All posts by Denise

Experiments in Cross-Institutional Collaboration: 5 Musings

Working-group participants responding to our second set of questions provided a fascinating array of collaborative examples.  We have reached out across many different kinds of institutional lines—educational and community; public and private; urban and rural; professional and social—identifying in the process profound and often hidden possibilities as well as significant challenges for sustainable, collaborative public history work.  Drawing both on the agenda-setting questions for this round and on the common promises and problems identified in the responses, this summary lays out five common issues, highlights some of your creative responses to these issues, and identifies the ongoing challenges to collaboration that they present.

At the end of this summary, you will find the third and final blog post prompt. Please provide your response no later than Sunday, March 25.

  1. Time scarcity: This is a pressing problem for public historians in academic programs and in community organizations, for students, and for partner communities and institutions.  The potential for quick burn-out from mounting responsibilities in the university, the constant activity required by truly collaborative inter-institutional relationships, and the demanding work schedules faced by non-profit professionals and students all raise doubts about the sustainability of inter-institutional collaborations. Pressuring academic administrators and department chairs to assign value to the often unnoticed and unpaid work of managing collaborative relationships would help ease some of that pressure.  At the same time, academic institutions –particularly those dependent on state resources—are being asked to do more work, at a faster pace, with fewer resources. How might we think about inter-institutional collaboration, at least in part, as a solution to this deeper structural problem? How might we identify and manage workflows between institutions involved in common projects?  How we might address the difficulties that might be posed by the different missions of potentially collaborating institutions?


  1. The ethics of unpaid internships: While this is an often-discussed issue in the field, the collaborations described in the previous post highlight its complexity. Several participants admitted that coursework and internship projects facilitated by cross-institutional cooperation may well lower wages and reduce paid opportunities for emerging public history professionals.  On the other side of this, non-profit, local, and sometimes rural institutions with little budget for paid positions often welcome the help that students can bring, further raising the risk that we exploit our students.  There may be important distinctions between undergraduates who build valuable basic skills in unpaid work as opposed to graduate students providing unpaid professionalizing labor.  One model for avoiding competition in the public history jobs market may be collaboration with community organizations that are not public-history centered but which may benefit from historical projects. Student and faculty work in this sector might even help create new revenue for novel paid positions, insofar as local funders might be tapped for longer-term projects once an ongoing collaboration is established.  Here, too, divergent institutional missions can prove a challenge for sharing authority in ways that enable community members, local professionals, educators, and students to emerge as meaningful participants.  It’s important that students can produce something is both inter-institutionally useful and demonstrably authored by them.


  1. Regional collaboration: A number of participants provided examples of regional collaboration among various public history programs, but some never took practical shape or were short-lived.  Our current climate of competition for students in higher education is a ubiquitous force driving a proliferation of programs that are sometimes of questionable depth and often vehicles for inefficient duplication of effort.  Many participants have ideas about how to combat these problems through inter-institutional frameworks that would involve complementary programs across regional educational institutions and joint collaborations with regional community institutions shared among area educational institutions.  To persuade administrators that sharing rather than competing for students could work, there is promise that successfully connecting Public History programs to existing trans-national institutional partnerships might convince administrators to support similar collaborations closer to home.  Major challenges lie in ensuring sustainability and in managing the considerable extra workload that communication across shared frameworks entails.


  1. Diversity: Participants recognized the crucial importance of creating broadly inclusive cross-institutional collaborative opportunities, and they acknowledged the incredible difficulty of this work. Diversity in this context is understood to mean representation and inclusion across social groups (identified by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), across professions and historical stakeholders (educator, archivists, librarians, students, community members) and across geography (urban/rural).  In order to maximize diversity, ongoing conversation and constant reflection must be central throughout the process of building and maintaining relationships. But it can be difficult to attract a wide range of stakeholders at crucial moments in project development, and the processes of recruitment and communication can be all consuming.  Further, while cultivating projects with local communities can provide opportunities for building diversity across locality and region, local communities and their institutions can also resist diversity, particularly when their own vision of their history rests on established and often closed community connections. Diversifying the composition, content, and collaborative relationships central to public history remains one of the biggest hurdles in the successful achievement of shared authority.


