Friday, April 8, 2011

What Can Students Learn from How We Administer Public History Centers?

At the conference halfway point, with the federal shutdown still looming, I am struck by a few characteristics we public historians all seem to have in common despite the great diversity of our work and professional positions. We’re a creative, resilient, and pragmatic bunch of folks. In nearly every gathering, formal and informal, I’ve noticed that my peers have learned to do good work without adequate funding, without unequivocal support within their academic departments or communities, and with a firm commitment to face and address the ethical quandaries that affect our many “publics.” At yesterday’s working group, “Using Centers to Teach Public History and Engage Community Partners,” I had the privilege to commiserate with and take inspiration from my peers at other universities. The responsibility to train students who are preparing to work as public history professionals is a core goal for those of us working in and running public history centers. So how do we provide not just service-learning, but a higher level of professional experience for students that helps them learn from both our mistakes and our triumphs in the face of adversity? Allowing students to see and participate in solving administrative challenges surely is just as important as honing their research and project management skills. Ultimately, some among our students will take over and run similar centers. Ann McCleary at University of West Georgia has learned to bring advanced graduate students into the administrative fold, which eases her workload and exposes those students to management experience. With her example, I’ve resolved to make a greater effort to include our graduate students in center management. For starters, they can help us document our experience and implement a records management policy that preserves the administrative history of our center’s work. This is also an important part of preserving our institutional legacy at our university after the current cadre has moved on. In addition to a body of historical work, hopefully we will have done what we can to document our experiences and make it transparent to future faculty members, students, and administrators.

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