Saturday, April 4, 2009

Young Professionals Reflect on the Value of Public History Education

This afternoon, I had the privilege of eavesdropping on five young professionals who led a roundtable discussion designed to help current graduate students make the most of their public history education. Teresa Sherwood, curator of the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Park; Erin Rose, curator of education for the Fort Casper Museum and Historic Site; Jennifer Lemak, Historian of African American History at the Albany State Museum; J.R. Fennell, Director of the Lexington County Museum; and Alex Bethe, Historian at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command addressed a series of questions about how their graduate education had prepared them for work in the public sector.

The session was lively and informative, and the students in attendance clearly enjoyed the opportunity to gather advice and impressions from recent graduates. As one of several public history educators in attendance, I found the session enjoyable, instructive and gratifying. The panelists confirmed that the structure and requirements of our graduate programs are largely effective in preparing students for work in the public sector, and they provided insight into the kinds of courses we should consider for the future.

There were several points on which all the panelists agreed. First, classroom and real world projects that provide students with real-world experience are most effective for preparing students for work. Second, and closely related, graduate internships allowed the panelists to apply skills they had learned and practiced in the classroom in a variety of site and project specific circumstances. All the panelists agreed that even the most mundane internship work –such as accessioning artifacts or moving collections—had provided them with marketable skills and experiences. Third, the panelists confirmed that traditional graduate history coursework is directly applicable to the work of public historians. Interestingly, panelists particularly pointed to historiography classes. While most admitted that such courses were the least enjoyable in their studies, they agreed that the value of historiography coursework became more evident over time. The ability to recognize the evolution of historical scholarship has proven to be a necessary skill, enabling young professionals to understand how and why site interpretation had changed over time. Further, all the panelists agreed that basic skills in historical research, writing and analysis are as indispensable to public historians as they are to historians who work in universities and other research institutions.

Two topics attracted a bit more diversity of opinion.

Each of the panelists had a slightly different opinion about the best approach to a capstone project. Two students had completed traditional capstone projects –a Master’s Thesis and a dissertation. These young professionals argued that producing a more traditional final product had provided them with the opportunity to demonstrate their specialized expertise as historians. Other members of the panel produced non-traditional capstone projects. They argued that the ability to create a historical product geared for public consumption had enabled them to develop a portfolio of marketable products. In either case, panelists agreed that following a complex project through from research to completion had been a crucial educational experience.

Panelists also offered different observations about the best approach to graduate school. Some panelists felt strongly that a direct path from undergraduate through graduate school was most productive. They argued that delaying school would ultimately have prevented them from pursing a graduate degree in the first place. Others thought, in retrospect, that a few years in the work force would have enabled them to focus their professional development more clearly, understand the applicability of course work more fully, and select their program more thoughtfully.

Finally, panelists made some suggestions about courses they felt were lacking in graduate study. In particular, students observed a need for courses that provide training in a variety of museum software programs and new media development. They also suggested that a course in preservation law and state specific cultural policies would have helped prepare them to understand the legal jargon and contexts that structures their day-to-day work. During the course of this discussion, it became clear that current and incoming graduate students are thinking critically and carefully about the necessity of pursing graduate degrees. Some discussion from educators in the audience indicated that PhDs are becoming increasingly necessary for administrators and curators, particularly in middle sized and large institutions, and an increasing number of public history graduate students are strongly considering more advanced study.


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  2. Dear Denise: I truly appreciate your review of this session as I was unable to attend the conference. I am a graduate student who hopes to one day be the young professional you highlighted, so your recap was especially helpful.

  3. This was really fun to put together. If anyone has follow-up questions, feel free to contact the group at:
    Thanks for the opportunity to present! - Trey

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