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.


11 thoughts on “Design and Build: Public History as Scholarship”

  1. ….but you cannot get tenure in the humanities for building a community center. It would clearly count as service, not as scholarship.

    A major museum exhibit is very different from a book–but so what? Both involve months or years of research, planning and an outline, writing and additional research, careful considerations of audience and interpretation. Developing a museum exhibit (or a historical walking tour, or a website, or a historical register nomination, or…) is clearly and example of scholarship, whatever else it might be.

    We cut our own throats if we don’t make arguments of equivalency. The dean is busy, and the provost is busier, and they have five minutes between them to review that tenure dossier.

  2. It’s a losing game, though. If we are constantly measuring our work based on how well it approximates what the academy can recognize, then we are not only changing our own work to suit someone else’s measure, we changing our profession. I am wary of the extent to which I am an unwilling participant in a project to preserve the academy as an institution rather than contribute to the evolution of my field.

    1. The insular academy, and the narrow, traditional T&P requirements that safeguard it, are anathema to truly publicly-engaged scholarship — and to the most democratic aspirations of digital humanities — and open access — and the profound shifts occurring in scholarly publishing. Making arguments for the value of public history based only on equivalency with existing models misses a powerful opportunity to form an alliance with these other movements, which already are transforming the definition & practice of scholarship.

      1. See for instance the work of the Scholarly Communication Institute, meeting this week in Chapel Hill. Just one example of people collaborating from inside & outside of the academy to radically challenge accepted definitions of scholarship — and, by extension, models for determining its value. Public historians should be contributing to this re-imagining, not trying to prove ourselves equal within increasingly outdated academic parameters.

  3. Denise, I think you make a great point here. I agree that making equivalents is not useful, while expanding the list of what counts within a department and college/university can be–as long as that list is not viewed as the only possible other things. It would be nice to incorporate language of inclusion, with examples, but without needing to articulate each possibility. Seems like the next reasonable step from the great work done by the joint committee from AHA, OAH, and NCPH.

  4. i couldn’t agree more. PH is leading these discussions in my institution and probably other places. will we dismantle the equivalency argument by the time i’m up for tenure? probably not. but we fail to keep pushing this argument, public history will, as julie points out, change to be something its not, another scholarly endeavor that fails to truly engage (and not just talk at) communities outside of the ivory tower.

    and, other disciplines in the humanities DO recognize other projects for tenure. poets write poems. painters create an exhibit. humanists (and heck, probably even social and natural scientists) can be educated to the nuances of our work, i am convinced.

  5. Interesting post. I agree that equivalency arguments are a loosing proposition from the start, but they also seem eminently necessary in the current academic environment. Receptivity to “non-traditional scholarship” simply isn’t there. On a different note, your comments raise the question, “What credit is deserved for building? And what are appropriate measures of success?” I know exactly what you’re saying about ph work, and it certainly takes time, expertise, and a willingness to think long-term. But is it research or scholarship? I don’t think so. It’s service of a kind, albeit with broader implications that more typical varieties. Figuring out how to categorize it and make its substance known to tenure and promotion committees will be important for the future of public history education and engaged scholarship and teaching more generally.

  6. Important points, Dan, but I would argue that the flaw lies in how we define scholarship. Is it only the end product? The American Historical Association has been engaged in this question since 1993. It seems to me that a deeper understanding of scholarship is more inclusive of the entire process: it includes the process of identifying questions, conducting research, proposing and testing solutions, and applying and transferring new knowledge to open up new questions. If that is the case, then all that relationship building and management is central to the scholarly process for public historians because it is in that collaborative, community space that we identify questions, arrive at interpretations, test ideas, apply and transfer knowledge.

  7. Densie, I know exactly what you’re saying and agree in some ways, but I also think that trying to claim that scholarship does not produce creative products of some sort (an exhibit, an article, a book, an interpretive plan, etc) puts public history educators at a disadvantage relative to other historians and the academy at large. I value, and continue to work for, greater acceptance of “engaged scholarship” and teaching and see public history as inseparable from the ideals embodied in those terms. What strikes me about my experience in academia is how little interest there is in these types of work from other fields. It seems to me that even if public historians prove successful in attaining greater acceptance for “non-traditional” scholarship (excuse the term, I have yet to find a better one) among historians (something that has already happened and is continuing to make headway), the larger concerns of A&S administrators and the academy as a whole pose real barriers to greater success. The manta I hear from deans and senior administrators is peer-reviewed publications and grants. Public historians have relatively few options for the latter. There are options for non-published work to be peer reviewed, and I support those, but I have also learned the hard way that it often requires more work than doing “traditional” scholarship and may not be viewed favorably by college-level committees. I almost hate to say it, but the pragmatist in me has grown circumspect through experience. In my heart I still see engaged teaching and scholarship as the future of higher education — in part because yields big dividends in relevancy and demonstrates value to communities — but, realistically, have to admit that pursuing it can be tough and potentially a form of martyrdom.

    I have not looked at the SCI tweets but will do so. Perhaps they’ll rekindle my optimism. To my mind, the bottom line is this — public historians will do well to think strategically about how their scholarship is categorized within the academy as a whole. The last twenty years have waged that battle within the historical discipline. The larger battle may be tougher, and I worry that success will lead to a second-tier status relative to other disciplines. It’s certainly a possibility to consider, I believe.

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