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From the Issues in Graduate Education column of the April 2007 Perspectives

Public History Master's at the University of South Carolina

Thomas Brown, April 2007

Master's DegreeThe report of the AHA Committee on the Master's Degree in History is thoughtful and thoroughly researched. In this essay, I propose to complement the broad coverage of the report by analyzing the MA degree programs at the University of South Carolina (USC) as a case study for the ways in which MA programs work (or do not work). While every school has its peculiarities, in many ways the University of South Carolina is similar to many others, and we have considerable experience with at least three of the destinations for MA recipients that the report highlights.

USC is a good example of the master's degree offered in a department that derives an important part of its identity from its doctoral program. Classroom requirements for the MA comprise much of the coursework for the major and second PhD fields. For most of our students, the major field is the history of the United States before 1877 or the history of the United States since 1789. We systematically urge these students to choose as their second field a comparative thematic field structured around the strengths of our faculty, prominently featuring the non-Americanists. Recent options in this field have included consumer history, gender history, military history, environmental history, the history of ethnicity and nationalism, and the history of science and technology. Graduate seminars tend to focus on new scholarship and student conceptualization of innovative, important research projects. The capstone MA thesis is an essay publishable as an article in a scholarly journal. This overall context establishes several opportunities and challenges for the MA degree considered separately from the PhD.

While we accept some Europeanists into our doctoral program, the department recognizes that the potential for our PhDs to find good placements is concentrated in U.S. history, particularly in southern and African American history. It is the MA program, therefore, that enables our outstanding faculty in European history to train future specialists in their geographic fields. This strategy faces several obstacles. Funding always requires difficult decisions, though we are ready to fully support our best MA students in European history and can offer a relatively inexpensive in-state tuition in additional cases. More vexing are the complications of marketing. The selling point of our graduate program is that it concentrates resources in areas where we can realistically aspire to excel. A research university risks confusion when it aims to excel at different degree levels in different fields of study. We certainly wish that some of our Europeanist applicants for the PhD who have an MA, often from a school in our region, had applied to our MA program as we might have been able to help them considerably.

If our master's program in European history loses more prospects than we would like to schools with clearer identities at the MA level, our experience with MA studies for prospective or current secondary school teachers is more discouraging. The university has a large School of Education that trains many of the history teachers in the state. Our graduate program, however, plays little part in that training. The explanation lies partly in the realm of academic culture. My impression is that most college history faculty members thoroughly enjoy working with secondary school teachers, particularly in short-term thematic summer institutes. But relatively few specialists in U.S. history seem eager to provide semester-long graduate courses for schoolteachers that would be more advanced than an introductory college survey and more wide-ranging than a typical upper-level course. Moreover, college faculty tend to be wary of investing time and energy in teacher training initiatives controlled by schools of education or state departments of education. At our university, the College of Education recently abolished the Master of Arts in Teaching degree in history because it found that an MAT in social sciences is more marketable for prospective teachers in South Carolina. I agree with the AHA committee report that change in this area would require substantial institutional effort by the profession. South Carolina ranks near the top of the country in the number of teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards because the state legislature has created attractive incentives for teachers who achieve that certification. Only similar regulatory stimulus will make the master's degree in history improve its market position measurably in the training of secondary school teachers.

Public history, the major national success story of the master's degree in history, is a longstanding specialty of our department. We have the only program to receive the Robert Kelly Memorial Award from the National Council on Public History for outstanding achievement in the field. Like our MA program in European history, the MA program in public history presents challenges of resource distribution and simultaneous appreciation for excellence in PhD and MA work. Like graduate offerings for schoolteachers, the MA in public history sometimes competes against credentials conferred by other institutions, including library schools for archival administration, design and planning schools for historic preservation, and business schools for museum management. But with interdisciplinary cooperation, history departments remain reasonably well positioned. Our graduates work at many of the premier agencies in the field, including the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Monticello, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We have found, moreover, that a flourishing public history program can contribute significantly to our doctoral program. After several recipients of our MA in public history had decided to pursue a PhD and received favorable responses in the academic job market, we began to encourage doctoral candidates to consider such combined training from the outset. This strategy increases the career options of our graduates and responds to the proliferation of public history programs across the country at the undergraduate as well as the graduate level. In this context, the MA is not shrinking into the shadow of the PhD but expanding its usefulness as a distinct degree.

—Thomas Brown is associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina.