It started at a bar in Baltimore…

Right now I’m having this weird flashback to last semester when I was in the Digital Public History course. I had decided over the winter break of 2016-17 (almost a year to the day) that I wanted to switch my degree concentration to Public History. I had gone out for a drink one night around Christmas weekend and ran into, through a mutual friend, a lady named Anita Durel. Her and her husband had co-founded this organization called Qm2. Qm2 is basically a consulting firm that helps museums in particular to better connect with their audiences and manage their bottom lines. They are pretty successful at it too. I remember Anita telling me, in between a few deep slogs of her dirty martini,  how they had recently worked with a group in Paris, and were planning the logistics for a trip to some museum in South Africa. One thing lead to another and before long we started talking about me pursuing my degree at UMBC.

Anita was admittedly a bit drunk. But what most stuck out to me in the conversation (from what I can remember) is her telling me that I had to do public history if I wanted to make any money the field of history. She basically told me what quite a few people have told me since, that the field had become way too over saturated with Ph.Ds and there was no place to put them. Academic historians were basically a dime a dozen and I shouldn’t count on being secured a job if I went down that path. It really resonated with me. It was really the first time that someone had gotten really real with me about my future in the field and what I was doing right now to prepare for it.  I actually emailed Dr. Ritschel the next day asking if I could switch my concentration. He put me in touch with Dr. Meringolo, and the rest as they say (pun very much intended) is history.

I signed up for Digital Public History in the upcoming Spring semester.

If I’m going to be honest, I had no idea what Public History was. I had gone to NCPHs website and gotten a run down:

“NCPH inspires public engagement with the past and serves the needs of practitioners in putting history to work in the world by building community among historians, expanding professional skills and tools, fostering critical reflection on historical practice, and publicly advocating for history and historians.”

Sounds simple enough, right? What I thought then was that public historians are really the front line of history. They interface directly with the public, rather than secluding themselves in the safety of the ivory tower of the university. Thats really all I thought it was. We talk to the everyday public, and they (academics) talk to other academics or students.

This actually sounded really appealing to me because part of what I was interested in doing with my degree was helping middle class white people to better understand housing disparities in urban and suburban space through the lens of history. Seemed simple enough, and it also seemed to accommodate this mildly activist tinge that I have always felt I needed to express somehow in my professional life.

As I mentioned earlier, I took a bit of a backwards path for the Public History tract at UMBC. I had already taken digital public history, and my internship before taking the intro class. I remember well sitting in the first digital history class last spring and thinking “what the hell are we talking about right?” I don’t think I said a single word the whole class. To be honest, I don’t think I said a single word in the first three classes. I don’t even remember much of those first couple of classes outside of registering my reclaim site and reading a few documents about reconciliation projects like the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

What I do remember very well is how much emphasis, no matter what example or case study we were reading about, was placed on sensitivity and thorough consideration of every variable. That is to to say that we must try to consider every way infinitesimal in which we (the public historian) might not be fully accounting for every perspective that needed to be included, or how we might be being insensitive to the variety of concerns within a community whom we are working with. One similar example from this semester came from the article on Scotts Bluff where there was this really obvious push and pull between how to fit the story of the monument within the schematic of the National Park Service at the Federal level, and how to accommodate the desires for tourism and profits of the local community within that frame work. Barber writes how the “…locals resisted ceding complete control of the site to the government, even as they pursued and profited by the national recognition it had brought them.” (Barber, “Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff National Monument,” Page 38.) How do you balance this?

It was dizzying to be honest, and it seemed at times a hopeless struggle. The more I thought about, my idealistic desire to educate white suburban homeowners about the policies and profound cultural discourses that had shaped their realities seemed not so easy, or even advisable. At the end of the day, you are always going to piss someone off, or hurt someone else. Throughout it all I remember Dr. M continuously driving home the point that is more than ok to come into your project wanting to interpret for your audience, in fact you need to interpret. Don’t be afraid to have a perspective. But how to do this in a sensitive and throughly considerate way?

