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?

8 thoughts on “Disrupting Institutional Power: Participant Case Statements”

  1. I have been the Director of Public History at UMBC since the fall of 2006. During my 12 year tenure, I have worked to cooperate and partner with my colleagues in public history organizations. At first, I tried to juggle multiple and ever-changing partnerships, but I eventually settled into managing two working relationships –one with the Maryland Historical Society which is the primary host for our digital collection site, Preserve the Baltimore Uprising; and one with Baltimore Heritage with whom I work to create content for their Curatescape app, Explore Baltimore Heritage. Over time, I have also found opportunities to work with colleagues from other public history programs. Elizabeth Nix from the University of Baltimore, and I served as co-chairs for local arrangements for NCPH2016, and together we created several programs and events for that meeting. I also have a great working relationship with the faculty at Stevenson University, a private institution.

    But I am feeling increasing pressure to attract more students and provide them with meaningful, real world experiences. In so doing, I am competing with my colleagues from other universities not only to get students into my classroom, but also to get them into coveted internships. The situation will only get worse.

    I would much rather create a regional vision for public history education and collaboration, one in which each institution sees itself as contributing to the overall health of the profession.

    We have some pieces in place that might serve as the foundation for such a vision:
    The annual un-conference, Bmore Historic, could be a space for establishing better cooperation and providing mutual support.
    Designing an annual or semi-annual NCPH mini-con could enable us to make better and more meaningful connections with secondary school teachers and others.
    Creating a multi-campus public history graduate school fair in Baltimore could help students differentiate programs and make wise choices.

    But I’m not sure if these strategies will sufficiently counter individual institutional aspirations and competitive agendas.

    I’m hoping that, during this Working Group, we can map out a pro-active plan and develop some convincing language to build a pilot program in Maryland.

  2. I’m pretty early-career, but I’ve taught in two very different public history MA programs: Eastern Illinois University: a public in a rural area; and American University: a private in an urban center. And I feel very strongly that a regional model would have/could be been beneficial to both programs, for many of the same reasons.

    In particular, I’m interested in thinking about ways to formally share resources across institutions—for example, to give students opportunities for networking and professionalization that might be duplicated by neighboring programs: GW, UMBC and AU did one a couple of years ago with International Sites of Conscience which I thought was great.

    I know that one aspect of NCPH long-term planning is to give members opportunities to interact in person outside of the annual meeting—regional conferences or unconferences (like the one in Baltimore, which I thought was terrific–I’m also on the program committee for the DC History Conference this year) are one avenue?

    Likewise, I’d like to think about pooling resources to host smaller one-day workshops and seminars on concrete public history skills and approaches—fundraising, project management, conflict management, etc.

    I’d also like to think about public history projects that are larger and longer in scope, because they are shared across institutions. I understand this would require a lot of pre-planning, buy-in, and commitment, but I see models for this in efforts like the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, and would be interested in thinking about how something like this would look as a regional effort. When I was at Eastern, some colleagues from UIUC convened a group of us from across Illinois and Indiana, and we briefly discussed a series of collaborative projects themed around something like a highway or a river that cuts across or characterizes the region—this never materialized, but I’ve always found the idea a compelling one. I wonder, too, if a large-scale project like this would be attractive to outside funding opportunities. In the Washington-area too, I feel like some kind of combined effort around questions of policy and advocacy would be interesting.

    **addendum: I also want to echo something Denise says above about competition between programs for students and internships—I echo the sense that this is/will be a growing concern!

  3. My name is Elyssa Ford, and I am an assistant professor of history at Northwest Missouri State University, where I teach classes in U.S. history, women’s history, and public history. I run our minor degree program in Public History & Museum Studies. In terms of regional service and involvement, I serve on the board for the Nodaway County Historical Society (where NWMSU is located) and on the board for the Missouri Association of Museums and Archives.

    I see two primary concerns in my region:

    #1 We are currently dealing with the second fiscal year of multi-million dollar cuts from the state, unprecedented drops in international student in enrollment for the same two years, and a continued decline in the local secondary school population. Because of this, university health and program survival in Missouri look unsure.

