Gerald Prokopowicz oral history interview, July 12, 2013




SPECIAL COLLECTIONS ORAL HISTORY COLLECTION
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW #95-03
Gerald Prokopowicz
July 12, 2013

Jonathan Dembo:

Jonathan Dembo:

University Archives Oral History Interview conducted 12 July 2013 with Professor Gerald Prokopowicz, of East Carolina University's History Department by Professor Jonathan Dembo in the Rare Book Room of Joyner Library's Manuscripts & Rare Books Department. This is Interview number 1.

Jonathan Dembo:

First off, I'd like to ask you some questions about your background and early life and your family. Where were you born and when?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

I was born in Detroit, Michigan October 12th 1958.

Jonathan Dembo:

And, uh, and what did your parents do for a living?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

My parents were teachers, high school teachers. Early on, my father was a working artist. He eventually moved into teaching art, but when I was born he was doing various things, including, he worked for a time for the Detroit Historical Museum, but we lived in the City of Detroit, for, I think, five - the first five - years of my life and then moved to Highland Park, Michigan, which is a suburb completely encompassed by Detroit next to Hamtramck, so it is in the middle of the city and I grew up there. At that time my mother was teaching at Pershing High School and my dad then taught at Cass Tech High School, which is the elite high school of the Detroit Public School System.

Jonathan Dembo:

Did you play sports in college?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

In college? No.

Jonathan Dembo:

Or in high school?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Well, in high school I played on a club soccer team. Soccer had not yet come to the United States. Our school did not have a varsity team so we started our own team and I was one of the founding members of that. And we hired our own coach and we got our own uniforms but we weren't really an official team. But I was always interested in sports and I played a lot of intramurals sports at the University of Michigan. I did not play for Michigan on an intercollegiate level but I did travel with the club soccer team there.

Jonathan Dembo:

Did you attend the high school where one of your parents was teaching?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

No. In 1972 before I started high school we moved to Grosse Pointe Shores, another suburb of Detroit, and my parents were still teaching in the City, in Detroit, so I never had them as teachers, we were never in the same district.

Jonathan Dembo:

You went to [University of] Michigan? What years were you there?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

I started Michigan in 1976 - that's when I graduated from high school. I graduated in four years, in 1980, and studied history, that was my passion and I knew then that was what I was most interested in but I also recognized that it's very difficult to get a job teaching history at the college level -- even then it was already becoming the case - so, from there I went to law school, also at the University of Michigan, not from any burning desire to be a lawyer -- I wasn't really sure what lawyers did, actually - but I didn't know what else to do and law school and three more years in Ann Arbor seemed like a good idea, so that was the only school I applied to. Since I did get in I ended up spending three years doing that and then I went on and practiced law for about three years in Chicago. There I was, I discovered that law was, it was a fascinating topic, intellectually, law school was very interesting and demanding and intellectually challenging but practicing law was not very much fun at all and I found that I much preferred studying history and, finally, after several years of boring all of my friends with complaints about how little I liked what I was doing, they got tired of hearing that and finally one day I just decided to apply to graduate school and study history anyway even though there were no decent prospects for becoming a university history professor.

Jonathan Dembo:

When was that?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

That was 1986. I had then been working as a lawyer for three years. I applied to a series of, I think, half a dozen schools, starting at the top, figuring if I was going to do this, I'd better -- the only chance of getting a job would be to -- have a degree from a school people had heard of and I ended up at Harvard, which certainly people had heard of, so it had that advantage, not really knowing what kind of history I wanted to practice or study but I was assigned to David Herbert Donald as my graduate advisor, incoming, and ended up working with him as my doctoral advisor and pursued my interest in Civil War studies which was what I was most interested in going back to childhood. That interest - to flash back - I think I was ten years old my family made a trip to Washington, DC to visit friends and stopped at Antietam on the way home, for no reason to this day I'm aware of, no one else was a history buff, particularly, but I was fascinated by the battlefield. I there only last, well this summer, only a few weeks ago, and it's still affects me, the place.

Jonathan Dembo:

I visited there when I was twelve or thirteen but that was in 1962 for the 100th . . .

Gerald Prokopowicz:

During the centennial

Jonathan Dembo:

Yes. I agree it was fascinating.

Gerald Prokopowicz:

It really captured my imagination and I maintained my interest, obviously, to the present in civil war history.

