Differentiating degree tracks in a graduate program

A version of this post also appears at The Clutter Museum.

Because I’m one of only two faculty in my department whose specialty is officially “public history”—mind you, we all practice one form of it or another, but I have been anointed by my position description—pretty much all the applications for admission to my university’s Master’s in Applied Historical Research program come across my desk.  Usually I just write a few notes explaining why I’m recommending we admit the candidate, admit her provisionally, or decline to admit her, and then that’s the last I see of the application.  I also don’t get to see my colleagues’ comments on the application, as that might unduly bias me.

Occasionally, however, an application comes back to me when individual faculty make conflicting recommendations about admission.  So, for example, I might say we should admit someone, but two or three of my fellow faculty recommend the opposite. In many departments, a majority “no” vote might be the end of the line for an application, but our graduate program director gives me (or anyone else whose vote differs, I’m assuming) the opportunity to reconsider the application, to change my vote or take a stand or something in between.

At such moments, I get to see the admissions recommendations and, more importantly, the comments of my fellow evaluators. And often I’m in complete agreement with what they’re saying about the application, but I still want to recommend the opposite of what they do.

I’m not sure why, but it took me a year and a half in the department to realize that our occasionally differing visions about who should be admitted to the program stem from our–wait for it–differing visions about the program’s capabilities and mission.

My friends, we lack collective clarity.*

See, we have two programs: a traditional M.A. in history, and the M.A.H.R.  The department’s web page describes the programs using almost exactly the same language, differentiating between the two only by saying the M.A. will prepare students for work in academic settings at all levels (by which I assume we mean high school teaching or the occasional adjunct gig) and the M.A.H.R. prepares students for careers outside academic settings. Programmatically, the degree requirements differ very little, with M.A.H.R. students taking one additional seminar in public history—but when I taught that course last spring, there were several M.A. students in it, too.  The M.A.H.R. students can substitute “skills” courses (like GIS or video editing) for the foreign language courses required of the M.A. students. The M.A.H.R. students are also allowed, and encouraged, to take more internship credits.

If you’ve been around the humanities graduate program block lately, maybe you’re reading this as I do: the M.A.H.R. program is about helping students take very specific steps toward getting jobs.  The M.A. program. . .maybe not so much.  I don’t work with the M.A. students much, so I’m not sure what they want out of the program, but the M.A.H.R. students often have very specific goals: to open a historical consulting firm, to go into museum exhibit development, to make a documentary film, to apprentice themselves in a historic preservation office.

I wrote a memo to the graduate program coordinator in which I asked these questions (and provided my own tentative answers):

  • Should the students applying to the M.A.H.R. program have the same preparation and/or potential as students applying to the M.A. program?
  • If not, should we differentiate the application process for the M.A. and M.A.H.R. programs?
  • If we differentiate the applications, is a 15-20 page, traditional academic essay the best way to gauge preparedness for the M.A.H.R. program? If not, what is?
  • If we do away with the academic essay requirement for M.A.H.R. students, how will they demonstrate their ability to work with primary and secondary sources?

Here’s the thing: I read a lot of mediocre writing in those applications, from both M.A. and M.A.H.R. applicants. Many of the objections from my colleagues stem from applicants’ bad writing or poor research skills. And in my own classes, I’m a pretty unforgiving taskmaster when it comes to writing.  So I’m not suggesting that we lower to the admissions bar for M.A.H.R. applicants.  Yet maybe we need to acknowledge that public historians’ work embraces a huge spectrum; some public historians might find themselves addressing K-6 students, while others work primarily with policymakers.  On the job, some will rarely write anything longer than an exhibit label.  Others will need to write eloquently in grant proposals.  Many will need to do both.

I suspect that many of the applicants who can’t write a good enough academic essay to be admitted to a traditional academic programs can still engage in critical and creative thought–it’s just that the essay isn’t the best way for them to exhibit these skills.  Someone who is a good fit for our M.A. program might not be a good fit for the M.A.H.R. program, and vice versa.  I suspect we faculty have been treating applicants as if they’re applying to the same program.

The grad program coordinator told me to bring my questions and concerns to the faculty at a department meeting.  Our faculty meetings are relatively fleet things, thank goodness, but it also means I need to find a way to encourage people to either (a) coalesce around a unified vision in, oh, 10-15 minutes or (b) reflect on what they think the difference between the two programs should be and share their individual visions with me before the next meeting.

