History in Action: Historical Thinking in Public Life

Columbia University - 2015

Conference abstract: The moniker ‘History in Action’ describes, in shorthand, a set of goals and ideals for the expansion of historical thinking in public life.   These guiding sensibilities all extend from a commitment to increasing conversation between university-trained historians and the wider non-academic world.   This conference takes as its generating premises the interlocking notions that historians need to engage with the contemporary, living world in which they think and write,  that larger publics stand to benefit from academia’s cultivation of and commitment to critical thinking, and that those larger publics are themselves crucial partners in the production and application of historical knowledge.

The inaugural History in Action workshop-conference (HIA I, 2013) brought together a variety of academics and non-academic professionals to discuss the multiple professional routes that history graduates could productively pursue.  Thereafter, the generous support of the Mellon Foundation and the American Historical Association made possible the launch of a wider Columbia University History in Action program, under the auspices of the AHA-Mellon Career Diversity Initiative.  The second iteration of this conference, History in Action 2015, is organized around the question, “Where is history needed the most?”  Where outside academia can graduate training in history be productively engaged?

Over the course of a day and a half, the HIA II conference will serve as a gathering point for a series of wide-ranging conversations between graduate students, professors, and professionals working outside the academy.  In dialogue with each other and their audiences, invited speakers will explore the current status and place of historical thinking in public life and assess the roles and responsibilities of the historian today.   These exchanges will take place over the course of five thematic panels, a kickoff conversation, and, following the success of the 2013 final plenary session, a concluding small group discussion which aims to generate concrete future plans for the growth of Columbia’s History in Action program.

Friday, March 6th4:00 PM

Welcoming Remarks: Professor Alondra Nelson (Dean of Social Sciences, Columbia University) –Professor Nelson opened by describing how Columbia holds “media meetings” with major publishers to help graduate students and faculty think about ways to distribute their scholarly work that engages the general public. She asserts that the department believes historians should be public and bring historical expertise to larger debates in the United States. Introduces opening panel.

Professor Adam Kosto, Columbia University: Professor Kosto describes the “Career & Diversity Initiative from AHA.”

The Career Diversity Pilot Programs co-sponsored by the AHA & Mellon aims to figure out how to prepare history doctoral students for non-tenure track positions at both major research universities (i.e. careers in academic publishing, administration, diversity initiatives) and for professional careers with the general public (policy, journalism, think tanks, legal research, museums, architecture, work with NGOs, create curriculum, create multimedia projects, etc).

The four pilot programs are at the University of Chicago, the University of New Mexico, UCLA, and Columbia. The program was created in response to the academic job crisis and is supplemented by information found in the “Many Careers of History PhDs: A Study of Job Outcomes: A Report to the AHA” prepared by L. Maren Wood and Robert B. Townsend.

The AHA is offering a “Department Tracking Service” for departments that wants to locate previous PhDs from the last 10 years (at minimum). The service is $7 per graduate located. The goal is to help departments determine which fields their graduates are actually going into in the years after earning their PhD so current students can build networking opportunities with them.

Interventions Columbia is making:

  • Columbia University History Department created the “History in Action Project Awards” (or HAPAs) which are fellowships and grants for upper division graduate students that allows them to work on blogs, community history projects, build websites, phone apps, and public exhibits. These grants are considered seed money for the student to invest in scholarly and creative projects. Columbia also runs skills workshops and “clinic courses” that help bring professionals to campus that explicitly use historical research in some capacity in their careers.
  • History in Action Research Associates (HARA): Each semester students can work as RAs for an organization or clinic (on campus or off campus) to gain professional skills beyond the normal PhD training
  • Clinic Courses: Workshops students can take for credit or independently to develop specific skills. Workshops for Spring 2015 include Simon Schama “On Journalism,” Gaiutra Bahadur “On Publishing,” Andrew Hsiao “On Curation,” Navina Haidar, “On Advocacy,” and Anjali Kamat “On Documentary Film.” They are also offering a traditional research seminar in conjunction with the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia that will produce a collaborative research project.
  • The History in Action Conference series
  • They will be launching a website in Spring 2015 for graduate students and professors to engage the public with multimedia history

Also brief discussion of History In Action course proposed for the 2015-2016 academic school year entitled “The Politics of Historical Dialogue: Civil Society Advocacy” which will be a full year course.

