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Regarding the AHA’s “Tuning” Project

When I first read the news of the American Historical Association’s “History Tuning” project last week, I was excited about what seemed to me to be a timely undertaking to rethink history education at the university level from a skills-based perspective that would undergird assertions of the relevancy of historical study to many career paths and professional arenas.

The project, it appeared, dovetailed helpfully with the AHA’s recent, welcome calls for expanding graduate education and enlarging the universe of possible professional outcomes for the profession’s Ph.D.s (the articles on “No More Plan B” and “Plan C” in Perspectives last fall by Jim Grossman and Tony Grafton, for instance). Indeed, I forwarded news of the “Tuning” project to my own Ph.D. department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is just beginning a conversation about “Historians and the Public Sphere,” in which I, as an adjunct member of this department, am to be involved.

Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading this morning the call for participants in the project that the AHA has issued seeking “an enthusiastic group of 60 history faculty” who are employed full-time as “history faculty at the post-secondary level.” As an active professional historian building a “portfolio” career that encompasses full-time “alt-ac” employment, ongoing historical research and publication, and adjunct teaching of my university’s only public history course, I am stunned by this narrow definition of potential participants in this very important undertaking.

If the project aims (as the AHA web announcement noted), to “spell out the distinctive skills, methods, and substantive range of [the] field,” articulate “the significance and value of a history degree,” include “historians front and center at all stages,” understand “how potential employers value the skills and knowledge of history majors and how students have used their degrees over time,” explain “the significance of historical study to audiences beyond the profession,” and “answer the critique of history as an irrelevant luxury,” it absolutely must incorporate at its core professional historians who, in their own practice, deploy those skills in a variety of settings and provide employment for future history majors trained in these new ways.

While it is true that, to succeed, the Tuning Project must involve those history faculty members who have the power to enact curricular change, and while I see that the funder has defined the project as “faculty-driven,” I believe that leaving the conversation to be controlled exclusively by this group is to doom it to insularity and, ultimately, marginality and limited effect – for students, for history departments, for universities, and for history practice.

Reforming the history curriculum cannot productively proceed in the absence of sustained participation, from the outset, by historians who represent the full breadth of the history profession writ large. It is hard to imagine faculties in other professional fields (journalism, public health, education, social work, law) undertaking such a project without engaging practitioners in all of those areas. It’s high time we stop thinking that the domains “historians” and “history faculty” are fully, or even largely, congruent.

As has been well documented elsewhere, historians whose entire careers have unfolded within the academy (as history faculty careers most often do, since there is little room for “lateral re-entry” in traditional arts and sciences academe) often know little about how history skills are deployed outside of a few areas (primarily teaching, discipline-based research, and scholarly publication). Such historians often know little to nothing, for instance, about historic preservation and the matrix of laws and regulations that shape the lives of other historians who make their living in “cultural resources management,” to name one single public history arena.

How, then, can a group composed solely of full-time academic faculty be expected to take charge of a radical re-envisioning of history curricula to make it sufficiently flexible and broad so as to prepare history graduates who are well positioned to move into the wide variety of fields often touted as common paths for the undergraduate history major?

Consider a single concrete case: Working with three other historians (all holding Ph.D.s from major universities) who are leaders in the field, I have just completed a three-year study of “the state of history” in the National Park Service that was commissioned and sponsored by the NPS Chief Historian’s Office (Dr. Robert K. Sutton) and the Organization of American Historians. That study (Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service), will be released within the next month.

This study was built on a survey of NPS professionals whose work shapes NPS history practice. One of our key findings is that historical research and interpretation in the parks is often managed by staff with little to no post-secondary training in history. Indeed, the minimum educational requirement for being hired as a federal historian (series 0170) is only 18 hours of history at the college level, and many ranger-interpreters in the parks have no disciplinary training at all.

Since two-thirds of our national parks are designated for their historical/cultural significance as opposed to grand natural features and scenery, one of our major recommendations is that the standard for hiring historians be raised, and that more MA-trained historians be hired to manage the NPS’s important history work. In making our case, we argue that MA-level training in history imparts an indispensable set of skills and awarenesses that are critical to effective, accurate, flexible, and relevant public history practice. These are, no doubt, many of the same skills that the Tuners will identify: an ability to assemble, judge, read, and understand the fragmentary records (both written and material) left to us from the past, an understanding of the constructed and changing nature of historical knowledge, and an ability to cope with and present multiple perspectives in and on the past.

Yet, we recognize, hiring more conventionally trained historians will not, by itself, be enough.  It is also evident to us that historical work in many non-university settings, such as the parks, requires additional knowledge, skills, and experience: in historic preservation, digital presentation, archival description and organization, curation of material objects, architectural history, K-12 pedagogy, and collaborative work styles — things that that most history majors do not routinely get exposed to. This fact, indeed, may at least partly explain why so much history work in the public sector seems to be done by non-historians who have colonized our field while we have focused so internally.

