Students on a behind the scenes visit at the La Crosse County Historical Society


What is Public and Policy History?

Public and Policy History refers to scholarly work that seeks out audiences beyond the classroom and academic books and journal articles. Public and Policy History seeks to spread academic research to broader audiences, and also to take as its subject of study those attempts to connect history to the people.   Public History includes museums and memorials, oral history and landmarks, interpretive signage and educational outreach, heritage and cultural institutions, and archives.  Policy history is the study of past decision making or government institutions, with an intended audience of present-day representatives from those same groups; it includes topics or audiences in state legislatures or county government, prisons and courts, government social or environmental agencies.

Why Should You Study Public and Policy History? 

With a Public and Policy History degree you are on your way to employment in government, local agencies, museums, and archives that continue your love of history.

What is Different about this Emphasis?

Like the other topical emphases -- Social and Cultural History and Religious Studies -- this emphasis focuses on preparing students for careers and lives after graduation. While it requires the coursework that is a part of all other history degrees -- a core experience of two courses on the historical profession and historical research, and a foundation in "survey" courses that cover world regions -- this emphasis includes new courses from the history department that are specifically on the subject of Public and Policy history.  It also encourages and accepts credits on specialized skills and topics from other departments.  Through internship opportunities and portfolio requirements, it also highlights the completion of goals that would prepare the student for further graduate instruction, professional employment, or personal development after graduation. 


The Public and Policy emphasis allows students to take some unique and interdisciplinary classes.  At the center of the emphasis, students will choose 18 credits from a list of classes, with a maximum of 6 from outside the history department. To give you an idea of the breadth of offerings, we will note that courses come from the  History, Political Science, Geography, English, Art and Archaeology departments. See the "Catalog" tab above for specifics.

Coordinator and Faculty

The coordinator of the Public and Policy History emphasis is Professor Ariel Beaujot.  Professors Ariel Beaujot, James Longhurst and Jennifer Trost form the core of this faculty, but courses taught by other members of the history department and other departments across UWL also may count as electives within this emphasis.

Professor Beaujot is a public historian who works on oral history and material culture.  Her book, Victorian Fashion Accessories (2013), looks at gloves, fans, parasols and vanity sets for what they can tell us about race, class and gender in nineteenth century Britain. She also has an ongoing project titled Hear, Here that brings oral history to the streets of La Crosse Wisconsin via orange signs with phone numbers on them.  Professor Trost is a policy historian with research specialties in the American juvenile legal system and economic crimes such as identity theft, impersonation and swindling.  She tries to do as much as possible to correct misinformation about crime and the people labelled as criminals and to explain why we have the criminal legal system we do.  Professor Longhurst is a historian of urban and environmental policy, studying the decisions and institutions that have made our cities and surroundings more or less healthy, sustainable, or equitable. He works to equip students with historical research and communication skills that are useful in understanding our past decisions and also making better-informed decisions in the present. 

Due Date

Students must submit writing portfolios by the middle of the semester in which they intend to graduate. The portfolio is submitted directly to the designated coordinator for the topical emphasis.


The portfolio may be submitted in any format which is mutually agreeable to the student and the coordinator. These may include paper, three ring binder, combined pdf, email with attachments, or online format. The format should be presentable, professional, and offer the ability to best present the student's skills and knowledge to a possible audience.


The emphasis coordinator may approve the portfolio; they may request changes before approval; or they may judge the portfolio to not be an acceptable representation of student work. Such judgments are to be based on the overall portfolio's ability to present a positive image of student work in their academic career for graduate school and future employers.


The portfolio is a presentation of the student's work from throughout their academic career at UWL, or additional work created solely for this requirement. The work should be polished for inclusion in portfolio. If a student handed in work for grades in a class and is now submitting that same work for the portfolio, the version that is a part of the portfolio should be corrected according to the comments of the professor whose class the student was in.

Required Components

Minimum five items total from the following, with items 1-3 required:

1. A cover letter. In this document -- minimum 1 and maximum 3 pages single spaced in length -- the student will present their work portfolio, summarize their skills and interests developed in the academic study of history, interpret or highlight the noteworthy aspects of the materials constituting the the rest of the portfolio, and describe their post-graduation interests and intentions, whether those lay in post-graduate study, work in the public or private sector, seeking grants, internships or fellowships, civic or community volunteering, or undecided. This letter will be judged on the student's ability to craft professional, error-free writing; and to attractively represent their skills and interests to potential employers, graduate schools, volunteer boards, non-profits, and the like.