The following information comes from Professor Elazar Barkan about newly designed class:

“The class will meet for five sessions in the fall semester to discuss the theory of historical dialogue, study cases, and work with those in residence at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights who will help oversee the student projects. Possible fall topics include historical accountability, the right to truth and redress, regimes of truth, history and conflict resolution, trauma. During writing break, students will travel to NGO partners around the world in Turkey, Colombia, Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Israel/ Palestine, Lebanon, Germany, and US (depending on NGO placement). They will learn critical issues from NGO to further inform their project’s goals. In the Spring Semester, the class will meet as a group every two weeks, as students conduct research and work on their projects with their NGO. They will present on their progress, and discuss the conceptual challenges they face during class meetings.”

Possible student projects include:

  • Developing exhibits
  • Mapping projects (human rights)
  • Documentation of cases / supporting archival research for court cases
  • Identifying potential resources for improving NGO from historical case studies
  • Writing substantive parts of fundraising proposals for the NGO
  • Historical analysis of school history textbooks (this is an ongoing project in many countries right now) and their treatment of historical injustices and violence
  • Exploring feasibility of an oral history project and its contribution to NGO

All four programs selected to be part of this AHA/ Mellon pilot program will be hiring a point person for each department specifically focused on professional development and career advising.

Department contacts for UCLA: Department contacts are Professor Steve Aron, Vice Chair for Graduate Affairs Muriel McClendon, and Department Chair David N. Myers.

Department contacts for UNM: Department Chair Melissa Bokovoy, Associate Chair Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, Graduate Director Michael Ryan. Here is a blog post they wrote about their own initiative: http://blog.historians.org/2015/02/just-view-career-diversity-trails-university-new-mexico/

Department contact for U Chicago: Lindsey Martin (Beginning Fall 2015)

4:15-5:45 PM

Panel 1: History and Activism

Chair: Prof. Alice Kessler-Harris, Columbia University: This panel is about activist history or the history of activism working together. She opens with a discussion of “presentism” and how it has limited the role many historians take, fearing they’ll be labeled as biased.


Prof. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, California State University, Native American rights activism (focus on Sioux Tribes):

  • Earned doctorate at UCLA in 1960s, studied both US & Latin America during African liberation movement which inspired her research. She grew up in Indian Territory and is interested with intersection of writing, history, and activism around colonized people. Was involved in anti-Vietnam, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, etc. Dropped out in 1968 and returned in 1975 after the occupation of Wounded Knee because although she was marginalized in the history profession for her activism, she recognized PhD credibility was needed to give Native American plight legitimacy.
  • Accepted teaching position in new Ethnic Studies/ Native Studies Cal State program, became involved in United Nations Human Rights
  • Began recording Sioux Oral Histories –wrote autobiographical trilogy as a way to engage with historical writing for public consumption and writing often used as field guide for Native activists –graduate training in history was difficult to achieve as 1 of 3 grad women/ all male professors, but equipped her to tackle issues of social justice analytically. Social history was developing as a field and she felt that intellectual change was what allowed her to come back to academy and study history for the aim of social justice. Argues rise of women and ethnic studies legitimated activist historian as something intellectually useful and mutually enriching.
  • Tells story of how her first book was not embraced for being “so different” (especially due to native / female oral history source base) but now often called a ‘classic’ so she encourages fellow historians to support graduate students working outside on the fringes in graduate programs and argues that helping students bring different voices together through interdisciplinary research will be more productive in the long run than trying to stifle innovative or “different” students.
  • Primary interest is in reshaping foundational texts and narratives of US to bring in Native voices

Prof. Nicola Foote, Florida Gulf Coast University, Histories of Choice: Community-based learning around Roe v. Wade :

Professor Nicola Foote created a massive undergraduate lead oral history program in response to Linda Kerber’s article in Perspectives about “disappearing women activists” in the 10/12 Edition that was released on 40th anniversary of Roe Vs. Wade. Professor Foote created “Social Justice & Histories of Choice: Community Based Learning Around Roe Vs. Wade.” The program has her undergraduate students in Florida go to the retirement homes and retirement resorts to find women who were impacted by shifting reproductive rights in 1960s and 1970s. Students specifically try to find women who had an illegal abortion or obtained the pill illegally in banned states. The program is interdisciplinary (oral history, sociology, feminist theory), and ultimately tries to create a collaborative project between undergraduate researchers and faculty mentors while working with local SWFL. Each undergraduate has to complete 80 hours of service finding women and documenting their stories. This model can very easily be adjusted to include graduate students.

