. They provide practical experiences for our students, and they help public history institutions document their value to the community at large. Public history educators are striving to assess and implement best practices for managing partnerships, running programs, and fostering scholarship. As part of this effort, we are deeply engaged in efforts to transform university culture around issues of promotion and tenure, and this effort is contributing to the evolution of more engaged forms of scholarship, teaching and service throughout the discipline of history.

However, breakfast participants also identified a number of serious ethical issues amplified by the national economic crisis. Because graduate programs tend to be counter-cyclical in relationship to the economy, the number of applicants to public history and history programs is expanding. Many incoming students are traditional students trying to delay entry into the job market, but many others are non-traditional students looking to make a career change when their jobs have been lost or threatened. University administrators, facing their own budgetary crises, are pressuring departments to increase their enrollments in order to ensure a steady stream of tuition revenue. At the same time, they are cutting the budgets that keep programs viable. At many universities, graduate assistantships and sponsored internships have been dramatically reduced. Some departments are forced to offer fewer courses in order to cut the cost of hiring professional adjuncts to teach crucial, skill-based courses.

The ethical issues we face have broad ramifications. Public history institutions are laying off curators, educators and archivists, forcing public history educators to consider their role in undermining job security for both our colleagues and our students. Our students –working in the context of courses or as interns—are a source of free labor, fulfilling responsibilities formerly held by colleagues who have lost their jobs. Upon graduation, new professionals are competing for jobs against more experienced colleagues as well as students. Many remain unemployed or under-employed for long periods of time, leaving them not only without a reliable income, but often without access to health insurance and other necessary benefits.

As public history educators, then, it seems clear that our engagement in these issues must expand to meet the needs or our students and colleagues. From our comparatively secure positions, we can identify funding opportunities that will come from stimulus monies distributed to the states. Patrick Moore from the University of West Florida urged public history educators to develop projects now that will provide opportunities for both our students and our unemployed colleagues to earn income from federally funded initiatives. Equally important, Briann Greenfield from Central Connecticut State University observed that public history educators must take our role as advocates for museums, historic sites and higher education even more seriously than we already do, making sure that politicians and funding agencies are well aware of the value of our work.

As educators and intellectuals actively promoting more engaged forms of intellectual inquiry and teaching, we have a responsibility to bear witness both to the plight of our colleagues and to the public value of history.

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