Jonathan Dembo:

So, how long were you at Harvard?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Well I started at Harvard in 1986 and in 1993 got a phone call from Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, which I very nearly hung up on thinking it was a life insurance sales call, but they were looking for an historian to work at the museum that they operated in Fort Wayne, Indiana, dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, their namesake, and I was fortunate enough to get that job. I had no idea of doing that for a living. I assumed like most graduate students at the time that I would eventually try to get a teaching job but teaching jobs were exceedingly scarce. I had interviewed already for some without any success and I was quite discouraged with the prospect so here was a job that was actually a paying job where you studied history even if it wasn't teaching in a classroom, it wasn't a tenure track job, it was better than nothing, and it was in an area I was interested in, so I was one of the two finalists for the job, and I got a call later that said they had chosen the other person and, then a few months later it transpired that the other person had lied about his record, he was also the nephew of the CEO's [chief executive officer's] chief of staff and that may have contributed to his getting the job offer, so they reopened the search and contacted David Donald, my advisor, again, and said "Anyone else you know who could do Lincoln?" and he said, "No, but the same recommendation as before, you should talk to Gerry." So they came back and did offer me the job and began working as the historian, the Lincoln Scholar, so called, at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1993, and that turned out to be a wonderful experience for me, professionally. The museum had been founded in 1928. It was not just a corporate lobby display, as I feared it might be but was a museum of astonishingly deep collection of artifacts and publications and manuscripts and while it turned out that the person I was succeeding in that role, Markey Neely, Jr., who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for writing the Fate of Liberty, about Lincoln and habeas corpus and civil liberties, so those were big shoes to fill. It was a great job. I was not the museum director, which was even better. I was just the historian, so I didn't have to raise money, or deal with the politics, or shake hands and handle that, I just got to work on exhibits, presentations, and research, and collecting. I learned a lot about all those fields, which I had learned nothing about in graduate school. We were tasked to build a new home for the museum. The collection was moving from one building in Fort Wayne to another, and the company that was running it was either going to close it or get behind it. They were . . . They decided . . . They were on the brink of closing it and there was a public outcry so they changed their mind and said they would get behind it. They put 6 million dollars into a new exhibit and hired me and hired a new director and we all spent the next two years building the new Lincoln Museum and it was a very intense and exciting and fruitful collaboration working with exhibit designers and museum professionals, architects, and others putting this project together. I was very proud of it, very pleased with the exhibit that we created.

Jonathan Dembo:

Would you say that was the origin of your interest in public history?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

It was . . .

Jonathan Dembo:

Or was this a later realization?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

It was a later realization. We opened the new museum in 1995, on schedule and on budget, a ridiculously small budget and tight schedule, but we did it, we were very pleased with how it came out. Having done that, there was not as much to do that was quite as intense as that, but we put out a lot of programs, we collaborated with other Lincoln-related institutions, but the company's CEO retired, the new CEO moved corporate headquarters from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Philadelphia and without the high officials in town to see the museum on a daily basis, they had forgotten why they had it, they were not Midwesterners, they had no particular affinity for Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is . . . Every American knows Lincoln, many admired him now, not in the South, necessarily, but in the Midwest he is not just Lincoln, he is also Paul Bunyan and George Washington, together. He is a heroic figure. He grew up in Indiana which feels it is the forgotten state in Lincoln lore. Philadelphia doesn't have the same claim. People there think Lincoln is just another historical figure . . .

Gerald Prokopowicz:

He changed trains there on his way to Washington.

Jonathan Dembo:

That was his claim to fame in Fort Wayne. He changed trains there. He did also in Philadelphia -- he said he would rather be assassinated that give up the flag at Independence Hall - but the result was that they lost interest in the museum and the staff began to downsize, and in 2003, I left the museum. To anticipate the story, in 2008, the Lincoln Financial Group closed the Lincoln Museum in an act I would call cultural vandalism, breaking it up, sending the collection partly to the Indian Historical Society and partly the papers stayed in Fort Wayne at the Allen County Public Library. So you can still research in the museum's Lincoln Collection in Fort Wayne. Fortunately, they hired one of the archivists as well but it was a sad day for the Lincoln community when they closed that museum after 80 years. Well I got out while the getting was good in 2003. I was not replaced, I noticed after I left, so clearly it was already in a downward spiral and I began looking for jobs teaching which I had always thought I would ultimately do, and I began sending out applications to teach civil war history, looking for ads, and I found many, I say, under a few ads openings for civil war history teaching jobs or even American history. I noticed though a substantial number for people who could teach something called public history, which I had never heard of, and I remember in the job search thinking, "I wish I had studied that whatever it is because that seems to be in some demand," and finally I looked it up and discovered that I was a public historian, that what I had been doing for the last nine years, working for the Lincoln Museum was practicing public history. I had no idea. I had never taken a class in it. Never heard of the term at Harvard. I had to find out what it was by doing some research. Like Monsieur Jourdain, in Le Bourgesoise Gentilhomme [The Middle Class Gentleman], I discovered that I had been speaking prose all my life. I am very proud of this accomplishment. So I began looking for public history positions and there was one being advertised here at East Carolina University. No, that's not accurate. Yes, there was one advertised here. I didn't see the ad. I saw other ads and applied to a number of places and got a number of interviews but not, in the fall of 2002, find any positions. This would have been . . . yes this was . . . I said 2003 earlier, I misspoke, it was 2002 when I left the museum. In 2003, so I stayed in Fort Wayne and taught some history classes in a private school and looked for things to do waiting for the next round of jobs but my phone rang in February 2003 and it was John Tilley from East Carolina. It turned out that there had been a public history search here that had not turned up a suitable candidate. The department had not hired anyone so the search was still open and through the grapevine - which was how I discovered public history very much functions: the networking - one of the historians in the department here contacted a colleague in another school which had just run a successful search, and asked his friend there "Is there anyone you didn't hire who was any good?" and that's how East Carolina got my name. I had been second, the second choice in that search. I was contacted and come down and interview here, which I was happy to do, and that worked out very well. I was hired to begin teaching here in the fall of 2003.

