Imagining New Careers in Public History

A working group

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


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One thought on “Metrics of Success in America, 2012

  1. Nancy, I am sad to lose your voice in this conversation. But I understand the economic reasons for it. Thanks for the important points you have raised thus far; I hope the group is able to pursue many of them in Milwaukee – especially how (and whether we are even able) to conceive of sustainable careers outside traditional institutional structures and in the context of other uncompensated labors and life paths. -Julie

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