  1. Funding: In this era of diminishing resources, public institutions warily protect their narrowing slices of the economic pie from organizations they see as competitors rather than the collaborators (dare we say comrades?) they could be.  Thus, scrambling to acquire funding often undermines both cross-institutional public history relationships and the individual organizations that take part in them.  Many participants noted the difficulty of getting administrators who hold purse strings to see the value of collaborating across local or regional institutions. Instead, administrators presume a model of competition with other mission-related organizations for students and dollars. It is possible that national organizations like the National Council on Public History could play a role by publicizing and promoting the value of resource sharing across institutions rather than accepting the neoliberal competitive models currently dominant. Getting local private-donor buy-in for local cross-institutional projects that might interest community-invested businesses provides another promising model for funding local projects.  This is certainly a promising avenue for funding in the absence of wider public resources.  It does pose its own challenges for shared authority when local institutions enforce boundaries related to their own perspectives rather than embracing the wider shared authority of public historical work.  Moreover, it may be important to couple these partnerships with ongoing pressure on larger institutions not to narrow their vision of community engagement to the currently administratively popular “public/private partnership” model.  National-level foundation support will surely continue to play a vital role here, as well.  This is another field in which cross-institutional collaboration may be vital to sustaining a healthy variety of public history institutions, rather than watching them diminish to a few noticed and funded by foundation choices.  With respect to many of these dimensions of the funding problem, the multi-institutional public history community may itself need to be a participatory social movement in order to reach some of its goals, in addition to providing the many public-facing histories of such movements that have long been important components of its collaborative projects.

So far, our pre-conference discussion has been tremendously fruitful for identifying pressing problems –those pesky power lines– that can prevent us from establishing sustainable and effective cross-institutional partnerships. We also have at our finger tips a series of models and proposals that might help us disrupt or at least re-configure those power lines. For your third and final pre-conference blog post, please consider the following two questions:

First: Given the barriers and opportunities that exist for cross-institutional partnerships in public history education, how specifically would we have to transform our thinking about any or all of the following:  institutional autonomy, departmental competition and collaboration, workload, tenure and promotion, student recruitment, and/or the development, supervision, and assessment of student-driven class projects and student internships?

Second: What do you think would be the most useful outcome or product of our working group?

Post Author, Kathryn J. Oberdeck



Barriers, Opportunities, and Unintended Consequences

The case statements posted by participants in the upcoming NCPH 2018 Working Group, “Disrupting Institutional Power,” provide us with a solid framework for beginning our discussion.

It appears we have much in common despite variety in our institutions and in our career stages.

First: we are all painfully aware of the economic constraints we face as public history educators and as public historians more generally. Whether addressing issues of funding for our programs or the challenge of finding viable paid employment, all of our participants identified the need to think creatively about money.

Second: we are all concerned about the impact of competition on our students as well as on our programs. As we are painfully aware, departments of history and administrators in higher education, under pressure to attract students, often develop and market Public History, public humanities, and related tracks as job-preparation programs. But duplication both inside individual universities and across universities in regional systems undermines the health of the field. Not only do we fail to increase the number of graduate students –because there are so many programs to choose from– we also undermine their ability to find paid employment because we flood local public history organizations with unpaid interns and requests for classroom projects.

Third: We are committed to collaboration and partnership as the foundation for our scholarship, our pedagogy, and our program development.

From this common ground, we can begin to recognize frameworks for re-imagining our work culture.  Participants have identified models on which we may build and from which we can learn, ranging from North Carolina’s Institute of Applied History to the NCPH “mini-con” to the Guantanamo Public Memory Project. But there are also deep contradictions and the potential for unintended consequences. These are emerging in the form of questions:

  1.  How can we successfully disrupt the competitive university model and work together to create distinctive programs within a given system or region? How do we begin this conversation? What will make the idea palatable to adminstrators?
  2. What can we do to prevent and/or address faculty burn out?
  3. Are we prepared to exert sustained and thoughtful influence on the broad field of public history? What steps can we take to increase diversity in the profession, to foster more critical models of dialogue in public history settings, to build new and better relationships between public history institutions and their audiences, and to fully engage people who have been marginalized and left out of public history in the past?
  4. How can we eliminate competition between students and those seeking employment? Providing free labor –in the form of interns and classroom based students– undermines the development of new paid positions and keeps salaries low.
  5. What are the benefits and risks of taking advantage of university initiatives around civic engagement or entrepreneurship?
  6. What do regional partnerships and public history training look like in areas that are less urban and less densely developed and populated?

