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?