Of course, before I do that, I’d like some information from other programs.  I’ll be scouring departmental web pages and perhaps contacting some folks, but in the meantime, here’s what I’d like from you, dear readers:

If you teach in, or pursued a degree within, a humanities or social science department that offers to graduate students an “academic” track and a “practical” or “non-academic career” track (e.g. history and public history), how do you differentiate between applicants to the two programs? Do you require essays or something else? Do you require interviews? Do you expect applicants to propose specific projects? Do you ask recommenders to comment on the applicants’ career potential instead of just their academic performance? How can you tell which applicants might be a better fit for one degree track over another?

Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments.  I know some folks like to maintain their anonymity in such forums as this one; if that’s the case, you can either obfuscate a few details, comment anonymously, or e-mail me privately at trillwing -at- gmail -dot- com.

Many thanks!


* . . .in an academic department. A stunning revelation, I know.

Photo by vlasta2, and used under a Creative Commons license.

Tips for picking a graduate program that will be a good fit for you

I get lots of queries, both from my own undergraduates and from students shopping around for graduate programs in museum studies and public history, about which programs are currently the strongest.

Honestly, I don’t have an opinion about specific programs, which is amazing, because hoo boy do I have opinions about almost everything else.

So I thought I’d share here today some of the (maybe slightly unconventional) thoughts I have on finding a grad school that will be a good fit for you.*  (I apologize in advance if this post seems terribly U.S.-centric, but it’s what I’m familiar with right now.)

Before I start, let me say this—and really, I can’t emphasize it enough (hence the font change):

The best way to get into museum or public history work–and I’m hoping I’m not the first one to tell you this–is literally to get your foot in the door, no matter how that happens: volunteering, internship, entry-level job. Graduate school can, and likely will, bolster your chances of advancement in the field, but six months or more of hands-on work in a low- or no-pay job is what will convince others (as well as yourself!) that this really is the kind of work you feel called to do.

Laying a foundation

I’m going to begin with some advice that, alas, may require some time travel for many of my readers: Get a liberal arts education. I don’t mean you have to go to a fancypants Ivy League school or a boutique liberal arts college (though I’m a big fan of my alma mater). Rather, you’ll likely find you have a lot more options open to you on the arts-and-humanities and public-education side of the museum world** if you have a good deal of intellectual curiosity and you have cultivated the ability to research a topic in depth without losing sight of its broader context, identify novel connections among phenomena that at first glance may seem different, and engage in meaningful conversation with people from diverse backgrounds.

Even if you have earned an undergraduate degree that is light on the liberal arts and sciences, I encourage you to enrich your learning. Study a living, foreign language and culture until you reach the upper-division courses (typically after four semesters of study); take a variety of science classes that challenge you to see the world in new ways (seismology, environmental science, evolutionary biology, epidemiology, climatology, and nanotechnology come immediately to mind, and large universities often offer some kind of introductory class in these fields for non-majors); pursue history and anthropology; take art history, studio art, and music courses; and read all the assigned texts for your literature classes, then come to class ready to talk about them. Sample the “studies” disciplines that have cropped up over the past 20 to 30 years, as they will teach you to challenge traditional intellectual paradigms: Native American studies; women’s, gender, or queer studies; Chicana/o studies; African American studies; Asian American studies; and others.  In many museum careers, your mission at some level will be to nudge people into thinking differently about the world, to challenge their conceptions about how stuff works. A liberal arts education is going to equip you with the tools in critical and creative thinking that will make you a welcome contributor to our line of work.

Location, location, location

In other fields—law and medicine, for example—it’s important to attend the absolutely best-ranked school, as students graduating from those programs tend to land the most sought-after jobs.  In museum studies and public history, however, graduate school name recognition (usually) does not matter as much as you think it might.  Accordingly, I encourage you to think just as much about location as about programmatic reputation and rigor.

I suggest you think about program location for two primary reasons: opportunities following graduation and opportunities during school.

