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Full STEAM Ahead in Public History?

Interdisciplinary curriculum can benefit public history degree programs, but the business model in higher education threatens long-term success.

"Two steps forward and one step backward," opened a 1988 article on real estate development in Temple News. "Somehow it always seems to work out that way, especially at Temple.


I read this just last week while conducing archival work for the Center for Public History's project on food trucks in North Philadelphia. I can't help but wonder if this idea holds true for public history on campus, and generally.


Digital methods and community engagement strategies benefit public historians employed by universities, but these career paths are dwindling. Effective practitioners are intellectually agile because they are steadily employed.


Great Strides Forward in Public History


Gone are the days of university historians cloistered away in the ivory tower. From the 1960s onward, much of the relevant historical work happened in partnerships between community-based nonprofits and academic historians. We've learned how to respond to whatever issues are most pressing to the folks in the places we serve.


Digital methods -- crowdsourced archives, social media campaigns, and online exhibits -- show promise in making these town-and-gown relationships appear more durable, ongoing.


In Digital Community Engagement, scholars Paul Schadewald, Jason Heppler, and Rebecca Wingo curate a series of thoughtful case studies on building trust through technology. Activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) negotiated mutually beneficial terms with librarians at Duke to preserve memories of the midcentury Civil Rights struggle while the Society of American Archivists offered financial support for academics to participate in an independent "people's archive" against police violence in Cleveland, Ohio.


The integration of science, technology, education, arts and math knowledges, or "STEAM," makes the liberal arts and sciences all the more powerful. Universities like Temple bring together people with many skills to tackle real-world questions. Public history clearly benefits from this curriculum.


Our Center for Public History has support projects that aim to help heal open wounds from Temple's ongoing processes of heavy-handed "urban renewal" turned market-driven gentrification. Graduates of the master's in public history have gone on to work for Philadelphia's many museums, including the notorious birthplace of solitary confinement, Eastern State Penitentiary, now a museum exhibiting the racial injustices of mass incarceration. Temple has also produced PhDs who teach at universities across the United States.


Historians affiliated with Temple generate positive press for Temple. Our latest project on food trucks even prompted nearly a hundred comments from nostalgic alumni on Facebook.


Yet, the university administration, through the department-based budgeting model and staffing policies, has accelerated the pace in which all these collaborative gains are commodified exclusively for Temple's benefit.


Temple is Falling Behind


This university can only offer infrastructure. We've got a cutting-edge Special Collections Resource Center and meeting spaces with frequent, affordable transit access. Likewise, Temple maintains professional software like ArcGIS storymaps that are critical for analyzing affordable food and housing justice. In short, we've got a campus that represents a permanent commitment to (one might argue control over) North Philadelphia. However, the actual relationships -- or, if you will, human capital -- that make for trustworthy town-and-gown partnerships are treated like a disposable asset.


We are taking a step backward. Increasingly tenuous working conditions at Temple threaten the shared gains toward a truly public scholarship.


It is certainly frustrating that the Department of History might suspend the master's in public history because the College of Liberal Arts will not pay faculty to manage the required summer internship program. No doubt this will imperil the faith cultural leaders of Philadelphia have placed in Temple to train museum professionals. From the university's perspective, this should be a warning of lost tuition and a diminished reputation.


A quick fix would be an administrative investment in human capital just as much as capital improvements on campus. Temple cannot run an internship program without dedicated staff. But this does not go far enough.


Graduate students in the master's program do the collaborative work from which the university directly profits.


Not only should the university support faculty instruction for the master's program, but the university should fully-fund master's students through research assistantships that include both tuition remission and a stipend.


What Futures Do We Have?


Universal graduate funding would chip away at longstanding inequalities in higher education.


Although marketed as an individual investment, unfunded master's programs lock graduates into a lifetime of debt. Some have called this a new system of peonage or indentured servitude. Even the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal has reported on elite degrees that hobble graduates "for life."


Moreover, unfunded master's programs turn graduate workers harden the line between winners and losers eligible for the tenure-track -- all while institutions adopt DEI goals for faculty recruitment.


The Brookings Institution reports that "given the relative lack of diversity in the nation’s graduate programs, it is perhaps unsurprising that the pipelines into research positions in both the academy and industry are still disproportionately white."


Without funding on-the-job training for people who might become university faculty, our DEI goals will remain unattainable. For historians, our two steps forward through digital technologies and equitable partnerships can't make up the lost ground of unpaid labor.


Our profession will never achieve its highest ideals until the jobs -- like graduate research assistantships -- are financially accessible to all members of the public where our universities operate.


Paying for labor is the best way to embrace wholesale this public mission. Diversifying our ranks might even help buck the trend that shies from political controversy -- best exemplified by the American Historical Association's tepid president, James H. Sweet, who argues for neutrality. In his view, frequent headlines on historical questions imperil the discipline. His critics say it renders history irrelevant, further justifying cuts to the liberal arts.


Our work does matter. I believe tenured historians must draw a hard line. All workers should be paid.


It is unlikely that we'll achieve this vision at Temple anytime soon. Administrators openly claim that graduate workers are "not a core function of the university" while researchers on faculty benefit from the labor of instructors enrolled as PhD students.


Perhaps Temple's executive team needs to first feel the step backward. Maybe that means the Department must suspend the master's program in public history.


Nevertheless, we should remember the long term cost of neglecting relationships. Once lost, that trust is much hard to regain.


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This blog post was written for the 2022 seminar on Managing History at Temple University.

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