So fast forward back to now. Having successfully completed (I hope) 705, I must say that I now have a much more complex understanding of the public history field. One that is honestly still a bit fuzzier than I would like, but thats ok. I’ll come back to that point in a bit.

I do think I’ve learned (if not entirely) many skills. First would be how to tell a story that doesn’t sound overly preachy but also really only leaves the audience one way to understand the point you are trying to make. The final project for this class has brought me a long way from where I was when I started. I do think I picked up a great many nuanced lessons for how to tell a story in a way that balanced not being overtly interpretive but does rely on critical historical thinking.

There are many things I’m still struggling with though. Some of them get fleshed out a bit every week in the lectures, almost by accident. For instance, last class we started talking about maybe public historians should be required to receive instruction akin to social work, or some sort of empathy training. This really resonated with me and also kind of cleared up a misunderstandings I was having. Namely, is there a difference between what public history is generally and what I want to do within public history? Is the umbrella big enough for all our unique endeavors? For one,  I am very much interested in the idea of creating a safe space where ideas and beliefs over complex and controversial issues can be exchanged. It does seem strange to me as historians, especially public ones, we don’t receive some kind of specific training to this end.

Something else we talked about last week also kind of shook me a little bit (not in a bad way). Does there need to be any actual history in public history? This is a thought I have been having on and off throughout the semester, depending on the case study we were talking about. The recent example of the article on Monte Sol where the writer talks about how “Monte Sole has become a “place of memory”… [i]n building a Peace School at this place, we have sought to make its memory more than a monument.” (Baiesi, “Places of Memory as a Tool for Education: The “Peace in Four Voices Summer Camps” at Monte Sole” Page 29.) In this way, the history of place becomes a mere place setting for a discussion that ostensibly has nothing to do with the history of that actual place. So this can be public history too? It seems to me any social worker with a two page brochure on the history of Monte Sol could be qualified to work at this site.

This brings me back to why I’m fuzzy on public history and why I think that is ok. I think the most important thing I have learned is that at this point is to not expect perfection on any project, and to accept that at a certain point you have to just throw your hands up in the face of disillusionment and press forward. Every new experience brings a new challenge which leads to new growth. Public historians have a hard job, especially insofar as they aren’t even sure what their job is actually going to be or what it’s going to entail. Imagine showing up to your first day at work, thinking you are ready to get to it, and realizing “shit…I didn’t train for this. Is this my responsibility?”. We saw a lot of that notion in this weeks readings, which I wrote a good bit about for the discussion blog.

In closing, I will say I am excited to press forward. I still don’t fully know what public history is, or what I want to do within it, but I don’t think I’m at fault for not knowing. It’s an evolving thing that present new difficulties each time and new potential rewards in working through those challenges. After all, we are working with the public and the public is a highly complex, often disparate, undefinable, unclassifiable, sometimes hostile, sometimes jovial, confused, sad, maybe depressed, over-stimulated, medicated, ambitious, idealistic, arbitrary, and altogether frustrating clientele. Perhaps that is what ultimately makes the field of public history such a dubious one to fully define.

All that being said, I’m feeling pretty good with where I’m at and what I came up with for the final project. Furthermore, I must say that I’m glad I went out for a drink that night a year ago. I’m glad I sent the email to Dr. Ritschel the next morning. And I’m glad this semester is over. Now I’m going to go out again to the same bar and have a drink.

“We were really good at being graduate students, but now we don’t know what to do.”

Right out of the gate, my first question is does anyone else really identify with this statement? I know that I do.

Perhaps I’m just a bit hungover from this late-night binge of a Republican tax plan which is potentially going to significantly raise the taxes graduate assistants/students like myself will have to pay. Either way I’m really starting to feel a sense of impending doom as I careen headlong towards graduation and the ominous job market that lies beyond.

The report What Do Public History Employers Want? A Report of the Joint AASLH-AHA-NCPH-OAH Task Force on Public History Education and Employment, lays out a land mine laden laundry list of potential hazards for recent MA grads. Part time employment (if at all), low wages, no public funding, FUNDRAISING, over-saturation of recent graduates, private interests influencing your bottom-line, poor workplace conditions. It’s enough to make one seriously ask: Can’t I just stay in grad school forever?

