Publication Date

September 1, 2008


Public History

Editor's Note: This article on the joint AHA, National Council on Public History, and Organization of American Historians working group will also appear in the OAH Newsletter and Public History News.

While gaining tenure is never easy, the process holds special challenges for the growing ranks of public historians in history departments. Over the past half century a reward system that privileges the publication of original scholarship in limited forms and outlets has become entrenched in American academia. Every discipline interprets this system differently. For historians the peer-reviewed single-authored monograph and/or a series of peer-reviewed journal articles became the essential key to tenure and promotion. Other forms of original scholarship (museum exhibit scripts, National Register nominations, contract consultations, and so on) are held in lesser regard or even dismissed outright. Collaborative research and publication is also generally devalued. Public historians, whose scholarly "product" may not fit neatly within the standard forms, and whose work is often collaborative in nature, are put at a disadvantage. Yet, at the same time, these junior scholars may be asked to run, or even build, a public history program. In essence, public historians in academia often must serve two masters. They must fulfill the standard "academic" requirements for tenure and promotion and they must also remain fully engaged public scholars in order to keep their jobs and do them responsibly. Addressing this central dilemma is the mission of the Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship, a collaborative project of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the American Historical Association, and the Organization of American Historians (OAH).

Neither the challenges facing public historians nor the larger issue of what counts as scholarship are new. The effort of the current working group is really a continuation of a conversation begun in the early 1990s. At that time the AHA created an ad hoc committee to study the problem. In December 1993 the committee issued its report, Redefining Historical Scholarship.1 “The AHA defines the history profession in broad, encompassing terms,” the report’s authors mused, but went on to ask,”is that determination meaningful as long as only certain kinds of work are valued and deemed scholarly within our discipline?” The report concluded that the single-minded focus on the monograph as the measure of scholarly achievement was “inappropriate and unfairly undervalues the work of a significant portion of professional historians.” As a remedy the committee suggested (the report was consciously not prescriptive) that history departments move toward a broader definition of scholarship based on the influential essays of Ernest Boyer and Eugene Rice.2 In Rice’s model, scholarship is envisioned in four separate but complimentary categories; the advancement of knowledge through original research, the integration of knowledge through synthetic work, theapplication of knowledge in a community, and thetransformation of knowledge through teaching. Recognizing that work that could not be critically evaluated did “not merit reward,” the report also called for the development and adoption of fair and appropriate strategies for documenting and evaluating such varied scholarship. The AHA report did not receive universal acclaim. In the OAH Newsletter, for instance, critics charged that the effort threatened to water down standards of academic excellence. Ultimately, the OAH never endorsed the AHA statement.3

The issue of redefining scholarship and creating an equitable tenure process is, of course, not limited to the discipline of history. In 2005, the Modern Language Association (MLA) created a task force to address parallel problems facing junior faculty in language and literature departments. The task force found that the "increasing demands for publication as a qualification for tenure and promotion" were out of synch with the modern realities of academic publishing. Its central conclusion was that departments must embrace a more "capacious conception of scholarship" and give due weight to forms of scholarship beyond the single-author monograph. Other key recommendations included making the tenure process transparent, calibrating faculty expectations with institutional values, recognizing the legitimacy of scholarship produced in new media, creating "multiple paths" to tenure, and facilitating collaborative scholarship.4

Early in 2008, Imagining America, a national consortium of colleges and universities dedicated to public scholarship and engagement in the arts and humanities released Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University, the report of its own Tenure Team Initiative on Public Scholarship. The report echoes many of the MLA conclusions but is focused on scholarship in a public arena. As such it speaks directly to the problems facing public historians. The report concludes that if colleges and universities truly embrace public engagement they must create a tenure process that not only expands the definition of “what counts” as scholarship, but also accept a broader definition of “who counts” in terms of peer review. The report authors suggested that departments “build a pool of potential reviewers who are university-based public scholars,” as well as solicit “evaluative letters from community partners.”5 Expanding “who counts” is critically important for public historians who generally go up for tenure based solely on their “academic” work regardless of the fact that they have been hired as public scholars.