Jonathan Dembo:

Great! Was there anything else that particularly attracted you to ECU except for the job offer?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

No. Beggars cannot be choosers and the job hiring market for historians was not strong then any more than it is now, somewhat better for public history, but I had not heard of East Carolina before. I had a vague recollection of a legendary football game - maybe Miami - but it was a very vague recollection. And I had to confirm which of the Carolinas it was located in, as new people do, but once I had found it on the map my wife said "Of all the places you've interviewed, this was the first one that I would actually consider moving to, because it was close to the ocean and not in a godforsaken spot like some of the other universities that I shall leave nameless where I had interviewed." So, its location was appealing. I looked it up. I looked in the catalog. I discovered that it had a public history program. I didn't think of myself as a public historian. I thought of myself as a Civil War Era historian who practiced public history and I maintain that identification to this day. The . . . but the catalog indicated there were courses in public history, there were courses in military history, which is somewhat unusual in the late 20th century, but I thought of it a good thing because the public certainly is interested. David Long taught here. I had known him on the Civil War circuit for probably a decade by that time. We weren't close friends but I knew who he was. I knew his work. I came down to visit and it was a real campus. It was not. . . I was somewhat like my reaction to seeing the Lincoln Museum, in Fort Wayne. It was not just a pretend museum, the corporation putting up a few plaques and calling it a museum. It was a real museum and a real collection. East Carolina University was a real university with a real library, a real faculty, a real football stadium. I was excited to come here.

Jonathan Dembo:

When you got here and first began to work what were your early impressions of the university, the people you met, the facilities of the History Department, the students?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Well, I was struck by the level of pride by the level of pride in the institution, the intensity of it. My first vision of the campus, after being picked up at the airport in Raleigh, by John Tilley, I landed in the evening, he drove me to Greenville, and we got into town and instead of taking me to the hotel, he said "I know it's late" It was 11:00 PM, he said. "I'll show you the campus. You've got to see the campus." And knowing I was to be interviewed my correct answer was of course, "Yes, Yes, I'd like to see the campus." Even though it was 11:00 o'clock at night I didn't say anything. And I remember driving into the drive off 10 Street toward Joyner Library - we could see the clock tower and so on - that made an impression certainly but what really made an impression was John's pride in the Department and the stories he told me as we drove in; his excitement, his sense of ownership; and his eagerness for me to see what was good about East Carolina. And that was a widespread attitude. People were not cynical for the most part.

Jonathan Dembo:

How does Greenville compare to Fort Wayne?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Greenville is smaller, but much more cosmopolitan. Fort Wayne, the area, the surrounding communities, has around 300,000 people, or so, three times the size of Greenville, but Fort Wayne is in some ways characteristic of a lot of places in the Upper Midwest. It's inward looking. When International Harvester pulled its factory out, it was decades, even when I was there, it was decades earlier, you know, it changed its character from a manufacturing town to something else. But people still hadn't fully let go of that. It was a sense of civic boosterism based on [unintelligible] but it was a . . . I'll put it this way: Indiana was on a different time zone from the rest of the country. It did not - along with Arizona - it did not have a time zone . . .

Jonathan Dembo:

Two different time zones.

Gerald Prokopowicz:

People near Chicago, like Gary, had their own time zone. And the rest of the state didn't have Daylight Savings Time. So half the year we were with Chicago; half the year we were with New York. When you made a phone call you had to figure which hour it was. But in Michigan we used to . . . when I would give a talk in Michigan I would always say "I'm in Michigan. I'm from Indiana. I always have to remember going back to Indiana to set my watch back 40 years." I always got a laugh from a Michigan audience but there was a sense that it was provincial, I'll put it that way.

