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



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