Published Date

January 1, 2004

AHA Topics

Career Paths, Professional Life

From Public History, Public Historians, and the American Historical Association (2004)

This report includes fifty-one recommendations. Many are quite modest or can be implemented in current AHA activities with little difficulty. Some are already underway. Several, however, are “new business” for the Association and implementation will require greater thought and attention. Among these the TFPH has identified the following priorities. We do not prioritize within this group; we believe them to be of equal importance.

  • Reopen the discussion about what “counts” in the work of history faculty, with the goal of encouraging history departments to recognize a wide range of scholarly activities in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions
  • Change the substance and form of the annual meeting to be more inclusive of public history and public historians
  • Develop a broad advocacy program to encourage employers to hire professionals trained in history to do historical work
  • Initiate conversation with the History Channel, and perhaps American Heritage , to determine if there is interest in more systematically connecting with historians with particular expertise; and to consider opportunities for collaboration
  • Consult with the media to consider ways of developing more systematic channels of communication between journalists and historians and, more generally, how to encourage better representation of history in the media
  • Revise the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct as suggested under Charge 4 and as planned by the Professional Division


Next Steps

Assuming that Council acts favorably upon this report, the next step is to circulate it widely, both publicly, on the AHA Web site, and within the AHA, among divisions and committees. Recommendations need to be consolidated and referred to relevant bodies for further consideration and, it is hoped, implementation.

At its June 2003 meeting, Council extended the tenure of the TFPF for an additional year, through 2004, to both consolidate its work to date and to assist in the development of a public history agenda throughout the AHA. It thus will be pleased to work with AHA staff, divisions, and committees during 2004 to begin implementation of its recommendations, especially the six priorities listed above.

In addition, this report commends to the TFPH itself further consideration of several possible new initiatives, as follows. It is not likely that resources will be available to implement all of them. Hence, during its terminal year the task force will assess and then recommend implementation of those that are most viable, and can most effectively promote a public history agenda.

  • Discussion with the Teaching Division about possible new initiatives broadly related to teaching public history
  • Creation of a professional development project in collaboration with other history organizations, designed to bring academic and public historians together in an ongoing, collegial relationship (analogous to professional development projects that bring K-16 teachers together for long term collaborative work)
  • Discussion with the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and perhaps with other organizations, about potential collaborations
  • Discussion with Bruce Craig of the National Coalition for History and others about the development of resources and networks for state level advocacy for history
  • Consideration of a symposium on “making histories public,” as a means of encouraging dialogue between academic and public historians about the relationship between scholarship and public audiences
  • The task force believes it is important that the Association undertake one or more highly visible, well-publicized new initiatives that will signal to members, to the profession, and perhaps to the public that the AHA has public history squarely on its agenda. In a wrap up report at the end of 2004, it will identify one or more such initiatives.

Institutionalization of Public History

Throughout its tenure, the TFPH has considered the question of how to institutionalize substantive, sustained attention to public history within the structure of the AHA. To date, we have not settled this issue. Because the Council has extended the Task Force’s tenure for an additional year—and assuming it acts favorably on this report—we, along with AHA staff, will have several months to consider initial efforts to implement our recommendations. We will thus be in a better position to make an informed recommendation about where to locate responsibility for public history within the AHA at the end of 2004.

Nonetheless, it may be helpful here to lay out the options and to solicit the advice of Council. The options, as we see them, are essentially three: to diffuse responsibility for public history throughout the entire organizational structure; to place primary responsibility for public history within the Professional Division; or to establish a separate public history division or committee. The report itself suggests that the first option may be preferable, in that responsibility for implementing the various recommendations is distributed throughout the entire AHA structure. This perhaps is the best means of integrating public history throughout the entire range of AHA programs, policies, and actions; and hence of effecting the transformation the task force believes an embrace of public history can have upon both the Association and the profession. Yet placing responsibility for public history “everywhere” can also have the effect of placing it nowhere. Attention to specific recommendations can get lost in already full agendas, themselves often shaped by the interests of a given vice president or chair.

Thus, the second option, placing responsibility for public history within the Professional Division has a certain appeal. The discussions that led to the establishment of the TFPH took place within the PD; the task force has reported to Council through this division; and the division’s new mission specifically includes “addressing concerns relating to the practice of public history.” We understand this to be the option preferred by both the division itself and AHA staff. The problem here is twofold: assigning responsibility for implementing recommendations lying outside of the division’s responsibility, such as the annual meeting; and the election of a division chair who may not be especially familiar with, committed to, or interested in a public history agenda.

The third option, establishing a separate public history division or committee, would give public history considerable visibility within the Association and create a structure for developing and implementing new initiatives. Yet, as with the PD, a new division or committee would have no authority over the work of other entities within the Association. It might also marginalize public history within the AHA, thereby running absolutely counter to the task force’s whole approach to public history. Moreover, establishing a new division would require a constitutional change, a lengthy and potentially contentious process that could fail. Establishing a new committee, parallel to the committees on minorities and women historians, would identify public historians as a special interest group, again something the TFPH has worked hard to avoid.

Wherever public history ultimately is located within the AHA’s structure, it is very clear to us that primary responsibility for implementing the task force’s recommendations, and thus for deepening the Association’s commitment to public history and public historians, lies with the staff and especially with the executive director. We are confident in Arnita Jones’s leadership and in the abilities of her staff to address our recommendations insofar as resources and the balance of priorities permit.