Publication Date

October 1, 1998


Public History

The Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969 helps spur passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act. A decade later, Santa Barbara County has a large and elaborate environmental bureaucracy. County decisionmakers struggle to make sense of explosive growth in an area of administration that had scarcely existed a few years earlier. How had it developed?

In the 1990s, Santa Barbara County begins to attract attention as a major California wine region. The Santa Barbara County Vintners Association thinks it is time to trace the history of their industry. But where should the story begin? With the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s? With the wineries founded by Italian immigrants around the turn of the century? With the first wine grapes planted by the padres at Mission Santa Barbara two hundred years ago? Perhaps historians could answer these questions.

These are just two of the problems addressed over the last two decades by team research seminars in the Graduate Program in Public Historical Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Since 1976, "History in the Community" has been the unifying theme of team research seminars in the Graduate Program in Public Historical Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). This pioneering program of the public history movement early on established the team research seminar as a central element of its public history pedagogy. The team research seminar provides students with valuable training, bolsters the stature of the university and the department in the community, and provides the community with valuable historical studies.

Professor Robert Kelley developed the team research seminar at UCSB. Each year, all members of the incoming public history class have enrolled in the team research seminar. Each seminar typically lasts two or three academic quarters. Unlike most graduate-level research seminars—where students work independently on loosely related or even unrelated topics—the team research seminar is designed to focus all its members on the same project. The topic is then divided up into researchable segments, either thematically or chronologically, and each member of the seminar is assigned a segment. Each student is required to write a 30- to 40-page scholarly research paper, from primary sources, on his or her segment of the project. When the team has completed a final draft, the faculty director and one or two students serve as editors, preparing the volume for publication.

The Client Provides the Mission

Public history is applied, mission-oriented research, and the client provides the mission. As former UCSB public history director Otis L. Graham said, "In public history, the client asks the questions." Typically, a client enters into a relationship with the public history program because a problem or issue has been identified that historical research can illuminate or resolve. In 1990, for example, a major fire in the Santa Barbara foothills destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. A year later, a national insurance company—which had experienced large financial losses—wanted to understand how wildfire policies had changed over time, and how policymakers learned lessons from previous fires. The insurance company commissioned a team research seminar to research and prepare a report on the history of local policymakers' response to wildfires.

Apart from providing the seminar's focus, the client contributes in other important ways. Generally, the client provides financial support, often in the form of a stipend to team members. The client also pays for (or subsidizes) publication of the team's study. In the past, clients of UCSB team research seminars have been the City of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County, Farmers Insurance Company, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, and most recently, the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, which commissioned a history of the development of the local wine industry and paid for its publication as a high-quality, beautifully illustrated book.

The Benefits of the Approach

Students reap several benefits from the team research seminar approach. In addition to gaining their first experience writing a graduate-level research paper, they also learn to work as a team, to coordinate their research and writing toward a common goal. Individual achievement is essential both inside and outside the academy, but outside the academy's walls, public historians are also likely to work in teams or with collaborators. Karen Smith, a member of the first team research seminar at UCSB, and for many years a strategic planner for the Salt River Project, a water and power utility in Phoenix, Arizona, attests to the importance of teamwork to public historians. "One of the most useful skills to have in business or any organization," she says, "is the ability to work with people in teams. The team research seminar provides a risk-free place for students to build those skills."

Students also learn how to apply broad historical concepts and historiographical interpretations to concrete, local settings. Conversely, they learn to do local history well, to place the local into broader regional, national, and international context, and also to place their studies in historiographic context.

Students are also socialized into the profession. By learning to research, write, and communicate their findings, they develop the important skills of the historian. By applying these skills outside the academy, they also learn how to seek out documents and sources in a variety of places other than research libraries, how to communicate to a broader public audience, and how to develop the persistence and diplomacy that they will find essential in dealing with clients and policymakers.

Such benefits are desirable, but somewhat abstract. Three other benefits of the program are more tangible. First, with a paying client as a vital part of a project, students receive a stipend for their work. This reinforces for students the idea that, as trained professionals who provide valuable services, historians deserve—and can command—adequate compensation for their work. Perhaps more important for the students' professional development, the team research seminar gives them a publication—often their first. Second, because team research seminars often culminate with a press conference and a presentation to the client, they also give students an opportunity to present their research to a public audience. Finally, if students are so inclined, their projects also give them the foundations of papers for presentation at a professional conference.

The history department and the university also benefit from the team research seminar program. First, the team research seminar builds and strengthens links to the local community. Clients learn that the university can help them, and they tell others. Word-of-mouth advertising generates future clients. At UCSB, local businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit groups frequently contact the history department when they want historical research, commemorative institutional histories, guest speakers, or other services which public historians provide. Often, these organizations hire graduate students to work for them. Several UCSB public history graduate students have found employment with those who have sought out the services the public history program provides. Students have received contracts to write a history of the Santa Barbara airport, to manage the archives of a local nonprofit performing arts theater, to write the history of a drug-and-alcohol treatment facility, and to write the history of a local charitable foundation. One graduate student who interned at City Hall is now the city historian. Too often, universities and the communities in which they are located are divorced from one another. At UCSB, the team research seminar has helped develop and strengthen bonds between the university and the surrounding community.