Jonathan Dembo:

That's what Mark Twain used to say about Cincinnati. When the world ended he wanted to be in Cincinnati because it was always 10 years behind the times. [Laughter]

Gerald Prokopowicz:

It would certainly seem like it. So, in contrast, Greenville is much more cosmopolitan because of the University, because of the 30 or so professors in the History Department only one or two grew up in Greenville, only three or four in North Carolina. Everybody else is from somewhere else. One of the up sides of the bad hiring market is History is able to pick and choose who it wants to hire and so I've always been really impressed with my colleagues, how professional they are, and how good they are at what they do. It's been fun to work with them.

Jonathan Dembo:

Since you've been here what would you say are your primary teaching and research interests?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

I continue to work on the subject of Abraham Lincoln, which was never, it was not my initial academic interest. My dissertation was on a Civil War unit, the Army of the Ohio, one of the Union field armies, and . . . but at the Lincoln Museum, necessarily, Lincoln was the center of what we talked and wrote about. It's when I came here, I didn't want to lose nine years' worth of daily contact with Abraham Lincoln. So I wrote a book about Lincoln or, more accurately, a book of questions and answers that the public asks about Lincoln: questions the public asks with my answers. That was intended to be a . . . . to fulfill the mission of the public historian. It was not an academic book aimed at other professors. It was aimed at a public audience but executed at a level that an academic historian would read it and not find anything to complain about: that it tried to do what public historians do where we do it right, to perform, to practice history at the highest level, while making it accessible to a general audience. So that was the goal of that book. And that was my primary research interest. In 2007 I was asked to serve as acting chair of the [History] Department, which later became interim chair, which later became chair, which [position] I currently hold and 2008 the economy went down and with it the state budget and, since then, I've had less and less time to do anything research-related and more time has been consumed trying to keep the ship afloat in terms of budget and that won't be unfamiliar to anyone at ECU in any department, certainly not the Library.

Jonathan Dembo:

Searching your memory, would you be able to pick out one or two or more particularly notable students that you've taught, here at ECU, I mean?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Yes, um. A couple come to . . . I hate to mention names because it's invidious to the others, uh . . . but I would say in every class there have been bright students, there have been, in comparing teaching at ECU to being a graduate instructor at Harvard, the surprising thing is not that they are radically different but that the best students at ECU would have fitted well into any Harvard classroom I was ever in. The difference would be the bottom two-thirds at Harvard were as good as the best students at ECU. All of the students at Harvard were as good as the best students at ECU. There is a substantial fall-off after the top students here. For a time there were students who should not have been in college. I think that the school's mission of service and accessibility it perhaps misinterpreted to say that anyone can come here and it's simply not realistic. In the last few years, they've raised the SAT admission levels and the students are obviously better as a result. There is more competition to get in now, even as the school has gotten much, much bigger, so that even the tail-end students are not as poor as they were between '03 and '07.

Jonathan Dembo:

I would have to agree. Let's go on to talk a little bit about the Public History Program. Perhaps we could start with you giving your overview of the program and your impressions of it over the years, the state it was in when you arrived, and how it's changed over the years since then?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Well public history started at ECU I think in the late 1980s, certainly long before I was here. It started at a time when the whole field of public history was really getting established. The job crisis in the historical field in part led to the idea of public history as a separate field, a separate place for historians to work, but . . . So public history started here in the '80s. John Tilley was the founding faculty member, along with others, but certainly the prime mover of the program. He has been its heart and soul ever since. It, when I got here, seemed to be doing well. In fact they were hiring another person with me to participate in it. They were growing. At that time, there was John [Tilley] and LuAnn Jones, and I was to be the third member. Three seemed to be about the right number that we would need to maintain a vigorous, active, program, but they'd only had two, so having me allowed to bring us up to three. Unfortunately, LuAnn Jones left the next year and was not replaced as a public historian, so we were back to two. And, when I became acting chair, that took away half my time, so we were down to one-and-a-half and we sort of moved along, improvised at that rate. Larry Tise joined the Department as an adjunct member, at some point, I'm not sure when exactly. He was hired by Keats Sparrow, former dean of the College [of Arts and Sciences], to do public history things for ECU, not so much to teach, but he was affiliated with History. He had an office in our hallway, but I rarely saw him, didn't know who he was or what he was doing, and it turned out only later did I discover that he was one of the founders of public history in America in the 1970s. So, we've never had enough staff. We've always said we need somebody to teach oral history. We need somebody to do this or that. We don't have enough people but there's no sign of that improving what with the budget picture for the foreseeable future. So we continue to improvise. We make do. We've been able to hire other ECU faculty, such as you to teach Archives course, Scott Powers, who works for the State, teaches the History of Architecture course for us, the Historic Preservation for us, we've worked with people in [the] Planning [Department] to help teach Historic Preservation. So we've found ways. We've worked with people in the Maritime Program to teach Conservation of Artifacts, a growing part of the Public History Program in the last few years. So, it's been a story of improvisation but always successful. We've maintained a steady level of interest among students, and the students have gone on to . . . many of them have gone on to get jobs in the field.