2. Formal and up-to-date resume or CV. The student may choose, based on their needs, to create a curriculum vitae (a record of academic life, used for scholarly professionals) or resume (a record of work experience and skills, used when seeking employment beyond academia). Whichever of the two documents are submitted will be judged on their presentation, lack of egregious errors, and ability to convince decision makers.

3. Evidence of work addressing the public: Any substantial work product created by the student intended to communicate history to a public audience, outside of the academic classroom. This may include work completed for class, or created for this portfolio. Textual examples might include op/ed, letters to the editor, interpretive signage, legislative briefing memos, grant applications, didactic panels, public history proposals, or the like. Non-textual examples might include websites, interviews, blog postings, podcasts, oral history interviews, or similar.

4. At least two items from the the following list:

4A. A sample of research or analytical writing. The student should choose no more than 10 pages -- possibly an excerpt of a larger work -- that they have written in their college career and which showcase their research and analytical writing skills. To be judged as evidence of formal and error-free writing; the presentation of a critical viewpoint, interpretation, analysis, or argument; and convincing use of evidence or data to support that viewpoint.
4B. A completed application for any grant, position of employment, fellowship, internship, or scholarship, related to the student's area of interest, whether or not the application was submitted.
4C. Any internship self-assessment, concerning a completed professional internship in the student's area of interest.
4D. Any letter of support, letter of recommendation, or assessment of the student's work, authored by a career professional in a position to assess the student's skills, knowledge, or experience.
4E. Any other piece of evidence that attests to the student's educational experience or career goals that does not duplicate any other of the required pieces of the portfolio.

Students on a behind the scenes visit of the La Crosse County Historical Society

Careers and Options

Employment options in Public and Policy History after your undergraduate or graduate degree numerous and diverse.  That's the entire point of these approaches to academic history: to explore the many ways that historians can contribute their skills and experience to meaningful projects outside the classroom and academia.  Our hope is that through this program you will identify an area you would like to work in and seek out volunteer opportunities for yourself. In today’s job market it is not enough to have a degree in medicine, law, education, or public history, students who get paid positions in their chosen fields after graduation have acquired practical experience they can show to employers once they leave university. So choose a place and volunteer, seek out opportunities in La Crosse to broaden your skill set, and propose and become a leader in community-based projects. 

Get to know the Field

Spend some time reading about, and becoming members of the following institutions. They have listservs, Facebook pages, and twitter feeds. This is where job listings, internships, and grant opportunities will be found.  Finding a job listing or project that you're interested in now might help you decide to explore that area more, so that you can get yourself prepared to apply for similar positions later.

Part of becoming a professional of Public and Policy History is knowing the big players, who shapes the field, what issues people are thinking about, what innovative projects others are working on and, of course, what employment is available. Keeping up to date with these groups will help you professionalize and become a stronger more knowledgeable job candidate:

  • The Association of Midwest Museums strengthens the museum community by providing accessible and affordable professional development programs and networking opportunities that encourage the exchange of information and new ideas.
  • The National Council on Public History is the major professional association for Public History. The web site contains a wealth of information concerning job opportunities, professional conferences and workshops, publications and other resources (some of which we will be reviewing in class). Please subscribe to their HPublic listserv (a discussion group) and their blog “History at Work”
  • Preserve Net contains news, job postings, calls for advocacy and internship opportunities for preservationists. 
  • The American Association for State and Local History is the organization for local historians, historic site managers, and history museum workers. It also publishes some very useful how-to-do-it manuals.
  • The Society of American Archivists is the principal North American organization for the archival profession.
  • The Oral History Association is an organization that looks at relationship between human memory and history. Publishes a journal, Oral History Review, and operates the H-Oral listserv.
  • The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University is a source for historians interested in digital projects; subscribe to their twitter feed.
  • The National Coalition for History is a Washington-based, educational organization that provides leadership in history-related advocacy, and provides news and information concerning history legislation and political developments.
  • History & Policy creates opportunities for historians, policy makers, and journalists to connect. They demonstrate the relevance of history to contemporary policy making and to increase the influence of historical research over current policy. They also advise and assist historians wanting to engage more effectively with policy makers and media.
  • History Associates is an example of a historical consulting firm, doing exhibits and commissioned histories and legal research. 