First, it may seem premature, but you should think about where you would like to live when you’re finished with the program.***  Almost all my former students at John F. Kennedy University’s museum studies program in the San Francisco Bay Area are working in that region in large part because that’s where they pursued their internships and entry-level positions while earning their Master’s degrees. My students graduating from the Master’s of Applied Historical Research at Boise State tend to get jobs in Idaho, for much the same reason. Through their work in local museums, they have established professional networks in their region. It’s much harder to get a job outside the immediate geographical area where you earn your Master’s degree because it takes a good deal of time and effort to establish those networks. It’s not impossible by any means–and social media is making it easier to connect with professionals elsewhere–but it’s something to think about as you’re selecting a program. If you know you will have family obligations that mean you must find work near Los Angeles, it might not make sense to spend a couple years interning in, say, Tallahassee.

While you’re thinking about opportunities after graduation, you also might want to look at who is currently employed in the institutions in the area where you want to settle eventually.  I mention this because the educational attainment of the local public history professionals can also be an indicator of the sophistication of the local public history scene. If a city’s or region’s museums look much like they did in the 1960s and ’70s, for example, you might find that’s partly due to funding issues but also possibly a sign of professional disconnection from the wider field. (Note: if you want to be a historical museum curator, check to see if the curators in the region have Ph.D.s in history, and if they do, either rethink your region or career aspirations, or consider a Ph.D. in history–though a humanities Ph.D. is a long, hard road offering even less a guarantee of employment than an M.A.)

Both because you’ll likely find your first professional position near your graduate institution and because you’ll want great opportunities to intern (and maybe get an entry-level job) while you’re in grad school, you’ll want to pick a program that is surrounded by museum or public history opportunities. Are there many history museums nearby, and are they of sufficient quality for you to apprentice there? If you’re looking at museum studies programs and you’re interested in informal science education, find out if there is a science center, natural history museum, planetarium, botanical garden, arboretum, zoo, or similar institution (and preferably several) nearby. If you’re interested in public history, if the program is in or near a state capital, then there are likely to be opportunities at historic sites as well as with state and federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. Washington, D.C. and its environs are rich with historical sites, museums, and government agencies, and thus the region can be an excellent place to get started in public history. It’s a good idea to be pretty specific about your needs; if you want to study historic preservation, and you’re especially interested in preserving masonry structures built before the Civil War, be sure you have several such buildings to learn from close at hand, as well as local experts from whom you can learn.

Program structure

The structure of museum studies and public history programs varies quite a bit; such variations can be a function of program age, enrollment, faculty hiring, and/or resource allocation in the broader university. While certainly we could place such graduate programs on a nuanced spectrum, each end of that spectrum is occupied by two very different approaches. There are some programs–from glancing at its website, American University’s appears to be one of them–that offer a wide range of actual coursework on topics as diverse as oral history, historic site management, digital history, visual and material history, public policy, and visitor evaluation. There are also programs, however–and Boise State’s is one of these–where by design students do much of their learning outside of class; students here can take as many credits of internship work as they do of elective coursework. (In addition, our M.A.H.R. students take only one graduate class in public history, and currently we offer that introductory course only every other year because we don’t have the student enrollment or faculty staffing levels to justify offering the course every year.)

I think institutions can successfully occupy either end of the spectrum, but there will be people who disagree with me, probably vehemently. In the end, your career path is a combination of your learning, your initiative, your network, and a good deal of luck–not which classes you take. If you know you’re the kind of learner who prefers coursework to largely self-directed research and practice, then do yourself a favor and attend a program that offers classes in specialties that interest you.  If, on the other hand, coursework has always kind of bored you, and you like the challenge of self-directed learning, it’s worth investigating programs that are less structured around traditional graduate seminars.

Before you decide to go with the latter, free-form variety of program, however, you want to be sure four things are true:

  • You’re self-directed as a student.
  • You click with at least one faculty member there who can serve as a mentor to you as you navigate the wide-open spaces of public history practice.
  • There are institutions nearby where you can pursue a meaningful internship.
  • The program’s graduates are meeting with a good deal of success in the job market.

Of course, these factors also are beneficial in a more traditional, course-based program, but they are absolutely essential in a program with fewer course offerings in the field.

Don’t forget digital humanities practice

Another big trend in public history in particular is the digital humanities, and if you’re interested in that, then in the U.S. currently the mid-Atlantic states are among the most popular places to be; George Mason University is home to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the University of Virginia hosts the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Virginia Center for Digital History, and the University of Maryland offers the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

I’m seeing more job position descriptions, as well as internship supervisors, ask for applicants with digital media skills in both public history and museums. One great thing about the digital humanities is the people who work in it are incredibly well-connected throughout history and its subfields, so the chances of networking your way to an actual job may be higher than in other subfields of public history practice. If you’re interested in the intersection of museums or public history and digital media practice, I recommend you contact faculty or staff at these programs.