Jonathan Dembo:

Looking around the University, who do you think, where are the chief supporters of the Public History Program, if any? And critics, I should say? What about the opinions on public history?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Well, the biggest response one gets to public history is the question: What is public history? Most people on campus still don't know what it is or don't recognize the term and that does not wholly surprise me since it's not a term that I was familiar with when I became, when I was looking for a job, as a public historian. What . . . This will perhaps illustrate where we stand on campus currently. For the last, I don't know how many years, ten years, perhaps, the UNC [University of North Carolina] General Administration has every year issued a report on low performing programs, or low producing programs to all the campuses, and they define this purely in the numbers of majors. The Bachelor of Science Professional in Public History has always been a small program, just Dr. Tilley, and myself, and maybe one other person, and we've generally had maybe a dozen majors per year, and perhaps half a dozen graduates in a typical year. The fits the profile of a low performing program. Now, the fact that were only two faculty producing that many means that we were actually out-producing the rest of the department in terms of majors and graduates per capita, but the low performing program standards based purely on size - the Department of Physics is every year on the low performing program list because there's not many physics majors even though physics is obviously indispensable to any kind of science and technology education; every years physics must justify its existence by this bizarre measurement. Public History has had to defend itself year after year after year explaining why we're small, because we consume no resources, there are just a few of us and we do other teaching as well, and as a bonus we produce this excellent small program. Last year, under the pressure of the Program Prioritization Committee, the History Department agreed to modify its curriculum to eliminate the Public History degree, as a separate degree from the Bachelor of Science, and to encourage students interested in that career to major in History and minor in Public History. If they do that, they take almost exactly the same courses as the previous Public History major. Really there's no difference at all from the students' perspective and I think having a BA in History is probably a better tool than the BS in Public History for students looking even for public history jobs because it will show that they have a language amongst other things. So we, as a Department, by giving up the Public History Program, we were able to indicate to the powers-that-be that we understood the pressure the University's under and we were willing to play ball with them, make a sacrifice of a visible program, in order to show that we're not taking this lightly, and that we were serious about restructuring. We were able to do it without harming the students because they could still take all the same classes and still do the major - minor combination, would get the same benefit. That's . . . and, at the same time, we've been able to educate people as to the value of public history. The Provost Ms. [Marilyn] Sheerer sent out an announcement last semester about the vitality of Public History at ECU in conjunction with the announcement that the BS degree was being eliminated or being "streamlined" as we put it into the BA degree. So, on the one sense it's all political, but politics are real, the Provost needs to show progress is being made, we need to show that we're being cooperative, we don't want to harm the students who want to take public history. So, in a sense, public history is a bit of a football there for all this, but we accomplished a lot of goals. We educated the Provost as to what we did, we gained some support for it, and hopefully we've secured the future of public history by the odd technique of giving up the separate degree.

Jonathan Dembo:

Do you think that the program can continue at its present size and under these conditions for the future?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

I think it will. . . .

Jonathan Dembo:

Does it have to grow larger or does it have to get even smaller?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

I suspect that it will continue at the present size. The numbers of students seem to be growing as students learn what public history it. The intense pressure for vocational education has the students I think in some cases compromising with their parents. They want to study history. It's interesting, but their parents told them to get a job. They can come home as say, look, "Public History is studying history so that you can practice it. Not so that you can go out and get a Ph.D. but so you can actually go out and work for a museum." Whether all of our students will do that is certainly not clear but they'll be well prepared to get jobs in many fields, given the emphasis on writing and researching and replace [?] in public history programs. So I think it will serve the students well. I'd love to hire another public historian. I don't know how likely that is. Dr. Tilley has entered into his retirement in three years. His position will become vacant. I'm very hopeful that the economy will be better by then and we will be able to get that position returned to the Department and hire another public historian. If we don't that would be certainly, essentially, the end of public history. I just don't see that happening. It's too important a sub-discipline and makes too much sense to continue to see that go away.