In order to approach these questions, I invite working group participants to fully describe and analyze a specific case study –no matter how small. Describe ONE moment in your career as a public history student, public history educator, or public history practitioner in which you successfully built a cross-institutional partnership. How did you initiate the conversation? What barriers did you encounter? How did you overcome or circumvent those barriers? How did you acquire funding –or did you? What were some of the best outcomes and the unintended consequences? What do you think is most instructive about your example and which of the numbered questions above (if any) do you think it addresses?

Please respond to this prompt by posting a comment no later than February 19.



Disrupting Institutional Power: Participant Case Statements

Disrupting Institutional Power is a Working Group designed for the 2018 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History. The Working Group facilitators are Denise D. Meringolo, University of Maryland Baltimore County; Elizabeth Nix, The University of Baltimore; Eli Pousson, Baltimore Heritage; Kathryn Oberdeck, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Devin Hunter, University of Illinois, Springfield; and Anke Voss, The Urbana Free Library.

We have four interrelated goals: to identify barriers and opportunities for cross-institutional partnerships in public history education; to document new and ongoing experiments in collaboration across traditional institutional lines, challenging preconceived notions of power and authority; to draw attention to the way these practices might transform both the field of public history and institutions of higher learning, by making them more broadly inclusive; and to craft formal proposals for one or more pilot programs.

The Working Group participants are Taylor Bye, University of Missouri – Kansas City; Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University; Eric Nystrom, Arizona State University; Mary Rizzo, Rutgers University-Newark; Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, American University-Department of History; Sarah Scripps, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point; and Sarah Soleim, North Carolina State University.

Prior to our meeting in Las Vegas, NV, in April, 2018, the Working Group facilitators will lead an online dialogue. This pre-conference discussion is intended to establish a strong foundation for our in-person meeting.

This is the first of three posts that will compose that dialogue.

Working Group participants:  please share your case statements by submitting it as a comment on this post. Your statement should be between 500 and 750 words, and it should connect your own work and interests to some or all of the questions posed in the original working group call. In other words, tell us what drew you to this Working Group and how precisely you think you can contribute to the achievement of its goals.

The questions are as follows:

Is it possible to disrupt lines of power that establish universities as individual and discrete entities in order to establish deeply collaborative opportunities for teaching and learning? How might university-community partnerships broaden horizontally, bringing together faculty, students, and organizations across a variety of borders? Is there evidence we can present to Department Chairs and University Administrators that might allay fears of competition? Might cross-institutional partnerships help departments clarify and promote particular areas of expertise, complementing one another and building high quality state and regional systems? Might cross-institutional cooperation help establish and support best practices for internship project development, supervision, and assessment?

Design and Build: Public History as Scholarship

I am often asked to assist fellow public history educators in their bid for tenure. I am pleased to do so, because there are many dedicated and innovative practitioners whose hard work is worthy of recognition. I am also pleased to do so because each letter I write provides me with an opportunity to challenge History Department faculty to acknowledge and critically examine lingering, old-fashioned ideas about what “counts” as scholarship. While many Departments have revised their tenure and promotion documents, opening up the possibility that a variety of projects and products can be acknowledged as scholarly, they can’t seem to break entirely from the thrall of the book.

Is an exhibit the same as a book?

I’m stubborn. As a general rule, I do not help committee chairs to make equivalency arguments. I won’t say that a digital public history project is the same as an article or a blog post on History@Work is just like a book review. Equivalencies like these are simply false. The processes that lead to the development and implementation of a public history project are simply not the same as the processes that lead to the publication of a book.

I know. I’ve done both.

Here’s an imperfect analogy.

Let’s say you are a Professor of Architecture. You train students to conceptualize spaces. You produce elaborate blue prints and plans. Your success is measured by your artistry and innovation in design. But, sadly, enrollments in your Architecture program are down. Students feel unprepared for the job market, so you make the decision to hire someone with experience in construction. You find the perfect candidate –someone with a degree in architecture who has spent most of her career as a carpenter and a builder.

Over the next six years, your new faculty member takes students out of the classroom. She teaches them how to think about the ways in which designs take shape in the real world. She asks them to consider how the context of a family or a community might be made central when conceptualizing a home or a school or a community center. Her students build stuff. They design and construct spaces that are responsive, easy for clients to use, and grounded in their clients’ values and interests.

When it is time for her tenure and promotion review, your enthusiastic faculty member takes you on a tour of the structures she and her students have built. But you are confused. Where are her blueprints? Isn’t this just service and teaching? What has she produced that “counts?”