But in addition to the benefits garnered for students and the program, team research seminars also have significant benefits for the community. Local history, when conducted by amateurs, tends to be too narrowly focused and lacking a connection to the outside world. It also tends to be overly celebratory and filiopietistic. It is seldom informed by or connected to historiographical interpretations. Thus, the products of team research seminars are important—and scholarly—additions to local history. The seminar requires students to place the local in larger contexts and to connect their study with the historiography. It also encourages students to look beneath the surface of local history to uncover themes and events which previous local histories have ignored. As a result of 20 years of team research seminars at UCSB, Santa Barbara has a substantial shelf of well-researched, well-written, historically sound scholarship on the community and its institutions. These studies have helped contribute to the community's sense of its past and its sense of place. The first team research seminar, which studied the historic business district on Santa Barbara's lower State Street, termed the area "Old Town, Santa Barbara." The name stuck, and the area today is commonly referred to as "Old Town."

The history of the team research seminar has not been free of problems. Less successful seminars resulted when no client could be found, when interpersonal conflicts developed within the team, or when faculty members assigned to lead the projects did not have experience doing public history. Still, such problematic seminars have been aberrations. For the most part, the seminars were directed by faculty members experienced in public history and committed to the training of public historians. And more often than conflict, the seminars have produced an esprit de corps among their team members that has translated into a strong and vibrant network of UCSB public history alumni.

The Program and the Community

This past summer, while undertaking a research contract with the Santa Barbara city planning department and the Community Environmental Council (CEC), I witnessed the value of the body of work UCSB team research seminars have produced over the years. The city planning director informed me that his office retains a complete set of the UCSB public history team research studies, to which the staff frequently refers when historical questions arise in the course of their work. They regard the studies as authoritative, and consult them often. The planning director also told a story that confirmed that the public uses these studies as well. At a recent meeting, the planning commission had considered whether to allow the proposed expansion of a restaurant on city-owned Stearns Wharf, a local historic landmark. Members of the public who opposed the expansion attended the meeting, waving copies of Stearns Wharf: Surviving Change on the California Coast (the team research seminar study which I coauthored). The citizens accurately drew from our study the conclusion that the city had first acquired the wharf from private owners in the 1970s in order to preserve it for public use and open space. They argued that public use and open space should serve as dominant values in managing the wharf. Allowing the restaurant to expand, they explained, would result in overcommercialization and crowding. The commission agreed with their argument and voted to deny the expansion. The historically informed public carried the day.

The research contract I undertook for the city last summer resulted from the solid reputation the seminars had created for the public history program. The city was considering a major change in its urban planning goals, and sought out a historical perspective to guide it. Economic growth in Santa Barbara had resulted in a spate of recent proposed development projects for the city's downtown and waterfront areas. Although most cities eagerly seek investment and development, Santa Barbarans—jealously protective of the city's quality of life—have long cast a suspicious eye toward new projects. Several new proposals had emerged within the past two years—many of them controversial. Developers had requested variances and exemptions from city planning documents, causing a great deal of political turmoil in the community. The city decided to convene a citizen-based "visioning process" to generate a common, community vision for the city's beautiful downtown and waterfront areas. Planners wanted the citizens on the commission to "think in the stream of time." They wanted to give the commission members an awareness of the history of how Santa Barbara came to be the beautiful, preservation-oriented city that it is. And they wanted them to further realize that the planning decisions they would make would write the next chapter in the city's history. The city and the CEC were convinced that they did not want a social-science report, full of demographic data and statistics; they wanted a story. They knew of the public history program's record, and they turned to us. The city hired three members of the 1993 research team to conduct the research, write a report for the commission, and make a presentation at the commission's meeting. We worked again as a team, and prepared a document and a presentation which gave commission members an introduction to planning and preservation in Santa Barbara. Although we cannot know how significant a role we played, the commission recently emerged with its "vision document," which builds upon the preservation and planning traditions we described in our report. Clearly, the community recognized the value of making historians part of the decision-making process.

The public uses history in decision making every day, and when a public history program develops a solid, well-respected body of work in community history, the community will increasingly seek out historians and engage them. Historians engaged in decision making are precisely what Robert Kelley had in mind in 1975, when he established the Graduate Program in Public Historical Studies at UCSB. Indeed, Kelley wrote, the "basic concept" of public history "is that the historical method of analyzing problems is as useful in exploring issues currently before public and private bodies as it is in understanding the Civil War or the Renaissance." The team research seminar system which he developed has proved an effective way to train professional public historians, yielding profound benefits for students, the history department, and the community. It teaches students research, writing, communication, and teamwork skills, and provides them with a publication and a public forum in which to present their work. It also gives students experience that can translate into employment during and after graduate school. It gives the department and the university a stronger reputation in the community, that reinforces the program by generating clients for future projects. Finally, it benefits the community by developing a scholarly body of historical research which can inform decision making and help the community understand its own story. Because of these many benefits, the team research seminar is an instructional model that deserves wide use among public history programs elsewhere.

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