Where can you find programs?

The National Council on Public History offers a guide to public history programs and the Smithsonian maintains a list of undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as certificates, in museum studies, historic preservation, decorative arts, conservation, and more. Wikipedia’s page on the digital humanities provides a list of digital humanities centers.

I want your questions and comments.

Questions? Leave ’em below, or e-mail me at leslie -at- museumblogging -dot- com.

Public history and museum professionals–let’s help out our prospective colleagues here in the comments section.  What advice would you give about selecting a graduate program in these fields?

*And good god do I wish someone had offered me some job-focused advice when I was considering my first second third all my graduate programs. Maybe then I wouldn’t have that top-secret M.A. in writing poetry or have been on the academic job market for five years (thanks, interdisciplinary Ph.D.!).

**I’m excluding, for the time being, scientific research positions and high-ranking curatorial jobs in elite natural history museums, botanical gardens, arboreta, aquaria, and zoos.  If you want that kind of work, my best advice is to get a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline, not an M.A. in museum studies.

***Good news: you get to choose. If you had decided to pursue a more traditional Ph.D. in the hopes of becoming a professor, you wouldn’t have much say at all where you wind up.  (As much as I like my current job, for example, I’m not in Boise because I love freezing winters and red-state politics. After five years on the job market, this is where I found an academic home.)

Crafting an internship agreement

Whether you’re an intern or a mentor, it can be intimidating to start a new internship. It helps to clearly articulate internship expectations at the outset.

Every internship is different, but there are enough commonalities among museum internships that agreements between interns and institutions likely will include some basic ingredients.  Here are some things an institution might include in such a written agreement.

Emphasize that an internship is a special experience and a privilege.  Interns have access to spaces off-limits to the public, and they will have the opportunity to hear conversations and see art, artifacts, and documents to which they otherwise would not have access. Emphasize that in part because of this special access, the institution has high expectations for interns’ professionalism.

Explain clearly, in straightforward language rather than legalese, your department’s expectations of all staff.  These might include such policies as:

  • dress code (and then state clearly what this is: e.g. flat-soled, close-toed shoes in collections storage, business casual in the office)
  • policies for absences, expectations for punctuality, and adherence to project deadlines
  • collections rules (e.g. move objects with care and under supervision, always wear gloves, use only pencils)
  • demeanor while working on the exhibition floor or otherwise representing the museum
  • the extent to which what she sees and hears in the workplace is confidential or otherwise not for public disclosure

State the total number of hours the intern will work, as well as expected days and hours when the intern will be on site.

Explain the institution’s expectations of interns in particular. Do you expect each intern to keep a timesheet, log, or journal? Will you assign readings that you expect the intern to complete each week? Will he be fully responsible for one project, or for one part of a larger project? (Be specific, tailoring this section to each intern and listing the tasks you expect the intern to complete.) Will he need to create a portfolio or write a reflective essay at the end of the internship?

Explain what the intern can expect from her mentor and from the institution.  Will she receive near-constant supervision and highly structured assignments, or will she need to be self-directed? Will she receive special perks, such as invitations to events students would not normally get the attend? If so, is she expected to attend a certain number of these? Will she have opportunities to meet staff in other departments and learn about what they do? (Hint: she should.) Also state clearly what will happen to the work the intern completes. (For example, many an intern has been crushed to discover, after developing a small exhibit for a case, that the museum never bothered to put it up.)

Explain evaluation procedures. How, and how often, will the intern be formally and/or informally evaluated? Will she have an exit interview or another way of evaluating her internship experience?

Encourage the intern to raise any issues directly with her supervisor—but state to whom he should turn if she feels the supervisor is not upholding his responsibilities as a mentor. (So, for example, should the student approach the professor who may be responsible for awarding academic credit for the internship, and have that professor contact the museum? Or should the student go “up the ladder” to his mentor’s supervisor, or approach someone in another department?) Emphasize that the internship is an intellectual endeavor that will allow the intern to develop both new knowledge and skills, and that the intern should feel free to address any concerns with his supervisor if he feels he is being asked to do a lot of work better done by custodial staff or temporary labor (e.g. filing, cleaning, moving heavy objects).

What are your tips for making clear the rights and responsibilities of interns and institutions?

On museum internships

A few months back, in my role as an assistant professor of public history, I took over the coordination of the internship program for my academic department.  I’m learning very quickly why it merits a course release or two; the job calls on me to play matchmaker between internship supervisors and interns, check in with all parties occasionally, request reports from the students, and, in consultation with supervisors, assign grades at the end of the semester.

While I don’t think it’s particularly helpful in building my tenure case, it is worthwhile and important work, for three primary reasons: internships increase the skills and cultural savvy of emerging museum professionals, facilitate collaboration across institutions and organizations, and democratize knowledge.

Increasing the skills and cultural savvy of emerging professionals

Traditionally, both interns and mentors have recognized skills enhancement as the most obvious benefit of internships. Classroom learning only goes so far; to understand actual museum practice, one has to write an actual grant proposal, develop an exhibit under real resource constraints, coordinate the myriad details of family night programs, or stabilize crumbling ephemera.

Internships, however, offer additional benefits to the broader museum field.

Internships can dissuade as well as inspire. They can help to “weed out” students who might initially be enthusiastic about one aspect of museology (or the field more generally) but who really, for whatever reason, don’t have the interest in or aptitude for a particular kind of work. Both interns and mentors have frequently lauded this aspect of internships to me, as it can save both emerging professionals and institutions numerous headaches and heartaches.

When planned well by the hosting institutions, internships also can serve as an introduction to the culture of the field. The best interns remain aware of the conversations going on around them, and the most thoughtful institutions allow them to listen in on discussions that take place in conference rooms, hallways, and the exhibit floor. This entry into museum culture can be managed deliberately, but more likely it will be accomplished through osmosis, with the intern picking up on the major challenges facing the museum and the field, the relationship of visitor demographics to exhibition content and programming, the typical working environment of a museum, staff and administrative perspectives on donors and foundations, and the expectations the public has of nonprofit service.

Facilitating collaboration

Internships can allow busy staff to collaborate through a joint internship. The vast majority of interns require a good deal of instruction and supervision in the first weeks or months. Organizations can share this commitment of time and resources by co-mentoring an intern. So, for example, today I met with the director of a desperately understaffed historical museum complex, and I proposed working together on a grant-writing internship.  I’ve been wanting to dig into local museum collections, both for my own research and to put together an exhibit. A grant-writing intern could work with both me and the museum to research grant opportunities for local history research, exhibition development, and digital dissemination. Perhaps I’ll get some funding for a student assistant to help with a digital humanities project arising from the research, and the museum could get funds for artifact conservation. The grant-writing intern will hone her research skills, learn about humanities funding, and develop her writing in a new genre.

Think about all the variations in which one mentor could take the lead on content knowledge and the other on skill development! Here are some possibilities:

  • University, archives, and museum: Under partial supervision from a professor, a graduate student could undertake archival research on the Chinese experience in late nineteenth-century California, then learn about artifact conservation by working with a museum’s collection of Chinese domestic artifacts from that era and place.
  • Archives and museum: Two interns work on the same project, one at the archives and one at the museum, with the goal of producing a vitrine-sized exhibit showcasing some aspect of the Chinese experience in California.
  • Museum and graphic design agency: An intern receives supervision in part from the curator who has just finished writing the first draft of the labels for an exhibition of the Chinese experience in California. The curator pulls from the collection ephemera that exemplify the aesthetic of 1890s San Francisco. The intern works with the agency’s art director to capture this aesthetic while designing posters, a brochure, and a digital or print exhibition catalog.

Joint internships may allow for surprising discoveries. If not planned carefully, a joint internship could become contentious, with the intern confusing conflicting policies and practices between the two organizations. However, if the mentors articulate expectations at the outset, each organization could learn much from the other. If we approach the internship with the idea that museums can be think tanks, and we give an exceptional intern sufficient space for intellectual reflection and discussion with mentors and others in the organization, there are countless opportunities for new syntheses of philosophy and practice.