Jonathan Dembo:

How has the balance of fixed-term [non-tenure-track] versus EPA [North Carolina Employee Personnel Act] tenure-track faculty changed over the years?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

In general, one of the things that always impressed me about East Carolina's History Department, is that it is almost all tenure / tenure-track faculty. There are very few . . . there are very few fixed-term faculty. There are four who are essentially permanent fixed-term people for one reason or another, but they are indistinguishable to the eye from the tenured faculty in terms of everything they do including their research productivity - for which they get no credit whatsoever - yet they still, maybe less so than in the present, they all have research credentials, they have all published, and ought to be in tenure-track terms. We hire very few part-time people. In public history we do use [part-time] people somewhat extensively to flesh-out the program, but I don't want to say that they're not tenure-track people. Jonathan, you're an example of that, as a tenured faculty member in Joyner Library, you teach the Archives course for us every year and thus I end up getting all sorts of bureaucratic paperwork about evaluating you and all kinds of stuff I'm supposed to file and I always write back "He works in the Library he isn't in the [History] Department, but he teaches one course with us." Likewise Jerry Weitz, in Geography, teaches a planning course, co-taught with Dr. Tilley, he's not in our department, but he contributes to our department. Susanne Grieve now holds an appointment shared between History and Anthropology, but teaches courses in public history. I mentioned Scott Power, who works with the State Department of Cultural Resources, he teaches a course with us regularly. So we have a diverse, intellectually diverse, faculty in Public History, but as far as full-timers, there's really just Dr. Tilley at this point. I teach a course, occasionally. Larry Tise teaches usually one course a year in public history. So, we pull people from all over. With John [Tilley]'s forthcoming retirement we really will face a turning point. If he is not replaced this will probably be the end of the program. And I just cannot imagine that happening. . . .

Jonathan Dembo:

I'm sure that I agree . . . .

Gerald Prokopowicz:

I mean it would really be unacceptable because it's a faculty governance question. The curriculum is a faculty governance question and to essentially tell a department you are not to teach public history would be no different than to tell you not to reach Russian history or French history and that's not a decision to be made at a bureaucratic level or an administrative level. It's a curriculum decision. If we believe public history to be important, then whatever position we actually get back will have to go toward public history.

Jonathan Dembo:

How would you describe the community of faculty and staff in the History Department and the Public History Program over the years? Is this a . . . . are their opportunities for faculty to socialize? How would you say that they get along with each other?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

They are one and the same. There's really no difference. That's one of the things, again, that distinguish our program here from some other places, I think, in that John Tilley was working here when Public History started. I was talking with a colleague about this earlier today: How in many places public historians have a chip on their shoulder, or are considered outsiders for doing public history here in a museum because you couldn't get a tenure-track job. You're doing public history because you couldn't get a job teaching. Something else: you're working in a museum because you couldn't get into a Ph.D. program. And public history has always suffered a little bit of this perception of being slighted by the profession at large. I think that a lot of that has dissipated. Certainly, the market for historians has been so poor for so long that people don't look down their noses at someone who practices history in a museum or couldn't get a teaching job. Well, no one can get a teaching job! You're fortunate you got a museum job. Uh, that's really the response now. So, there's much less of a stigma being a public historian. In our department, there's none at all, partly because John [Tilley] was already here when the program was started. He didn't come in as a public historian. He teaches American History. I came in to teach public history, but I never felt that there was any stigma, that I was a second-class historian in any way. I always felt, if necessary, I could simply drop the H-bomb: "Oh, where's your degree from, Harvard? Oh, it's not, Oh, OK." So no one is going to call me a second-class historian because I couldn't go to a good school. So there was no . . . John and I and anyone else teaching never felt this way. Our students have never felt that way, as far as I can tell, certainly, partly because the requirements for public history are identical to those for history. This was not true until 2005 or 2006 because there was no language requirement for the public history degree. John and I talked this over and agreed that if anyone needed a second language it would be a public historian as much as an academic one. So, we modified the curriculum to add that and, at that point, that was the last distinction between the BA and BS. Once the BS also had the language, they were the same. And what we discovered was



Gerald Prokopowicz:

that once there was no language requirement for the BS degree at least according to department folklore because some historians were concerned that students wouldn't take this degree and making it easier would attract more students if they didn't have to do the language. And, the result was that when I started here we would always have - I would have 12 students in a class, 10 of them would be interested in public history, 8 because of public history, 2 because it fit their schedule, 2 because they liked history, but were slacking off the language requirement. And, when we got rid of that, or added on the language requirement, we discovered our enrollment didn't really go down, we just lost a few slackers. And it improved the quality of the cohort. We don't offer that many classes in public history, so the students pretty much have to take almost everything we offer. The result is we get a tight-knit group. They see each other in all their classes. They identify with one another. They almost all join Phi Alpha Theta, the History honor society and, when you ask about memorable students, I picture in my mind about one of three students I had a few years ago, who were almost inseparable at repeated classes. And, they were good students but their attitude and enthusiasm were what really made it a pleasure to have in all the classes. And I know at least one of them is . . . did get a museum-related job and another one, I think, is in graduate school in the public history area. So, having a small number of classes, meant the students stayed together; having a language requirement meant that there was no stigma that they were second-class history students; so overall I would say that impossible to tell at a glance who's public history and history students or faculty.