    #2 This comes at a time of an exploding number of public history programs across the Midwest. Some run by trained public historians and others created by programs who want (and need) to make their history degrees look and feel more relevant and job ready to students and to families. This has led to job placement struggles and an uneven level of training. It also has led to fiercer competition among institutions as we battle to attract students. In a three hour radius from my own university, there are probably five public history or museum studies programs – many both graduate and undergraduate – and at least one school only 45 minutes from us is making plans for their own program.

    Areas for discussion & potential points of solution:

    Since my arrival at Northwest, I have pushed for an increase communication and collaboration across the state. My very first year in 2011-2012, I organized a roundtable at the Missouri History Conference with public historians from across the state so that (1) we could assess the field in Missouri and (2) so that I (and we) could better learn what each program offered and was planning for the future so as to avoid duplication. Initially, we did this well with a program in historic preservation in the southeast corner of the state, a program with a focus on museum studies in the east, etc. Over time, we have lost that communication and collaboration, and it is necessary – especially in the current budget crisis – to reestablish these relationships.

    We also need to look just cross-institutionally within my state but to the wider region because NWMSU is on the border of four states. Many other institutions across the country are similarly situated. I have been working with several institutions to see how we can better structure our programs, especially new ones, to complement rather than compete with each other. For instance, we closed our graduate program in history and now encourage students to attend different regional schools based on their interests. We at Northwest can provide the undergraduate education, and there are nearby Master’s programs. What else can other schools – or my own – offer to complement, rather than compete with, these pre-existing programs? In our region, we do not have a graduate certificate program for regional working professionals and for recent graduates looking for an additional qualification for the job market but who are unprepared yet for a full graduate program.

    Thoughtful design like this can happen with eyes placed both internally and externally within institution as well. My own department is working to create a digital humanities program, and I have pushed for a certificate track so that history majors and public history minors can add the certificate. Eventually this can be expanded to a graduate program (either a certificate or full MA, depending on the regional market at the time). The certificate allows us more flexibility than a minor would, attracts students from multiple fields that a full major or minor would not, and stands on its own rather than competing for a very small group of students against the public history minor. The four-course undergraduate certificate model follows a trial that the English program has begun in professional writing and one that is being proposed in foreign languages. It will have to be monitored for success, but appears to answer some of the internal cross-departmental concerns in meeting student needs without ‘stealing’ away students from other programs.

    We can – and must – work together across departmental lines and even across universities and perhaps institution type. In a time of constrained budget and falling student numbers, a more thoughtful approach to programming and student success should be appealing to administrators. In fact, the administrators are already thinking about just these issues, and the institutional language probably already supports this work. We simply need to look more closely at what they are asking and the language they use to see – and to demonstrate to them – how cross-institutional cooperation and even partnerships can be beneficial. I am excited by this discussion and look forward to the opportunity to participate in this very timely and important working group. I can bring to it my own experience in Missouri and would like to further develop the idea of and guidelines for state and regional systems that work in this way, both in terms of program development but also project development and student-community support and engagement.