The discussion of scholarship and tenure practices in academia has also taken place against the backdrop of a much larger movement aimed at improving community engagement in higher education. In 1995 the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC), with funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, launched a long-term effort to rethink the role of public higher education in America. A central premise of the Kellogg initiative has been a call for public universities to "return to their roots" and redesign their functions to "become even more sympathetically and productively involved with their communities." The commission defined this move beyond traditional service and outreach as "engagement," envisioned as collaborative partnerships between the university and a public entity.6 In an era marked by shrinking funding and a growing public perception that institutions of higher learning are detached and unresponsive, engagement is imperative. Beginning in 2008, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching lent its weight to the movement by opening a new elective institutional classification of “community engagement,” defined as the “mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”7 This movement bodes well for publicly engaged scholars in all disciplines, and may well attract colleagues who previously shied away from public projects fearing that such work would not “count” toward tenure and promotion.

It was within the context of these discussions that the joint working group was created. In April 2007, the board of directors of the NCPH voted to formally begin the process by inviting the AHA and the OAH to form the Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship. Each organization appointed two representatives and a professional staff member. William Bryans of Oklahoma State University and Kathleen Franz of American University, along with executive director John Dichtl, represent the NCPH. The AHA is represented by public history coordinator Debbie Ann Doyle, Kristin Ahlberg of the U.S. Department of State, and Edward Countryman of Southern Methodist University. The author, along with Constance Schulz of the University of South Carolina and Susan Ferentinos, OAH public history manager, represent the OAH.

The initial phase of the working group's efforts focused on fact finding. First, a call went out to university and college history departments to share their promotion and tenure standards. To date the working group has collected approximately 35 examples from departments in institutions ranging from those that offer no public history courses to those with public history PhD programs. The purpose is to gain an understanding of how departments currently treat public history scholarship in tenure cases and identify a set of best practices. Secondly, public historians were asked to share their experiences and opinions on the issue through a survey available online at Respondents were asked to define the problem as they saw it and address how, if at all, the academic reward system should be changed. Finally, sessions were held at the annual meetings of all three organizations in the winter and spring of 2008. At each, working group members reported on the goals and progress of the effort and then opened the floor to a wide-ranging discussion aimed at capturing the individual experiences and opinions of those who have gone through the tenure process and those who face it.

Two critical issues cropped up in these discussions. First was the necessity of creating an equitable system of peer review. The single most common reason for devaluing public history scholarship is that it has not undergone the traditional double-blind peer review process. Many participants noted that even sympathetic colleagues were at a loss when it came to evaluating public history scholarship. So not only will it be necessary for departments to broaden their understanding of peer review, it will also be necessary for public historians to educate their colleagues about the process. The second common theme to emerge from the sessions was that redefining workload categories could help fairly reward publicly engaged scholars. In many history departments public history scholarship is considered "service" and easily dismissed. Other departments have developed personalized contracts for new hires in public history that specify how their work will be evaluated under the traditional categories of research, teaching, and service, though not all public history work fits cleanly into that mold. The Kellogg initiative and the recent move by the Carnegie Foundation are important first steps toward the creation of a meaningful fourth category of "engagement." The creation of a peer review process that brings accountability to engagement is the next step.

The working group is currently preparing its report to deliver to the executive boards of the three organizations this fall. It will also be circulated online and presented for discussion at the 2009 annual meetings. The report will emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to evaluating public history scholarship for tenure and promotion—the best strategy will vary according to departmental and institutional culture. Our hope is to further the understanding of the public history scholarship occurring on campuses and in communities across the nation and to suggest meaningful guidelines for history departments to fairly evaluate and reward that important work.

— (Colorado State Univ.) represents the OAH on the working group.


1. Redefining Historical Scholarship; James B. Gardner, “The Redefinition of Historical Scholarship: Calling a Tail a Leg?” The Public Historian 20 (fall 1998): 43–57.

2. Ernest Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the Professoriate (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990); Eugene Rice, “The New American Scholarship: Scholarship and the Purposes of the University.”

3. Gardner, “Redefinition”; Lynn Hudson Parsons, Joan Shelly Rubin, and Owen S. Ireland, “Redefining Scholarship: Some Problems,”OAH Newsletter (February 1995).

4. Report of the MLA Task Force for Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,

5. Imagining America, Tenure Team Initiative Report,

6. Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land Grant Universities, “Returning to Our Roots: The Engaged Institution,”

7. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “Community Engagement Technical Details,”

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