Public Historians are builders. They build relationships. They are responsive. They identify the questions and contexts that are most immediate and meaningful to their audiences. Their work cannot easily be separated into the three legs of the scholarly stool because their teaching, research, and service are profoundly integrated. That is the nature of public history.

So, in the end, an exhibit is not the equivalent of a book. It may be the equivalent of a well-designed and constructed community center.


Changing the Discipline

It would appear that public historians have much to celebrate.

First, the field is growing. In recent years, there has been marked expansion in public history education.  When I last counted in early 2012, there were about 160 programs listed on the website of the National Council on Public History. Today there are over 200, and a small but significant number are outside of North America.  While it is fair to say that public history has long been seen as an American phenomenon –distinct from heritage preservation or museum studies which have deep international roots– new leaders in Amsterdam, Italy, and elsewhere are working to change that; They launched the International Federation for Public History in 2010.

Second, public history is moving from the margins to the center of the discipline. This is not significant because it means public history is suddenly a legitimate endeavor –it has been for at least one hundred years whether recognized by academics or not. Rather, it is significant because it suggests public history is beginning to have a meaningful impact on how all historians are trained and how they practice.

Third, and related, the broad changes public historians (may) make to historical practice have been sanctioned –at least in part– by the discipline’s leaders. For decades, academic departments have struggled to understand how public history fits in the traditional measures of professional success. They sought rubrics and equivalencies to figure out if an exhibit is the same as a book, an administrative history is the same as an article. The conversation shifted in 2010. The Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the National Council on Public History issued a joint report on Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian, suggesting that the standard triumvirate –research, teaching, and service– is not so easily differentiated. To the extent that the report has made a difference in tenure and promotion decisions –I believe it did in mine– it is also making a difference in how academic departments of history view themselves.

Finally, both the Organization of American Historians and (to a lesser extent) the American Historical Association have returned to the idea that preparing students for alternatives to academic employment is not only ethical but also necessary for the health of the discipline. This was precisely the issue addressed by OAH Executive Director Katherine Finley in the November 2012 issue of Outlook, the organization’s newsletter.

But, all of this success raises other, thorny, and less-well-articulated questions.

What can we do to make sure that all of our success in transforming the discipline of history does not change the field of public history in ways we neither intend nor want?

Will the expansion of academic training in public history mean that there will be more and more public history educators who have never been practitioners?

Could increasing the profile of public history scholarship unintentionally create a new rift –or simply a different fault line– between academics and practitioners?

As public historians’ commitment to civic engagement and (for many of us) social justice are absorbed into University trends like service learning or community engagement will public history become implicated in shoring up traditional institutional structures and lose its potential to foment real change?

We are all historians, but I’m not sure that means we are all public historians.

The Power of Play

During our digital pedagogy session at the Doing Digital History summer institute, Jeff McClurken made an important distinction between digitally centered history courses and digitally inflected history courses. The former are courses dedicated to training students in  tools, methods, content management, and means of communication that digital history enables. The latter are courses that invite students to play and to expand their understanding of the discipline.

Since then, I’ve taken to calling myself a digitally-inflected public historian. I may yet graduate to full-fledged digital public historian. For now, I am empowered by the idea that I do not HAVE to utterly transform my practice. I am in a period of play and exploration, and it will last as long as it will last.

The distinction McClurken foregrounded has also helped me reconsider my own sense of what it means to teach public history. While I do think it’s important for public history educators to have a strong sense of the history, methods, tools, and values of our field, I can see the value of encouraging colleagues to introduce public history opportunities into their “traditional” courses. In other words, we can offer both public history centered courses and publicly-inflected history courses. In the former, students ideas about what it means to be a historian are destabilized and re-framed. Service moves to the center of historical practice, determining the form and function of scholarship and the opportunities for learning. However, there is no reason students in other history courses could not play around, too. In a publicly-inflected history course,  students have an opportunity to explore what it means to produce scholarship for a variety of audiences and to make decisions about what methods of communication might be more effective for particular groups at particular times.

Not every historian MUST become a public historian.

Not every historian MUST become a digital historian.

Yet, if we are willing to provide opportunities for our students –and ourselves– to play with digital tools and to communicate in and with a variety of public(s), we will have a powerful, positive impact on our profession.

Digital Inflection and History 319: The Rise of Modern America

In the fall, I am teaching two courses. One, a public history practicum course, will include significant play with digital tools. This seems natural to me because I have long required blogging and content development for digital environments in my public history courses. I have a clear vision of what I want the class to accomplish, which digital tools might be helpful, and how I can integrate both teaching and experimentation into the course.

