Tenure Beyond the Monograph

June 22, 2010

Three national groups of historians -- the American Historical Association, the National Council on Public History and the Organization of American Historians -- have now all endorsed guidelines that suggest a new, broader approach to tenure when considering public historians. The joint guidelines are part of a growing movement in disciplines that have tended to base tenure decisions on traditional forms of scholarship (in this case the monograph) to broaden the way they judge contributions to a field.

Public historians conduct history research and promote history in museums, parks, schools, nonprofit groups and elsewhere -- designing exhibits, overseeing archives and developing educational programs, all based on scholarship, but for a broader audience than scholars. As more history departments have created public history programs (in part because it is considered a growth area in which historians may find jobs), they have hired more public historians -- often creating tension over how to evaluate them.

History departments' public historians have their work in the field ignored while they are evaluated through a "tenure process that emphasizes single-authored monographs and articles at the expense of other types of scholarly productions," according to a report prepared by a committee created by the three history associations. "Often the lone public historian in a department, the public historian on the faculty frequently must serve two masters, publishing a monograph to ensure favorable evaluation of the tenure application while remaining active in the field, or find some other way to reconcile traditional tenure expectations within public history work."

The report notes that dealing with this problem is essential because of the growth of the field. There are now somewhere between 110 and 130 public history programs, about double the number that existed in the 1990s.

The committee of history scholars from the three associations has laid out a set of best practices, based on some departments that appear to be ahead of others in dealing with the situation. Departments are urged to:

  • Have tenure standards "calibrated" to reflect stated commitments to public history and community engagement.
  • "Look beyond the traditional monograph when evaluating public history creativity and productivity."
  • Use peer review systems to evaluation public history work, and to make sure that the peer reviewers are familiar with the field.
  • Encourage community engagement of public history faculty members -- before and after tenure.
  • Adopt alternative workload plans for public history faculty members whose teaching responsibilities include setting up internship programs for students and supervising them in the field.

History is not the only field that has considered whether traditional tenure criteria are appropriate. Sociologists have debated the issue with regard to public sociology, and a number of fields have considered whether the focus on the monograph makes sense in an era when digital scholarship has grown to be so significant.

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