  4. Thank you to the organizers for having me as part of this working group. I’m looking forward to working with my fellow participants over the next few months.
    Expectation has often clashed with experience during my quest to carve out a niche for myself as an Historian. I received my BA in 2012, and a planned single gap year turned into four before I committed to going back to graduate school for an MA in public history. My experiences have led me to think broadly and deeply about what purposes public history (and the humanities in general) serves in society and what any history education can and should entail. I was drawn to this working group because it offers an opportunity to join some of my fellow historians (who may or may not share my ideas) in an attempt to work out some potential solutions. Based on my own experience, I see two ways to broaden university-community partnerships.
    The first way is by focusing resources and research on the history of local communities. In my first semester as an MA candidate at UMKC I helped produce a traveling exhibit on Kansas City’s surprisingly pivotal role in the gay rights movement. Former UMKC Professor Christopher Cantwell (now of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) designed the project to be intensely collaborative by working closely with members of Kansas City’s LGBTQ community who were already working on their own commemorative effort. Our approach to this project was to serve as force multipliers and allies. In our case, we were not the authorities on the subject, but we did have skills and resources that our community partners lacked. We were also keenly aware that our exhibit was only one piece of a larger effort and that we needed our allies as much as they needed us. Prior to enrolling at UMKC, I worked on a variety of local history projects in Western Massachusetts where I saw the same phenomenon – local community members passionate about some aspect of their past but without the finer skills or resources to tell that story effectively. Administrators concerned about finances should consider whether focusing on the local community would be rewarded with local financial investment. Universities should ask themselves what stories remain untold? What groups need an advocate for their past? I wonder especially if it is possible to create a regional umbrella organization offering historic preservation and interpretation services to all communities. Such a network would be staffed by a mix of students and professionals.
    The second way to broaden university-community partnerships is for public historians to put their skills to use in other content areas. My current internship is with a nonprofit called ContemPlace. ContemPlace develops innovative exhibits designed to teach people how to think. Our work is applying the skills of historical inquiry and interpretation to other areas of knowledge, such as data literacy or health. Something I have learned during this internship is that the public historian’s way of knowing a topic and imparting knowledge can be applied to many urgent subjects. For example, could a Public History department partner with a Public Health department to produce educational resources for the public on obesity or HIV? Or, could historians team with a journalism school to address fake news? Here too, there may be untapped sources of funding.
    For would-be students, I can only speak for myself. I chose to make a number of sacrifices to move from Massachusetts to Kansas City because my research is primarily about the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War. No amount of trips could replace living in the area I study. For most students, this approach may not make sense, but collaboration between universities could lead to new and better opportunities. Perhaps we could even develop joint-enrollment systems.
    I think that cross-institutional cooperation does have the potential to create new and better opportunities for students and faculty. The current system is somewhat redundant, and in a time of scarce resources, this creates destructive competition. History, like other arts and humanities, is handicapped against the STEM fields because its attributes and societal benefits are hard to quantify and monetize. The irony is that history holds tremendous power and generates our most earth-shaking public debates.

    Taylor C. Bye
    University of Missouri-Kansas City

  5. Partnerships among universities and public history organizations stand not only to strengthen students’ educational experiences, but also ally the resources (connections, time, money, etc.) of public historians, allowing us to expand the work we do in our communities. As part of my dissertation research, I study the evolution of public history training in North Carolina, and I hope to bring historical models of cross-institutional partnerships to our conversation. I also think it will be helpful to consider how universities could leverage alumni relationships to build strong regional and state-wide professional networks.

    The North Carolina Institute of Applied History, conceived of by Larry Tise, Director of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History in 1975, sought to unite universities and state historical agencies throughout North Carolina. This broadly conceived organization never fully took shape, and universities instead embarked on building their own public history programs. However, I thought back to the Institute of Applied History when our organizers asked, “Might cross-institutional partnerships help departments clarify and promote particular areas of expertise, complementing one another and building high quality state and regional systems?” One of the greatest strengths of an organization like the Institute of Applied History was its potential in highlighting the regional diversity and expertise of individual universities and their faculty in North Carolina.

    The program’s goals were to develop curriculum pathways, arrange internship opportunities, and coordinate community history projects. The initial proposal offered three pathways for students: special topic courses, a certificate, and a M.A. in history, administered by North Carolina State University. A partnership with the North Carolina Division of Archives and History offered university programs many resources in the form of historic sites, archives, and collections, as well as highly qualified professionals to teach courses and mentor students.

    My research thus far examines the Institute of Applied History from the perspective of North Carolina State University faculty, so I do not yet have a complete understanding of why the Institute of Applied History was not more successful. However, administrative issues created tension between universities and the Division of Archives and History. Because the original proposal sketched out curriculum pathways, Tise hoped the Division of Archives and History would have some input in faculty appointments and curriculum at partner universities. However, university faculty were less keen on letting the partnership inform hiring decisions.

    This was not the first time a regional model of public history was put forth in North Carolina. In 1966, the then Department of History and Political Science at North Carolina State University proposed a creation of an applied history “research agency or bureau” that would support graduate research and internships in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina State University faculty believed that such an approach would appeal to university administration, because it was in-line with the land grant university’s emphasis on extension. While the agency was only ever an idea, it suggests that a regional model of public history education might be well in-line with university missions, particularly at institutions that value extension and community involvement.

    I’d also like to offer an additional question for group consideration: how might universities leverage alumni networks when developing cross-institutional partnerships? As graduate students at North Carolina State University, my peers and I depend on the program’s strong alumni presence in North Carolina, and I wonder however other universities have created formal or informal partnerships with alumni and the institutions in which they work. As part of our program’s professional development committee, I am working to find ways to bring alumni, students, and faculty together.