I have found it much more difficult, in my nine years as a professor, to integrate digital tools, or public oriented projects into my more traditional courses.  I’ve spent some time these past two weeks thinking about just that. I think the key issues are class size (45 students), class composition (this is a mid-level course that fulfills general education requirements, so not all students are history majors), and the necessity of meeting University and Department defined undergraduate learning objectives.

After spending two weeks in Doing Digital History, however, I feel empowered to make some small changes. I’m convinced that creating a digitally inflected learning environment will enhance student learning, particularly in the realm of critical thinking and historical writing.

For my first foray into this realm, I am going use History Engine to modify the traditional, semester-long research project. History Engine is, essentially, an encyclopedia of local history narratives produced by students. Unlike Wikipedia assignments (which I also considered), History Engine allows students and professors to exert a bit  more control over the final product, posting them to the public site only after they are complete. Further, while site users can rate posts, they are not subject to an open,communal editing process.

As I do in my graduate public history courses, I have divided the History Engine Assignment into a series of steps. Students will generate a short annotated bibliography and a review essay before writing the final, more informal, narrative for History Engine. This process will allow them to think about issues of audience for various forms of historical production.


Distant Reading

During the two weeks of Doing Digital History, I have found some concepts more or less easy to assimilate into my work as a public historian and public history educator. I felt competent and confident when establishing a domain, playing with WordPress, experimenting with Omeka, dabbling with some tools for annotating images, and animating brief stories. I am less comfortable with mapping. In my effort to experiment with Map Warper, a tool that allows users to overlay old maps over recent maps, thereby observing changes in the landscape and re-discovering “lost” neighborhoods or features, I  discovered –much to my dismay– that I am a terrible map reader. I found it difficult to identify and mark similar sites on each map, a necessary step that allows the tool to overlay them correctly. That admitted, I am interested in beginning with some simple tools that will allow me and my students to situate historical narratives in both place and time. Starting with a relatively simple –and easier to use– tool like Story Map will serve as a point of entry, and allow me to work my way toward more complex mapping projects.

I more tentative about text mining and distant reading.  I’m still not sure I recognize its potential for my own research, and I suspect this is the digital realm I am least likely to put to use in the immediate future.

That said, I may play with Voyant in my fall public history practicum course. After playing with the technology a bit, I understand that text mining can help my students identify interpretive pathways for a public digital project about slavery and freedom on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Mapping patterns of word use and syntax will encourage students to think more critically about the different uses of words in private contexts and in legal contexts, about the ways in which word use and meanings changed across state boundaries, and about the words chosen by free people to describe the experience of freedom in and near a border state. Encouraging my students to play will, I think, help me understand text mining and its value for research and analysis.

Data, Inquiry, and Squirrels

The dog and I were having a philosophical conversation about data on our walk this morning. (I do tend to bounce ideas off of her while we are staring at squirrels.)

During our first week of Doing Digital History, I have been a bit uncomfortable about the relationship between data and research. Talking it over with the beagle, I came to understand why that is. My research process is not terribly systematic. I begin with a general question. In my case, that is often framed as something I want to understand. For example:  I want to understand what it means to practice history as a form of public service. Next, I make decisions about where I might begin to approach that understanding. So:  Federal workers are “civil servants;” how have historians in the federal service conceptualize their work? Finally, I go to primary sources. I allow those sources to re-frame my questions, to open up new questions, and to shape my understanding in ways I did not predict.

I have no idea if this process is an adequate reproduction of “the historical method,” and I’m not sure that really  matters to me. I suspect it is a method that marks me as an interdisciplinary humanist. It probably also figures in my own sense of what it means to define myself as a public historian.

In any case, the beagle and I are discussing these questions of identity and process because I am framing a student-driven research project. I can see that it will be useful for them to assemble data in a tidy fashion so that we can create digital environments for study and interpretation. At the same time, planning for students to mine data  leads me to at least three anxieties:  1. Is it possible, on the cusp of a new research project, to create a data spread sheet that will actually work; that will represent what I want students to find AND will actually predict accurately what they can find.  2. To what extent will framing a data spread sheet in advance limit what students actually DO find? Will the tyranny of the spread sheet encourage students to disregard or simply fail to recognize the value of sources that don’t fit our data parameters? 3. Is there a difference between approaching sources as producers of “data” and approaching sources as windows to understanding?  

The beagle wasn’t sure…. SQUIRREL!