Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Well now…

I just checked in to see Nancy Austin’s post, and I am left feeling deflated.  Like Nancy, I, too, have thought ‘how on earth are we to spend this amount as wage-earners, as the self-employed, as students (me!)?’  Wow, wow, wow.  I am struggling with the decision to make the trip after getting word from a state office that I applied to for help that there would be no financial assistance forthcoming…

So — this is where it is, and this is where we are.  What amount of earnings would it take to inspire active public historiography/preservation/archival motivation??  For starters, enough to make the trip to Milwaukee without going into debt, maybe?

Sorry.  I have no other words right now…



Metrics of Success in America, 2012

Yesterday, we were asked to consider this Second Question: “Many successful public history careers are built on the ability to collaborate or partner with various individuals/groups/stakeholders. What scale of potential earnings is necessary to motivate SERIOUS participation in unconventional collaboration?”

Dear Group: I found this second question for the group to be very clarifying, and answering it kept me awake much of the night. Here are my thoughts and conclusions:

This preliminary blogging has helped me recognize and “own” the choices I have made in my untraditional career. I am a 57-year old woman who chose to teach part-time while raising children, and in recent years has committed to projects out of passionate belief and regardless of financial compensation or the pragmatics of how it might leverage my career. Somehow, I believed it would all come together and I would find, as my father urged me to believe, that every plant would find the garden where it would flourish and be valued.  I see now what a mistake it was to not be more prepared for the economic downturn and other changes that have made it infinitely more difficult to retool oneself as an older and highly interdisciplinary academic.

As this back-story might suggest, I found our moderator’s question to be a gendered one. And one based on a career trajectory that implies specific metrics of success based on financial and institutional recognition. (It would be relevant to engage in a historically grounded discussion about the history of this idea of professional success.)

Regardless. In 2012, on every front, I need to align with critically-aware models of public engagement that actively contribute to reminding us of an America I want to believe in. That is, one governed by the rule of law and supportive of civil liberties. One with a compassionate understanding of the role of civil society. Of mothers and the many other uncompensated contributors to the greater good.

Everywhere, I see work to be done.

And yet, and also, I need to support myself into old age as the cash reserves I worked hard to build are depleted. I discover that other cheaper laborers have replaced me as an adjunct educator; grants are more and more competitive; while the labyrinth of specialist academic publishing to engage new audiences is in flux.

Thus, when I heard the second question, I thought I should start by considering a simple question; what did it cost me to attend the NCPH conference last year, a very positive networking experience but not one that led to anything tangible by the metrics asked. What was that conference experience worth, considered as an investment in procuring employment? I then pondered the almost $1,500 it will likely cost me to fly, register, and be housed this year in Milwaukee, a personal expense not off-set by institutional reimbursement. My answer became clear for me. (For me.) I recognized that I must step up and ask myself the hard question posed. Is my participation in this upcoming NCPH working group something I can afford to pay $1500 of uncompensated money for, with no clear career “benefit”? I recognize that it is not.

For this reason, I am formally withdrawing from this working group. I do not feel the discussion has progressed to the point where a new member couldn’t come on board and be up to speed by the planned April 20th morning session, 8-10am.

This blog question has helped me recognize that in the America of 2012, I do need to ask hard questions about how my voluntary contribution of time, energy, and money is going to help me craft a sustainable future. Rather than flying to Milwaukee for a 2 hour panel that does not seem to be heading in the direction I had imagined, I am going to instead contribute to a local historical initiative on 19th c. utopian communities. I think “local” is a better fit for me at this time.

With best wishes, Nancy Austin

Personal Risks

“Many successful public history careers are built on the ability to collaborate or partner with various individuals/groups/stakeholders. What scale of potential earnings is necessary to motivate SERIOUS participation in unconventional collaboration?”

I think that this question is very subjective and situational. I am uncertain how our individual answers  would produce helpful dialogue regarding new careers, but I will take a stab at it anyway and look forward to understanding later. I think that if I had a stable income with an acceptable employer (which I do now) that I would be highly unlikely to risk the loss of that income by undertaking a project that could possibly cause that loss – unless there were many open positions at a similar level in my desired geographic area to replace it. If I did not have anything to lose or was unhappy with my work environment, then I would be more open to taking on the risk of such a project. If I had a solid safety net, or was independently wealthy, then I would also be more apt to participate in an “unconventional” collaborative project. As an example, I have a stable income but am motivated to work towards a career change so I am undertaking the rather unrisky option of earning an MA one class at a time while keeping my full time job. This requires swapping some time that could be spent otherwise for studying time over several years.

Second question

Thank you for your thought-provoking responses to the first question.  Here is question #2, which will hopefully help us to explore perspectives beyond our own experience.

Many successful public history careers are built on the ability to collaborate or partner with various individuals/groups/stakeholders.  What scale of potential earnings is necessary to motivate SERIOUS participation in unconventional collaboration?

[As with question #1, please respond to this question in a “new post.”  Try to keep your responses brief (250-300 words max).  To make a post, go to the “Dashboard.”  Click on “Posts” and then “Add New.”  Please sign your post with “~Firstname” in the body text.  Click “Publish” and you’re done.  If possible, we’d love to have all of the responses by March 9.]

The Case of Cresap’s Will

As a reporter for the Cumberland Times-News (Cumberland, Maryland), I was pretty sure I had chosen poorly when I took the job on as a staff writer with no journalism classes under my belt.  It was like having a term paper due every day, and I imagined it a pretty unsatifactory career choice – that is, until I uncovered in the course of covering another story the fact that the county’s vintage copy of Thomas Cresap’s will (of French & Indian era Cresap’s Fort fame) had gone missing from its storage place (the original was/is in the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis).  No one knew anyone who knew anything about who it was that saw it where they saw it last.  Preettty embarrassing for the Register of Wills office, to say the least.  That, however, wasn’t the satifactory part.  The fulfillment came when they revised public procedures, totally revamping their accession policies and tightening security on other valuable archives in response to my published story.  Public History was the ‘ink’ in my pen even then.  Who would have thought it?