For example, imagine a collaboration between a history museum and a science center.  Many smaller history museums have not yet integrated hands-on or participatory activities into their exhibits, often because they cannot allow visitors to handle artifacts and their exhibition budgets can’t support the production of replicas. (And even then, replicas might not be particularly interactive.) At the same time, many visitors have come to expect interactive elements in museums, particularly if they have brought children to the museum. The intern might be asked to answer the question, “How can our history museum’s next exhibition integrate meaningful, interactive and participatory elements that conform to current best practices in informal learning?” Perhaps the city or a neighboring town has a science center or children’s museum that boasts an exhibit developer or education specialist who has become an expert at crafting ingenius interactives on a small budget. The science center could provide the intern with background on the pedagogy of third-generation science centers, which the intern could then use to inform an exhibit showcasing the museum’s collection of medical technologies and tools. The science center could later borrow some of the museum’s historic tools to provide some historical context to its own exhibit on the human body.

Democratizing knowledge through internships

I have written elsewhere how one of my core beliefs is that knowledge should be democratized—that is, it ought to be accessible to, and usable by, a broad public audience. Internships can play a major role in the democratization of knowledge by and through an institution. Let’s look at how this process works for both interns and institutions.

Internship programs can provide training that is unavailable in formal educational settings. This is particularly true if your interns live in a region, like mine, where there aren’t many museum studies programs. According to the Smithsonian’s Museum Studies Training Directory, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are completely devoid of such programs; Nevada offers one undergrad minor in museum studies; and Utah has one certificate in museum practice. My own institution offers a Master’s of Applied Historical Research, but it’s definitely more public history than museum studies. If a student geographically bound to Idaho by family or work is interested in curatorial practice, and especially artifact conservation, she’s going to have a difficult time finding hands-on training. The Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that

There are only a few graduate programs in museum conservation techniques in the United States. Competition for entry to these programs is keen; to qualify, a student must have a background in chemistry, archaeology or studio art, and art history, as well as work experience. For some programs, knowledge of a foreign language also is helpful.

As far as I know, there is only one curator in the largest metropolitan area in my state—and possibly in the entire state—with up-to-date skills in conserving historical artifacts; she learned on the job in part from someone who has now retired, and in part through reading widely and asking questions of far-flung colleagues. She bolstered her skills with an online certificate program from an East Coast university. Fortunately for me and our students, she is a generous soul. Her knowledge, and her willingness to mentor interns, makes it possible for interns moored to Idaho to learn crucial curatorial skills.

Internship programs can give museums even greater insight into their communities. Let’s face it: no matter how much a museum engages with its community, there’s always some demographic that has not yet reached audience saturation—or perhaps it lacks any representation within the museum’s exhibitions and programs at all.  Accordingly, when we’re talking about democratizing knowledge about museums, as well as about the knowledge contained within museums, intern diversity becomes particularly beneficial. In my own community of Boise, this might mean looking beyond the typical interns—largely white, middle- and upper-working-class class students—to, say, the community of refugees, as the city is a refugee resettlement site. Think:

  • How might starting a high school intern or Explainer-style program that enthusiastically encourages the participation of refugees from, say, Bhutan, Iraq, Burundi, and Somalia enrich the museum’s understanding of its constituent communities?
  • How might these young people benefit from connecting with a longstanding community institution that showcases local art, history, and culture?
  • How might these students be a bridge to communities that are otherwise difficult for museums to reach?
  • How might they facilitate the museum’s acquisition of artifacts and media that document the lifeways of Idaho’s newest residents?
  • How might they help the museum translate its exhibition content into additional languages?
  • How might their communities benefit from the intercultural civic discourse that museums have become so good at facilitating over the past decade?

Internship programs can push mentors to learn new skills alongside their interns. Encouraging an intern to read in depth about the latest developments in one aspect of the field, and then discussing the intern’s findings, can expand mentors’ own understanding. Interns can help mentors build not only their knowledge, but their skills. Assigning a largely self-directed intern to create an online exhibition using Omeka; to make an argument for and sketch of the organization of a new visitor-tracking database; or to program a browser-based mobile app can be an opportunity for supervisors to stretch their own technological comfort zone.

And you?

What innovative or interesting internships have you observed or participated in? What made them work well?


Want help with your intern program or professional development plans? I can help.

Engaging in difficult dialogues

I’m attending the National Council on Public History conference in Pensacola.  Today was packed with interesting conversations.  I started the morning by attending a panel on civil dialogue in public history practice with Marla Miller of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Meghan Gelardi Holmes of Rutgers; and Lokki Chan of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

I’m not going to write about the 1.5 hours of presentations and conversation, but rather share a few of the things that stuck with me.