If correctly managed, the Tuning Project offers an outstanding opportunity to build curricula (at all levels) that will give real meaning to the assertions of countless history departments that the study of history opens many doors. Such curricular reform, indeed, has the potential to re-invigorate “the connection between history and civic life” that historian Thomas Bender argued for in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education article (“What’s Been Lost in History,” February 12, 2012, login required). If left only to history faculties in academe, however, the project will be simply one more bit of evidence of how out of touch academic history and the AHA are with where the history profession is and needs to go.


  1. History Maven

    Thank you so much for this post. I agree that the sorts of discussions that take place between tenured faculty members on different campuses will only further policy and curriculum that do not relate to public history practice.

    I’ve been increasingly concerned with university-based historians’ assumptions about public history and, more generally, public humanities. Public history seems to be the default answer to the problem of the overproduction of doctorates. A search for public history syllabi posted to the Web reveals that a surprising number do not include material culture studies, historic preservation practice and law, etc., etc. Very traditional historical practice forms the bases of these courses.

    I say this based on 20 years’ experience as a faculty member. I left a tenured position in a history department because of the increasing resistance with the department to interdisciplinarity (mine is an American Studies doctorate) and to public history. My exhibition work, consultancies on NEH-funded projects, and the like were diminished as scholarly work by colleagues. After some years of this treatment, I resigned.

    Since that time I have attempted to break into the public history/public humanities realm, with varying degrees of success in exhibition creation, digital humanities, and even founding a historical society. I have found that museum professionals balk at my partial skill set (e.g., not having more experience in collections management) although they appreciate my breadth of knowledge about American material culture. And, without a university affiliation (and the sorts of fellowships, grants, and other opportunities made more readily available by that affiliation), I have found it more difficult to find work that suits my knowledge, skills, and abilities.

    So I’ve seen the assumed mutual world of academic history and public history from both sides. And these practices–and the assumptions upon which they are based–are worlds apart. Each world has its own credentialing and what we have long touted as transferable skills simple are not–or at the very least, suffer in translation.

    I have always advocated that historical societies and museums consider converting or created fellowships for scholars not to research but to learn the skills of the curator, collection manager, registrar, etc. How would working with artifacts and systems of classification add to historians’ knowledge? Wouldn’t it make historians who are often hired as consultants for only a small part of a very large and long project all the more knowledgeable about what work needs to be done?

    Years ago, I attended an OAH session, led by great Roy Rosenzweig, on the relationship between university-based historians and museums. One audience member, an employee of a then-financially shaky museum, raised the question of financial viability and collection integrity. I was dismayed when Roy dismissed the question, stating that the session was devoted to other issues (which I took to mean what university-based historians could get from working with museums as other venues of scholarship).

    I don’t think I was the only one to think that this audience member’s plea was one of the central questions in contemplating how the history profession, broadly conceived, should be invested in the public good. How would we understand “public history” if we defined as “history in the public interest”? How would that definition help us unite in common cause and further the case for historical knowledge and skills?

  2. Anne Whisnant

    History Maven, thank you for these thoughtful comments based on your own “hybrid” experience. I agree that the gulf between the worlds of public history practice and academic history teaching is in many places quite vast. And the very practical concerns that many public historians deal with (such as the one raised during the Rosenzweig session) are absolutely critical to *anyone’s* practice of history, and should be much better understood and engaged with by those in the academy. All of this to agree with you that “history in the public interest” could be a uniting notion, and that, in any case, “historians” ought to do much more work, all the time, from both “sides,” to articulate our common interests and the public benefit of our practice across sectors. I tend to think the reward system in the academy is a large part of the problem, but there are insularities and blind spots on the public history side at times as well. Many attempts to bridge this are ongoing, and I think there is now, and will be in the future, much more cross-pollination, at least partly because the old structures in the academy are becoming more fragile.

  3. Anne Whisnant

    Also, I wanted to let anyone else reading this post know that the discussion about the AHA “Tuning” project has continued in many venues since my initial piece above. Several public historians who teach in the academy have raised another set of questions regarding the political context in which the Tuning project is being launched, including how the overarching goals of the sponsoring Lumina Foundation may have the potential to shape the project in ways that are, in the long term, detrimental to the conditions of faculty labor. I encourage everyone interested in “Tuning” to read Briann Greenfield’s post and the continuing conversation about these issues going on over at History@Work, the National Council on Public History’s new blog: http://publichistorycommons.org/?p=156

  4. Richard Hines

    I am taking part in the Tuning Project. I am an academic, and have a primary-coordinate field in Public History. Besides my teaching, and administrative, responsibilities, I have also actively worked as a Public Historian. When the Tuning Project participants met in June, Public History figured prominently in the discussion, and we had a presentation on a Public History project in West Virginia, followed by a question and answer period. An integral part of the Tuning Project centers on future employability, and the design of curricula that supports that. In today’s economy, students need to weigh the cost-to-benefit ratio of completing a degree. With that in mind, we have been encouraged to survey employers, and our stakeholders, to determine how we can best facilitate a process that meets both of their needs.

    It is important to note that “Tuning” is not a one size fits all endeavor. The effort is not to standardize curricula or learning objectives. Rather, it is a framework whereby individual institutions can tailor those to fit the needs of their students. Frankly, my MA in Public History students are finding more work than other graduates, so I would be remiss by neglecting the importance of applied history, as would many of my colleagues.

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