Choosing History

Immediately after my undergraduate degree I worked as a trainee accountant. One of my best days at work was when I knew I would be leaving that job. I felt as though a weight had been lifted from me, that I was back in control of my future.

I was consciously choosing to give up one profession and resume my work with history. It was one of my best days because I was on course to pursue my passion once again.

I had left my studies because I was concerned that continuing would simply be the path of least resistance and going on to further study was just the easiest choice. That didn’t seem a good enough reason to start graduate work. I wasn’t sure if my passion was actually my fear in disguise.

My best day at work, then, was the completion my mini-journey of self-discovery. On that day I was not just certain of my passion for history (which had come earlier!), but I had followed-through and taken the steps necessary to pursue it.

(Sorry for the sentimentality!)

– Nick


June 10, 2010. George Washington Birthplace National Monument. Leading a group of Philly museum professionals on a tour through Virginia, seeking out new approaches to interpreting the history of slavery. I know this place well, having written its administrative history for the NPS some years prior. It was a fun project, though a challenging one, as I used it to argue that visitors were ready to hear a more complicated story about why we remember Washington the way we do. We enter the visitor’s center and I see a new park brochure, fresh from the printer. The old brochure was hagiographic, a la “witness here the birthplace of a great man.” The new brochure begins: “The evolving memorialization of Washington at his birthplace reveals something about us as well.” To my absolute surprise, it appeared as if somebody somewhere had taken my report seriously. Small change = big smile!


Fright Night

On one rainy October night, I lined up with dozens of other people outside in the cold. All around us, looming quietly stood the old, empty buildings of the Pennhurst State School, a former institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities outside Philadelphia. We were waiting to tour the Pennhurst Asylum, a haunted attraction created at the historic site around Halloween. Anyone who knows me knows that haunted houses and scary movies absolutely petrify me. But, as a public historian who studies the history of mental health, I faced my fears and there I stood. 

While in line, I overheard countless conversations about how this place had once locked up “crazy” people, an image later reinforced by ghoulish characters in straitjackets jumping out at us. While walking through the attraction, I could not help but personally recall my great Aunt Ruth who had lived at an equivalent institution for nearly half of her life. Thinking about her and the thousands of people like her who lived at Pennhurst, I became profoundly saddened at the twisted story that the Pennhurst Asylum told and its elision of the history of people with mental health disabilities.

The next day I co-led a public discussion about the Pennhurst Asylum, in which a colleague and I talked about the ethics of the attraction with a vibrant audience. That 24 hours became one of the most memorable of my career so far. I recognized that my job had moved from just thinking and reading about public memory to fostering and furthering public engagement with it. Touring the haunted attraction was one of the hardest days at work for me, but the opportunity to create a space for dialogue made it the best.


living a 24/7 portfolio career

Brainstorming about new vectors of practice for public historians is a conversation I want to be part of.

But I stumble over how to describe a best day at work, and I feel very ambivalent about the idea that college/grad school is or should be about job training. My hope is that education fosters critical (visual) thinkers, as a goal in itself. I have been poking around the public history tent because it seems to me that public history is a dynamic gathering place for a diverse group of publicly minded intellectuals and activists. I haven’t felt public history to be, exclusively, the domain of disciplinary gatekeepers anchored solely around university departments and allied institutional employers. In my opinion, we are living through a time of tremendous change with much work to be done, and much of it will never be for pay. I hope our working group can have broad conversations about how to meet this challenge, conceptually and pragmatically.

Almost all of my recent projects have been self-initiated and under-funded. Like many an artist, I do not have a defined workday or institutional home base. Like many an entrepreneur, I touch base frequently with a wide range of people and projects in various fields and locations — sometimes this translates into a paid job; often it does not.

Today I contributed to a curated conversation sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation on an interesting blog called Glass House Conversations.  As a public historian, I am supportive of this kind of initiative to build a networked audience and dramatically broaden the kinds of conversations that might be triggered by, for example here, Philip Johnson’s Glass House.

I offer it as an example of one hour spent in my 24/7 portfolio career. Off now to work on antebellum urban signage….

Nancy Austin

A Very Good Day: Giving Closure to a Mourning Family

As a Records Declassification Specialist with the Air Force Declassification Office, I am usually sitting at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, reading historical documents.  One day, however, I became involved in a very different activity.  I was called by a Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (“We’re just like NCIS, but without a television program”) with a request: Could I look over some documents that had security classification markings on them?  I said, Sure, how about tomorrow?  No, it had to be today.

I met two OSI Special Agents at the Archives after lunch, and learned that the documents came from the residence of an Air Force historian who had died suddenly.  In making sure foul play wasn’t involved, authorities discovered these “classified” documents.  The two agents had brought copies with them, and explained that the victim’s family was arriving in town that day to claim his possessions.  If the Air Force could not “clear” all of the documents, the family would not be given access to his home.  Thus began a four-hour effort to review the documents, determine which federal agencies owned the contained information, have Archives personnel review the documents to confirm they originated at the Archives, locate the relevant agency representatives within the Archives building, and have them review the documents and render a classified/declassified judgment.  Finally, after 4 P.M., the last required agency rep – from the CIA – confirmed the unclassified status of some OSS records.

Mission accomplished – the Special Agents had got their job done in one day, the family got some timely closure on the death of their loved one, and I patted myself on the back for having helped get it all done.  A pretty good day for a non-traditional public historian. ~ Michael

Post Navigation