Developing Public History Students

First, Miller shared a list of four traits she said the faculty at the U. Mass Amherst try to cultivate in their public history students:

  • tact
  • diplomacy
  • patience
  • humility

It wasn’t clear to me if these are the top four traits they try to cultivate, or just those that relate to civility.

Regardless, it made me consider what might be the top four traits I try to cultivate in my public history students.  Here’s my first stab at that list:

  • resourcefulness
  • creativity
  • empathy
  • thoughtfulness

Students here are incredibly polite, so I suppose I’m less interested in Miller’s list (which many of the students here have mastered) than I am in dynamic engagement and thoughtful provocation.

What traits are you trying to cultivate in your students, interns, or staff, and why?

Past and Present, Stories, Engagement

Chan said that the among the goals of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s program that combines a tour with an hour-long discussion are

  • deromanticizing the past and complicating the present
  • highlighting the power of individual stories to inspire civic engagement
  • emphasizing that, in the words of Rev. Wilson Goode, “Every solution starts with a conversation.  It requires a willingness to talk and to listen.”

Drawing on Lois Silverman’s work on museum experiences as therapy, the presenters underscored that what docents wish to emphasize might not be what visitors take away from the tour.  If a docent in a house museum, for example, mentions that a woman miscarried, there’s no way of knowing that a visitor isn’t going through a similar loss.

Triggers abound.  Remember to be compassionate, to observe, and to listen.

A good deal of the conversation following the panelists’ presentations centered around getting the “Fox News demographic” to share authentically with the “NPR demographic,” and vice versa.  Especially in a place as loaded with history and politics as a tenement that was home to generations of immigrants, it’s important to establish an atmosphere where it’s possible for people to ask difficult questions and remain open to answers that might make them uncomfortable.

In My Classroom

On Monday, my public history grad students were treated to a presentation by one of their own, a student who served three terms in the state legislature.  He termed himself a “progressive Republican.”

I had to smile at such a rare description. In this state, politics are so far to the right that one commenter on a newspaper website recently pointed out that in any other state he’d be an extremist, reactionary, right-wing Republican, but in this state, he’s a conservative Democrat.

Anyway, this student talked about how, a few years back, he tried to introduce a bill to require state and county agencies to engage with the state historical society when they were talking about demolishing or altering buildings older than 50 years.

Apparently the bill prompted at least one legislator to point out that his outhouse was more than 50 years old–and he still used it.

We read over the proposed bill, discussed my student’s reasons for introducing it–and then had a very interesting conversation about working “across the aisle” when the aisle is more of a giant fissure.

Specifically, I asked my students what kind of rhetoric they might adopt if they were going to pitch a similar bill to today’s even more conservative state legislature.

The students came up with many examples, including substituting “Idaho’s heritage” for “Idaho history.”  I thought that was pretty savvy, as many of the legislators come from rural districts and either are ranchers  or have been at one time, and phrases like “Idaho’s agricultural heritage” or even “Idaho’s mining heritage” probably sound pretty good to them.

The former legislator also talked about the sexism of the House floor, and how many of the older male representatives expressed offense at women who dressed in a way that showed what they believed to be too much skin or–God forbid–cleavage.  Class ended before we had the chance to delve into the issue of whether my young women public historians ought to dress modestly to meet the expectations of the power brokers, or if they should dress in ways that made sense to themselves.  I’m sure that would have been an interesting conversation.

I pointed out that being able to not only see an issue from another perspective but to speak the language of that perspective was very powerful indeed, and that it was a skill humanists seeking funding from penny-pinching legislators would do well to develop.  How can we teach students to empathize, and to voice their ideas in ways that appeal to people who would not normally find them appealing–all while remaining authentic to their core selves so that they don’t feel slimy?  (Of course, this idea applies not only to humanities appeals to conservative legislators, but also to any context where there are two or more groups of people who tend to talk past one another rather than with each other.)

Museum Professional Development through Social Media

I just realized I neglected to point out I wrote a post a few months back for the Western Museums Association blog on “More Thoughtful Learning: How Professional Development Through Social Media Can Strengthen Cultural Institutions.” I think it’s one of the better posts I’ve written in a while, so please check it out if you’re interested.

Beyond my post, WestMuse is a terrific blog, packed with good resources and both creative and critical thinking. Definitely visit it, click around, and leave a comment or two.