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Some thoughts on Public History

April 23, 2014

So it’s no secret that I have recently begun questioning whether the traditional academic tenure-track job is right for me, and I am keen to explore post-doc careers in museums, archives, libraries or editing. Another possible avenue is public history, but I have to confess I know next to nothing about this field. This is about to change for me. I will have the opportunity to meet with USAFE (United States Air Force in Europe) historians during an upcoming visit with my family in Germany, and I couldn’t be more excited about this; the timing simply couldn’t be better. Public history is another career option that is never really discussed or taught in graduate school, at least in my experience so far; my only introduction to it is through a high school acquaintance who stumbled into a similar position after getting his Master’s degree. And now shortly, through conversation with the USAFE historians, who share office building space with my father – a fortunate coincidence for me! It’s not medieval history, by any means, but it is still well worth investigating. Beyond experience with public history, the USAFE historians also have interest in and knowledge of local (German) history – one historian told my Dad about a series of hills behind his house in Germany, some of which are Celtic burial mounds (how he knows this, I’m aching to learn). I mean, how bloody fantastic is that??? Another is trained as a medievalist (!), and is interested in discussing my dissertation project with me. I think I might even get a free lunch out of the deal. It’s always gratifying to meet someone who shares my love for history; even better when I can also claim them as a mentor. This is an extraordinary opportunity for me.

In terms of alt-ac careers in general, I feel very strongly that the academy needs to do a better job of making graduate students more aware that there ARE alternative careers out there, and training them for these careers. One of my own goals for this wee bloggie is to do what I can to increase this awareness and, if I do end up pursuing the traditional academic career, I fully plan to introduce my students to worlds beyond the ivory tower – because believe it or not there IS more to life (and a doctorate) than a tenure-track job, as nice and cushy as it would be to snag one of those. For the field of History, at least, the AHA is doing a wonderful job of introducing history students to possible careers at Annual Meetings, and forming exploratory committees committed to broadening historical training to better match these alternatives. This is incredibly important considering the dismal job market new graduates face; we have a glut of Ph.D.s competing for a handful of jobs, and it is difficult – if not impossible – to live comfortably when adjuncting alone. We have a long way to go, but it’s a promising start, and it’s encouraging to know that the AHA is taking the subject very seriously. (in related news: the AHA has just received a grant to expand career tracks for history Ph.D.s! Watch this space!)

I will post what I learn from the USAFE historians after my trip. I’m not sure public history is a job I would consider for myself just yet – I would probably pine for the middle ages to an unhealthy degree – but I’m certainly not counting anything out right now.

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