What do John F. Kennedy, Martha Stewart and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have in common? They were all history majors. The Department of History, Political Science, and Geography has launched a new history major with concentration in public history.
The new major reflects a growing interest in public history nationwide as well as among W students, according to Dr. Amber Handy, assistant professor of history. It will be the only undergraduate public history degree program for undergraduate students in the state of Mississippi, she said.
Only a small percentage of history majors go on to be historians, according to research; many become lawyers, businesspersons, politicians and even entertainers.
In studying history, students gain a variety of work-related skills, from effective writing to research techniques to critical analysis. With a history degree and public history concentration, they have job opportunities that range from archival management to historic preservation to working museum exhibits and in national parks.
Handy said, "Having a vibrant public history offering will advance the interests of all history majors, as national research indicates that an undergraduate curriculum that includes public history increases student interest in coursework.
"Ultimately, students who engage in 'hands-on research' are more likely to graduate and with a higher GPA than students who did not engage in research. Incorporating public history into the curriculum will allow history faculty to better combine research and public engagement, giving students the opportunity to experience what it is to 'do' history."
The history faculty began discussing this proposal in the spring of 2012. While developing the program, history faculty sought out best practices from national organizations and models from other undergraduate public history programs around the country. The new major concentration exceeds the minimum standards required by the National Council on Public History and will provide students with a strong history background as well as public history training and hands-on experiences.
A researcher at heart, Ashley Cardenas, a history major interested in public history, enjoys handling things that are considered to be old, especially personal objects such as letters or photographs.
"Handling a letter written 200 years ago is so much more interesting to me than trying to instruct a class on an event that has already been researched and written about by many historians and fans," she said.
"Additionally, I want to aid fellow researchers in their quest toward finding their family tree, the history of their town or of a historical landmark. Essentially, I am interested in public history because I want to be there for the beginning of the research process and help guide people to their desired information, instead of simply retelling facts other people have already discovered."
Dr. Erin Kempker, assistant professor of history, said, "Every single thing that we have designed is supposed to be a deeply interpretive research experience. They are engaging in some serious research but it is directed toward the wider public as opposed to being directed toward creation of a paper."
Courses for the new major will be taught by existing W faculty as well as local public historians and archivists. Derek Webb, The W's Archivist, will be teaching a course for the new concentration, and W alumna Mona Vance, who has a degree in public history and is the archivist for the local library, will teach a course in the spring.
Kempker added, "We certainly hope we introduce them to the profession and what is available for historians outside of academia—introduce them to those key jobs and professional tracks they can get into with advanced study if they choose."