Jonathan Dembo:

Could you say a few words about 5910, the Introduction to Archives that I teach? In particular, I'm interested in its position in the Public History Program and if you have any information about the number who actually go one to get jobs in museums or other public history positions, and also what is the class designed to accomplish?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Well, the . . . first I'll say it is an integral part of the public history curriculum because we don't offer that many courses students have to take most of them. 5910 is a graduate level course but every undergrad, history or public history major, has to take one 5000 level class. So the undergrads take it too. It is . . . it's always a popular course. It draws a reasonable number for a 5000 level. The students appreciate the opportunity to actually do hands-on cataloging work, to come out doing something and many of them -- I don't have numbers, I can't say how many students practice what they learn there - but I know when I teach 3900, the introductory . . . the Introduction to Public History course, I'll ask what their interests are and there's always at least some students who say the archives is what they'd like to do. They should certainly take 5910. Our philosophy as a public history program is to expose students to the full range of possible careers and interests that constitute public history as broadly as possible. Not to train them to actually practice any one because if they're like me, or anyone in my generation of public historians, we didn't learn anything in school about public history. We just learned history. Then we went out and practiced it and learned on the job how to do some of the things that you do on a daily basis in a museum and I think that's still the best training. That is certainly how lawyers are trained. You don't learn how to practice law. You learn about the law, conceptually, and how to think like a lawyer. Then to apply those skills to the particular kind of law you're going to practice. I think the same thing makes sense for historians, particularly public historians. So, to have an introduction to archives course, gives the students, whether they are going to follow through on this or not, exposure to what archivists do, how they think, what the principles of the field are, what it feels like to actually do it and, then, if that's the only exposure they ever have, but they go and work in a museum, they'll at least know what the person in the next office does and, if they do it, they will be retrained by whatever graduate school or whatever institution they go to do it in the local way. So it's not so much you're going to get the full professional training.

Jonathan Dembo:

I've taught the course in two ways. When I first came here, I taught, as I understood from my predecessors how it had been taught since day one, which was as a lecture course, although there were only, under a dozen students. And it's always been in this same room [Rare Book Room]. But after teaching it one year that way the feedback I got from the students was that they knew so little about what an archives was that the lectures made practically no sense to them. At the end of the class they didn't really understand what I was talking about in terms of the actually day-to-day job. So I've switched it and lecture for only part of the semester and then give them each a manuscript collection, a small one, to process from A to Z, including the cataloging, and the conservation, and the writing of the descriptions to that it can be posted online and researchers have access to it. So, I find that that's . . . more effective and they seem to find it more effective too. The question is, 10 or 12 is about the maximum that you could fit in this room and if you increased the size of the class, it wouldn't be practical to teach it in that way. It would have to be as a lecture course. As a person in the History Department, probably everyone else teaches lectures, but should we be satisfied with the 8 or 10 or 12 at the most students in the class learning by doing, or should it be a larger number who learn by listening and taking notes in a lecture?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

I think, there are plenty of lecture courses on campus; plenty in the Department. I would not . . . I guess that I wouldn't anticipate the public history student body growing to the extent where you would be overrun with 20 or 30 taking 5910. I think that having it as a hands-on course is extremely valuable. The museum field course, the field course in museums, where the whole class takes on a project and actively works with some institution to perhaps work in a collection but more often build an exhibit to do something active is what makes public history different from the academic courses. So, no, I would very much not want to see 5910 taught differently. It's great strength that it's taught the way it is. And that's where I can begin to picture the enthusiasm of the students who have taken it and say "I've become interested in archive; it's what I want to do." That's a great thing! It's not what I wanted to do. It's not what I do. But all the better that the students have this exposure to what different faculty provide. I think it is . . . I don't see it being out-grown. Where we have room for growth is at the graduate level. And here we don't offer enough courses. We do offer an MA in Public History at ECU and we do have students in that but if they were undergrads here I would strongly urge them to go elsewhere because they would have taken 5910 and the other higher class levels. There really wouldn't be anything interesting in the catalogue left for them to take. They should go elsewhere and meet new faculty and establish new networks. But for incoming graduate students, the thrust of our public history program at the graduate level, right now, is artifact conservation, driven by what was initially our Marine - Maritime Artifact Conservation Lab, and has now become, essentially, the just plain conservation lab for both Anthropology and Maritime [History programs] and offers courses at the 6000 level and 3000 level for students interested in historic objects conservation. So that's where the graduate program seems to be heading. I think we could collaborate more with the Laupus [Health Sciences] Library which has a book conservation facility and work with them as well. That's really part of our future for working with other areas on campus, here. But 5910 is a highlight of the public history program here along with the internship that is required of all the students when they go out and do something. Many students who have done 5910 will look for an archives internship as a result, so it gives them that experience that they need to have. So, I am very excited and very happy that we have this course. As I said earlier we improvise [a long?] using a few hours of library staff, and planning staff, and a few others, and I think we have put together, I think, a very good program.