    -Sarah Soleim, North Carolina State University

  6. I am an assistant professor in the Department of History and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point specializing in public history and museum studies. Right now the UW System is facing serious budgetary and curricular challenges that have increased pressures across the region to recruit more students (often at the potential expense of neighboring campuses). To make matters even more complicated, just a couple of months ago our Board of Regents announced the merger between 2-year campuses and 4-year campuses as a cost-saving measure to streamline resources and personnel. Given this climate, it is hard to imagine the possibility of cross-institutional cooperation. And yet, I choose to believe that in the midst of this turmoil positive changes are possible. While the broader consequences of these decisions remain unclear, I am reminded of how the broader public history community is grappling with similar issues of consolidation, whether by choice or by force.

    Within my community, historical and civic institutions welcome the possibility of working with students. Several of these organizations lack financial resources but compensate for these shortfalls with a dedicated corps of volunteers. I currently serve as Curator for the Beth-Israel Synagogue with the Portage County Historical Society, and through this role I have been able to provide paid summer internships to students. I am eager to learn about institutions that have successfully built collaborations resulting in stronger programs for all partners involved. I joined this working group to learn about cross-institutional programs that have not only strengthened partnerships across historical institutions but also among different university campuses that might otherwise consider themselves competitors. I recognize that my own region has several complementary programs and resources, yet I do not know how to start the dialogue. In addition, my particular institution is located in a rural area with scant cultural resources, raising a particular set of concerns that I would like to address. How do cross-institutional partnerships operate in areas that are regionally dispersed? How do such partnerships originate- ie, do they start with a specific programmatic goal? Who is part of the conversation? How does the formation of these partnerships deal with the “grit” of collaborative enterprises, such as sharing funding sources, credit, and/or staffing? How do these partnerships operate across the spectrum of the public history field to include non-academic institutions like museums or libraries? And what are the consequences when such partnerships fail?

    Finally, I would like to think more broadly about the implications of these shifts on the public history field at large. What skills should public history students develop to navigate these partnerships? How could NCPH help facilitate or encourage such partnerships? Is there a way that university systems and individual departments could incentivize these collaborations? And how might public historians help pave the way to normalize cross-institutional partnerships within the larger historical profession?

  7. In 2015, I was hired as the Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives in the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark and as an assistant professor of professional practice in History. This position came as a result of a more than decade-long career in public history, public humanities, and nonprofit management.

    At the time of my hiring, the American Studies program offered an MA that was often taken by people who wanted to go on to a PhD program or by NJ teachers interested in professional development. That latter pool of students has shrunk considerably over recent years due to changes in education funding in the state. We also offer a PhD, which was created with the goal of giving students a grounding in publicly engaged scholarship. They could, for example, complete an internship with a cultural heritage organization, though this would be arranged by the students themselves. Because of my professional experience, I was hired to help develop the public history/humanities aspects of the program, which have become increasingly important to our university’s strategic plan. I also teach digital humanities and work on related projects.

    We launched an MA track in public humanities in 2016. The curriculum includes three areas: rigorous intellectual training, nonprofit management courses, and real-world application through projects, internships, and a capstone. Understanding the lack of diversity in this field, we prioritize diversity and inclusion and offer funding to students to pursue the MA.

    What’s become clear in the couple years of the program is that everyone is competing for a small pool of MA students. One of my hopes was this program would be attractive to people currently working in the field who wanted to move up into leadership positions. This has happened to a degree, but not to the extent I expected. I’m interested in figuring out how to reach this audience to let them know about our program. Since Rutgers-Newark’s undergraduate population is the most diverse in the country, how can we make the case to them that they could pursue an MA degree in public humanities and create a pipeline into the field?

    Our competition comes from various areas. Our History department offers an MA. Their students can take our public history/humanities classes. History is a more recognizable degree than American Studies or public humanities. Rutgers University’s other campuses (New Brunswick and Camden) offer related programs and degrees. In Camden, there is an MA in public history. Their strengths include historic preservation. New Brunswick has an undergraduate public history program and a PhD in history. But we are also competing with NYC universities and larger, wealthier institutions who can offer students more funding.

    Is there a way to stop competing for students? I’m intrigued by the possibility of a university system or regional universities to come together to figure out how to work together. But I’m not sure I see how that conversation would work given that every administration is concerned about student enrollments and the fact that we all have very different access to resources.