Find a Graduate Program

The National Conference for Public History has an extensive list of graduate programs and certificates in Public and Policy History.

Graduates have chosen many different paths -- we'll add student stories here to give you an idea about careers and options.  Starting with Jeff Kollath, making a career in museums and public history.

Jeff Kollath

UWL B.A. 2000; History, minor in Public History 

Curator, Wisconsin Veterans Museum, 2001-2011

Director of Museum Experience, Milwaukee Historical Society, 2012 

Currently UW-Madison Institute for the Humanities

Jeff Kollath has built a career speaking to the public about history, but he didn't intend on making a career of it when he started as an undergraduate at UWL.  "When I got here I had planned on doing sports management, but also I had some interest in chemistry," he says.  But after he enrolled in an introductory class, his interest was piqued, and after that, he "took a public history class and another on the history of the Vietnam war" from professors Jim Parker, Dick Snyder, and Bill Pemberton.  It was an accident of course registration, but it was "fortuitous in a lot of ways," Kollath says now; the Vietnam class cultivated a long-term interest in the experience of soldiers and veterans, and in the public history class, "Dr. Lee showed me that there were careers in the field of history that didn't require me to teach."Jeff Kollath

The course that Kollath took was an introduction to public history, which is an area and method of history that connects the broader populace beyond the classroom to history and historical research.  Kollath graduated with a minor in public history in 2000, before going on to work in museums across the state.  The long-standing UWL minor in public history was expanded in 2013, into an all-new history major with a topical emphasis in public and policy.

Along with introducing him to the opportunities of public history, courses at UWL introduced Kollath to the complexity and challenge of the history of soldier's experiences, something that would serve as the foundation for years of work at the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum.  "Taking the Vietnam class was an eye-opening experience in open-ended interpretation.  There is no one right way to interpret the Vietnam war, and that's true of almost all of history," Kollath says.  His professor "brought veterans, and anti-war protestors, and veterans who came back to the U.S. to protest the war, and Hmong-American immigrants into the class" to share their stories.  The experience was the first of many similar experiences for Kollath in history projects that worked to engage the public.

"Engaging the public means making them part of the discussion," says Kollath.  "At the veterans museum, we did 40 plus programs a year."  The best of those programs, in his opinion, was "when you're able to allow the public the opportunity to ask questions . . . and engage each other in the audience."  Remembers Kollath, "we used to judge the success by how long it takes to get people out of the room.  Providing the opportunity to question" history was an important part of learning history.  "We also had veterans come, and twenty-year olds -- and when that intergenerational discussion started, we knew we'd succeeded."

This is one of the most attractive things about museum history to Kollath: unlike much of academic history, which prizes individual research, public history is "not an isolating experience: it's the opposite."  For historians who want to work in museums, "the idea of hiding in the basement and cataloging is gone, replaced with a public component, someone that is able to tell the stories to make the artifacts come alive."  For historians today, it's necessary "to go to rotary club to speak or to go to the public library and make a presentation, to do webisodes and YouTube clips . . . being able to communicate to a variety of audiences" is what historians need to do.  In museums in particular, "not everyone has to talk to the public, but everyone should be comfortable with it."

This means that working in museums requires many different skills.  Can you "build an innovative mount for a museum display, think about public programming in a new way, thing about online experience . . . what can you contribute to the field?" When evaluating student applications for internships or jobs, Kollath is expecting a broad skill set.  "I look for the compelling difference, the student that brings something to the table that I or our staff doesn't have."  These skills can be varied: "from a completely different way of thinking about something, to a skill or passion in a topic, anything that sets them apart is important."  For example, he recently collaborated with others on a project "where we pressed a 45[rpm vinyl record]."  It involved working with "musicians, working with civil war letters as inspiration." This project reached an "audience that wouldn't normally engage in that" historical topic, says Kollath..

For Kollath, no matter the type of museum exhibit, event, or project, the goal is "reaching an audience that wouldn't normally engage in history."  That is often the goal of work in public history.

--Interview with Prof. James Longhurst, December 2013