Jonathan Dembo:

We're getting near the end [of the interview]. I wouldn't like to stop without asking you specifically about the cooperation between the History Department and Joyner [Library] and as you mentioned Laupus [Library]. How do you see that cooperation evolving in the future? And do you have any particular. . . . Have you seen any particular sign that this has been successful, that it's been productive?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Well, it's . . . . Joyner Library's vital to the History Department. It's our laboratory. It's where we do our research and so the closest relationship, collaborative, cooperative relationship, is absolutely critical. Maury York was a wonderful collaborator with us until his recent retirement [1 May 2013]. He did a great deal to help. We hold Joyner's staff, up to the level of Dean, in the past, to have been extremely cooperative and helpful. The last Dean [Larry Boyer] was willing to reach out and help us and listen to us, but had ideas for the future of the Library that troubled a lot of us in History. And, there was a lot of discussion and sometimes conflict over that. And I think the Interim Dean, [Jan] Lewis, has certainly continued the reaching out part which we are happy about and has backed off on some of the more troublesome areas. That's gratifying to us. But, I would give a different answer three years ago and I'll probably give you a different answer three years from now because things are changing so rapidly in the world of libraries generally and in the nature of technology and accessibility of sources online so that libraries today don't look like what they looked like when you and I were in graduate school - nothing like that - and that's even different from our younger colleagues remember. I think we even had some conflict with our younger colleagues wanting Joyner [Library] to look like the graduate school library of their recent memory, which was a much more quiet, scholarly, place. But libraries are not quiet anymore. At least, they're not silent anymore. They're quiet. There's a hum of activity but they're not silent and that clock is not going to go backwards. So, the historian can pick and choose where we can draw the line that the Library's been taken over by the rest of the campus for inappropriate, or for uses that need not be in the Library building. The Library needs to be preserved for things that can only be here because the resources are here. Those are battles that we need to fight side by side with Joyner staff. And there are other battles, to have coffee shops and so on, that we need to just relax and let go.

Jonathan Dembo:

Do you see a potential for cooperation with other University departments beyond Joyner in this way?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

I think. Yes . . .

Jonathan Dembo:

. . . . . Specific to Joyner?

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Well, in . . . . all the departments collaborate in different ways and we certainly need to continue to do that. Public History needs to look for ways . . . we need to collaborate much more with Anthropology, cross-list our courses with Historical Anthropology and Public History that often covers much of the same ground. Certainly look for more collaboration there. I think there is a sense that all the faculty needs to stand with Joyner in maintaining the identity of its core function. That's really the key that this building not be taken over for space uses that are not part of the core function. The Math Lab is a wonderful innovation, as far as I can tell, for teaching math. It doesn't seem like it . . . the Library's the only building it could have been in. It could have been in any building that had space. This is the only one that had space. If there were a new building on campus, somewhere -- the student center that they've been talking about for 10 years, for example - the Math Lab and the Writing Center and other places - Project STEPP - could all be there and the Library could have the space back for Library collections. But we see others who say Library collections are not what they used to be. They're online and they don't need that much space. I don't know. . . . No one can tell where that matter is going to wind up but I was not comfortable with the total leadership of the Library's sensitivity to historians' needs. The debacle over the destruction of the Congressional Records is the low point of that relationship and the whole thing's gotten worse after that, but I'm hopeful that the current and future leadership of the Library will be more sensitive to . . . . going to the future more carefully.

Jonathan Dembo:

Well, I thank you Professor Prokopowicz [mispronouncing the name several times].

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Prokopowicz [pronouncing the name correctly]

Jonathan Dembo:

Prokopowicz [pronouncing it almost correctly]

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Get it on the record there [Laughing]

Jonathan Dembo:

I'm an historian not a linguist [Laughing]. My apologies. Thank you very much for taking the time to come here and talk with me. I will be back in touch within the next few weeks to get you a script of these . . . of this interview and feel free to correct mispronunciations and misspellings on the transcript. Thank you.

Gerald Prokopowicz:

Thank you.

END

Transcriber:

Date:


Title
Gerald Prokopowicz oral history interview, July 12, 2013
Description
Interview with East Carolina University History Professor Gerald Prokopowicz relating to his experiences as a faculty member, chair of the History Department, and his early life, family background, education, and research. Gerald J. Prokopowicz specializes in Public History and the Civil War era. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Harvard, he has served as chairperson of the East Carolina Department of History and as a faculty member in the public history program. He is a member of the Advisory Board to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and the Lincoln Forum. Interviewer: Dr. Jonathan Dembo.
Date
July 12, 2013
Original Format
oral histories
Extent
Local Identifier
UA95.03
Creator(s)
Contributor(s)
Subject(s)
Spatial
Rights
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