    Secondly, there is the issue of burnout for public history/humanities faculty. I’m a liaison to/involved with a number of projects on campus and in the community. As our university has raised the profile of public humanities, it has encouraged a number of faculty to begin their own projects. As those proliferate, how can we support them with our limited student body and faculty labor? And as seasoned public historians, how do we work with colleagues who are newly excited about the field, but may not be well versed in it? In my quest to give students challenging projects that make them work together and think through how to interpret untold histories for the public, I’ve undertaken frankly exhausting work, like creating the exhibit “At Home in Newark: Stories from the Queer Newark Oral History Project,” a multimedia traveling exhibition created in one semester with several campus and community partners. This was an amazing project, but it really stretched my resources. How do we work with community partners on provocative projects with public visibility (very important for showing our administrators that we’re doing valuable work) without wearing ourselves out?

    Finally, like many people, I’m concerned about the value of internships. I was told that our own HR department doesn’t count them as job experience. Is that the case widely? If so, why are we requiring them? What are the goals of an internship? Can we achieve those goals another way?

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about your programs and discussing ideas with you!

  8. I came to Arizona State University in 2015 after eight years at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Arizona State University, which describes itself “one university in many places,” has four campuses in the metro Phoenix area as well as a significant online presence. I teach at the “Polytechnic” campus, rather than the biggest (and original) campus in Tempe.

    Here there are distinct institutional challenges in serving the needs of the Phoenix area. For example, there is undergraduate history instruction at campuses in Glendale, Downtown Phoenix, Tempe, and eastern Mesa, as well as online, but with the exception of online, the faculty offering these courses belong to different departments, and non-tenure-stream faculty are much more common on the smaller campuses. Competition across units for student credit hours, exacerbated by major cuts in state support during the recession, remains common, and lines of power for resolving disputes are uncertain, which frequently works to the advantage of the largest campus, with the most tenured faculty, in Tempe.

    ASU’s longstanding public history program was always based on the university’s original campus in Tempe, but major budget cuts, institutional restructuring, and personnel changes have forced a reappraisal of the traditional model. Over the last year, we have worked to overcome multiple institutional obstacles to reimagine ASU Public History as a collaborative, cross-campus, and cross-department program, creating a structure that can mobilize faculty and resources from all of the campuses to train students and enhance our engagement with the public. Susan Gray, from the Tempe campus, and I (from the Polytechnic campus) have been appointed to serve as Co-Directors. An earlier Public History Working Group evolved into an advisory committee. In forming the new committee, we have worked assiduously to incorporate members from the other campuses and from other departments and programs at Tempe, and now seven of its twelve members (including the Co-Directors) are from outside the Tempe history faculty.

    In planning a reworked program, we wanted to draw on the remaining strengths while thinking creatively to broaden our reach. The most important strengths were the active and interested alumni, both in Arizona and beyond; the modest program endowment set up by the late Dr. Noel Stowe, who had founded and long directed the program; and ASU’s history of engagement in the community. Primary among the obstacles to be overcome were staffing challenges as well as some hard feelings among alumni and community supporters about how things had gone for a time during the post-Stowe years. New leadership at the School-level in Tempe opened the door to collaboration by being willing to experiment and share a program that had previously been their exclusive province.

    Our concept is to use the whole of ASU, across its many campuses and online, for public history instruction, and to encourage public history activities in all forms, wherever they might be. For example, we have reworked the MA curriculum to encourage students to incorporate classes from other departments — such as museum studies classes taught by anthropologists — into their coursework. We will be offering the primary “introduction to public history” graduate course
    at the Downtown Phoenix campus this fall, which I will teach, a move made easier because my college, unlike the Tempe department, has a presence Downtown. We have used the Stowe endowment in part to create a three-tiered grant program, to support collaborative public history projects, public history student travel, and a host of smaller projects (the latter through “microgrants”). In each case, the grants are open to the entire ASU community, and will be judged by their contributions to public history, rather than their department affiliation.

    Important challenges remain in sustaining and nurturing this
    initiative, however. I would be eager to discuss such issues with the group, especially issues of cooperation in the context of competition, balancing credit and responsibility, and the impact of geographic diversity on curriculum and pedagogy.

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