“We were really good at being graduate students, but now we don’t know what to do.”

Right out of the gate, my first question is does anyone else really identify with this statement? I know that I do.

Perhaps I’m just a bit hungover from this late-night binge of a Republican tax plan which is potentially going to significantly raise the taxes graduate assistants/students like myself will have to pay. Either way I’m really starting to feel a sense of impending doom as I careen headlong towards graduation and the ominous job market that lies beyond.

The report What Do Public History Employers Want? A Report of the Joint AASLH-AHA-NCPH-OAH Task Force on Public History Education and Employment, lays out a land mine laden laundry list of potential hazards for recent MA grads. Part time employment (if at all), low wages, no public funding, FUNDRAISING, over-saturation of recent graduates, private interests influencing your bottom-line, poor workplace conditions. It’s enough to make one seriously ask: Can’t I just stay in grad school forever?

Unfortunately the answer is NO. Lest you want to become paradoxically encumbered by “large student debts [and therefore] not be able to accept employment in public history because of financial constraints” (Report Page 9). Panic mood…now.

However, I must say I’m glad I read the four selections for this week in the order I did, so as to not lose all hope and despair for the future of the profession, and myself within it. The quote that this post derives its title from is Emily McEwens NCPH article “Out of the academy and into public service: Changing expectations and new measures of success”. Reading this one last at  gave me a sense that there is light at the end of that tunnel, albeit it may not be the same tunnel you initially thought you were in. Emily talks a lot about the transition out of the academic into the real career world of public history work, developing what she calls “Taking Care of Business” skills. This is a common theme I noticed throughout the selections. The idea that we all might need to really go into the field with an open mind for the kinds of skills we are actually going to need, or not necessarily need, in order to successfully make it out there. I really identified with the way she talked about re-evaluating her workplace performance beyond just an “academic understanding of success”. For a lot of us, I would imagine this is really going to be a wake up call.

However, one general observation/question I had about all of these readings was this: are they dated? If you watch the news, like I regrettably do too much of,  you would think we are in a relatively strong economic place from the depths of the Great Recession. Unemployment is down to record levels, hiring is up, jobs are going unfilled. The 2015 report What Do Public History Employers Want? mentions a lot of disconcerting issues facing the field as well as suggestions for how to counteract them. I kept asking myself if the prospects have changed at all for public historians since then? Is it easier now to find work? Has public history generally risen with the rest of the economy, or not?

Regardless of the answer, there were many things I found interesting/troubling in the report. Not least of which is an increased emphasis on the necessity of fundraising skills for public historians.  The report stated findings indicated that among the “five skills [public historian professionals] expect to be in highest demand in the future” (Report 2) , fundraising was atop the list. Not only does this sound personally distasteful to me, it also seems to have a lot potentially ethical consequences.  Is the field going to degenerate into some kind of lobbying endeavor? Who are we supposed to seek funds from that won’t conflict with our interpretational desires and obligations? How does the field remain empowered yet true if it is to be dependent upon constantly seeking out funds from private entities, many of which might want to influence the work we do? These are of course questions we have been grappling with all semester, but this report especially drove it home. That being said, I did take some solace in the fact that most public history professionals/employers still regard historical research ability and written/oral communication abilities as paramount for all M.As entering the job market.

Again, the most important takeaway/theme for me from both McEwen and the Report is “the need for historians entering the field to be adaptable, creative, and resourceful” (Report 6). I certainly take that point well. Especially considering that the internship I did over the summer had not so much to do with history, but rather public policy. I still had to rely on my writing abilities and communication abilities, both of which I have developed more fully since I’ve been in grad school. However I also relied on some of my personal travel experiences and connections in the arts/music world of Baltimore to facilitate  dialog and conversations with some of the individuals I had to interview. My point being, our tool kits are already much bigger than what we learn in class. Undoubtedly this realization will come in handy, and might even be a selling point to potential employers in the future as we move out into the world. Are there any skills you have right now that you could possibly anticipate, or not, that might be utilized in your career?

Generally speaking I do believe there is a home for all of us out there if we can just open up to potentials that are not necessarily in sight right now. McEwen talks about developing a new understanding of her work “serving the public”. This includes not just the interpretive work of the park site, but also the bureaucratic work of booking an event on the grounds or locating a lost pet for a visitor. All of this somehow can fall under the purview of “serving the public” in history since it all is cumulatively part of the visitor experience.

All above references from:

Philip Scarpino and Daniel Vivian. “What Do Public History Employers Want? A Report of the Joint AASLH-AHA-NCPH-OAH Task Force on Public History Education and Employment”.

Emily McEwen. “Out of the academy and into public service: Changing expectations and new measures of success”, National Council on Public History. May 4, 2016. http://ncph.org/history-at-work/out-of-the-academy-and-into-public-service/

 

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