Unfortunately the answer is NO. Lest you want to become paradoxically encumbered by “large student debts [and therefore] not be able to accept employment in public history because of financial constraints” (Report Page 9). Panic mood…now.

However, I must say I’m glad I read the four selections for this week in the order I did, so as to not lose all hope and despair for the future of the profession, and myself within it. The quote that this post derives its title from is Emily McEwens NCPH article “Out of the academy and into public service: Changing expectations and new measures of success”. Reading this one last at  gave me a sense that there is light at the end of that tunnel, albeit it may not be the same tunnel you initially thought you were in. Emily talks a lot about the transition out of the academic into the real career world of public history work, developing what she calls “Taking Care of Business” skills. This is a common theme I noticed throughout the selections. The idea that we all might need to really go into the field with an open mind for the kinds of skills we are actually going to need, or not necessarily need, in order to successfully make it out there. I really identified with the way she talked about re-evaluating her workplace performance beyond just an “academic understanding of success”. For a lot of us, I would imagine this is really going to be a wake up call.

However, one general observation/question I had about all of these readings was this: are they dated? If you watch the news, like I regrettably do too much of,  you would think we are in a relatively strong economic place from the depths of the Great Recession. Unemployment is down to record levels, hiring is up, jobs are going unfilled. The 2015 report What Do Public History Employers Want? mentions a lot of disconcerting issues facing the field as well as suggestions for how to counteract them. I kept asking myself if the prospects have changed at all for public historians since then? Is it easier now to find work? Has public history generally risen with the rest of the economy, or not?

Regardless of the answer, there were many things I found interesting/troubling in the report. Not least of which is an increased emphasis on the necessity of fundraising skills for public historians.  The report stated findings indicated that among the “five skills [public historian professionals] expect to be in highest demand in the future” (Report 2) , fundraising was atop the list. Not only does this sound personally distasteful to me, it also seems to have a lot potentially ethical consequences.  Is the field going to degenerate into some kind of lobbying endeavor? Who are we supposed to seek funds from that won’t conflict with our interpretational desires and obligations? How does the field remain empowered yet true if it is to be dependent upon constantly seeking out funds from private entities, many of which might want to influence the work we do? These are of course questions we have been grappling with all semester, but this report especially drove it home. That being said, I did take some solace in the fact that most public history professionals/employers still regard historical research ability and written/oral communication abilities as paramount for all M.As entering the job market.

Again, the most important takeaway/theme for me from both McEwen and the Report is “the need for historians entering the field to be adaptable, creative, and resourceful” (Report 6). I certainly take that point well. Especially considering that the internship I did over the summer had not so much to do with history, but rather public policy. I still had to rely on my writing abilities and communication abilities, both of which I have developed more fully since I’ve been in grad school. However I also relied on some of my personal travel experiences and connections in the arts/music world of Baltimore to facilitate  dialog and conversations with some of the individuals I had to interview. My point being, our tool kits are already much bigger than what we learn in class. Undoubtedly this realization will come in handy, and might even be a selling point to potential employers in the future as we move out into the world. Are there any skills you have right now that you could possibly anticipate, or not, that might be utilized in your career?

Generally speaking I do believe there is a home for all of us out there if we can just open up to potentials that are not necessarily in sight right now. McEwen talks about developing a new understanding of her work “serving the public”. This includes not just the interpretive work of the park site, but also the bureaucratic work of booking an event on the grounds or locating a lost pet for a visitor. All of this somehow can fall under the purview of “serving the public” in history since it all is cumulatively part of the visitor experience.

All above references from:

Philip Scarpino and Daniel Vivian. “What Do Public History Employers Want? A Report of the Joint AASLH-AHA-NCPH-OAH Task Force on Public History Education and Employment”.

Emily McEwen. “Out of the academy and into public service: Changing expectations and new measures of success”, National Council on Public History. May 4, 2016.