Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group

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


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3 thoughts on “living a 24/7 portfolio career

  1. Nancy, I’m very glad to see your post bring up the tricky question of public history work and compensation. I often think about the amount of unpaid work I’ve done over the course of my career – and the lingering guilt I feel each time I draw on the labor of unpaid interns and volunteers – but I rarely find a forum to discuss this topic in a substantive, goal-oriented way. Complicating the subject further: the amount of money that people are investing in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in history and public history; if much of the work we can expect these future professionals to do is not for pay, then we are looking at a pretty significant ethics issue among other things.

    Thanks for your post, and looking forward to pursuing this subject further in April.

  2. nancyaustin on said:

    Hi Julie, Thank you for your feedback. Perhaps we can share further thoughts on these issues here on our group blog, before we meet in April?

    For example, I was reading Darlene Roth’s recent post, “History Ventures” from the December 2011 NCPH newsletter. [link below] On page 4, Roth suggests new ways of approaching both the medium and the message as a tool for understanding where new employment opportunities might be found. Do people find this helpful?

    Can we brainstorm further from Darlene Roth’s suggestions there?

    Also, I would be curious to hear how people have responded to a changing world that is less likely to compensate content providers? Add to this challenge a depressed economy, high unemployment, and a shift toward relying on part-time workers — and it is easy to be demoralized.

    This is why I think it is important to commit to always be working on at least one self-generated project you care deeply about, regardless of if it can be monetized. We are living through a time of enormous transformation, and historians need to be at the table using their skills. I hope our group will be able to have mulit-faceted discussions about how to contribute needed skills and content, even if some of our conversations lead away from one focused on what it takes to get and keep a job today.

    Nancy Austin

  3. I too found Roth’s article good food for thought and her formulation of products and markets really useful. I was left thinking about how can we push academe to embrace the skills necessary to create histories for these new markets, and formulate curricula around them, while not losing something I think is critically important: a wide-ranging and thorough immersion in the literature of history.

    For me, becoming an expert in the canon of (in my case) American history was an integral professionalizing experience – as important to my education as my dissertation work. It takes significant time to master the literature of a field, and I’d like to see the Ph.D. – not just public history MA programs – embrace these new professional skills while still training students to be experts on the content in their field. For more on this, I’d suggest looking at this Chronicle article by Leonard Cassuto, which I found to be pretty spot-on.

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