  • Each student receives both pedagogical and professional training
  • Service learning and community engaged scholarship = they also learn fundraising and seem to have more job opportunities upon graduation

Prof. Mary Poole, Prescott College, Maasai Community Partnership:

Professor Poole researches indigenous land rights in East Africa & realized her American history PhD training was very useful in helping the Maasai Education, Research, & Conservation Institute (MERC) in Kenya, where she collaborates with community activists to fight political marginalization of ethnic communities.

  • “Academic activism is about sharing power with communities that need access to information for equality”
  • In 2007-2008 Prescott College undergraduate students in a summer class worked collaboratively to reconstruct the history of land loss of Mau Narok under British colonial power through the independence eras and that research (primarily done in London) was presented to the community. The students found evidence that British knew they had taken land illegally and that they could get away with it as the community lacked literacy. Students also found that a few educated tribal leaders from within the community had also petitioned the British as far back as 1920s –so discovered a history of activism most of the community didn’t even know existed.
  • April 17, 2010 – 52 Members of Maasai community filed suit at high court in Nairobi to regain 30,000 acres of land using research unearthed by the undergraduate class
  • When elders asked for examples from history of elders and students disagreeing about a movement the historians and history students gave them literature on SNCC and MLK in the American Civil Rights Movement
  • Things to think about when doing activist history: Ask yourself, “What can the world teach ‘us’ about ‘ourselves’? And use knowledge to redistribute Power. Think critically about the archive (the questions you ask in the archive must also come in partnership with the community), and finally, academic rigor cannot be compromised when the stakes are this high.”
  • Challenge students to think about how original and archival research can serve multiple needs on every research project they are doing
  • Trust that activists understand the lynchpin that releases the larger energy in the community. Focus your initial research energy there, but follow your own intuition as trained historians (example she gives: Montgomery Bus Boycotts)
  • Structurally, every new student is paired with an older, more experienced student researcher so they can mentor each other in the archives and while conducting field work
  • Curriculum all students were required to study before they could participate in the program: colonialism, world systems, racism, ideas about Africa in culture, political economy of tourism
  • Question from the audience: “When you do solid bottom up history to empower the disenfranchised, expect counter attacks. What do you do about it?”

Answer 1: We try to understand their perspective historically as well. Why are they upset about it? That also gives us valuable information and power.

Answer 2: [Paraphrasing] I don’t get push back, I just get ignored, which is a very serious problem when you have innovative graduate students trying to create new projects that are not in the traditional curriculum and their department not only doesn’t support them, but ignores them or punishes them for doing it. Usually years down the road those projects are very important. Departments should consider supporting these kinds of projects, especially when they are coming from non-traditional students who might come are problems and how to resolve them in very different ways.

5:45-6:00 PM: Break

6:00 PM Kickoff Conversation: Paul Leclerc, Ph.D., (Former President of the New York Public Library), introduced by Professor Mark Mazower.  In conversation with two graduate student representatives from Columbia University, Tania Bhattacharyya and Noah Rosenblum.

The first twenty minutes of this interview Paul Leclerc described how he wasoffered multiple tenure track positions his second year of graduate school during the 1970s. He does assert, however, that “historians should use their skills to advance society” and that he feels his shift into public universities and ultimately the NYPL transformed his understanding of the full range of skills he acquired as a historian. He decided to take a second job at Hunter College because he felt the university system more aligned with his intellectual political consciousness as its mission was to increase access to high quality education at a reduced cost for historically disadvantaged students.

  • He argues history departments should let PhD students curate exhibits that are archival based (even if just in their department building) so they can gain skills of curation, public relations, etc.
  • Departments should take risks with allowing students to engage the public through digital history. He discussed his “seemingly bizarre deal” with Google in the late 1990s to digitize printed visual material for the NYPL.
  • He encourages departments and graduate students to go into the communities they reside and find out what kind of historical questions/ issues the community is interested in learning about and addressing it. He gives examples of how different library branches in Chinatown, in Brooklyn, etc face different challenges and that history departments are not that different.
  • He encourages students to ask where the gaps are in cultural institutions
  • Very interesting discussion of issues of “architecture.” “You need to symbolize that a community is welcome physically and structurally.” He explains that many people today who would like to use libraries are scared of the imposing architecture of some of the branches, so they needed to use color and design to make Caribbean and African populations feel welcome. He argues the exact same thing needs to be taken into account when dealing with digital history. If your project looks uninviting or imposing, no one will use it. Reiterates that the public has a right to engage with intellectual institutions that are supportive of their aspirations and historical questions. Argues that administrative jobs in departments should force opportunities to allow those conversations to happen between public, department, and graduate students.
  • Stresses the need for graduate students to learn about outreach. Without communication with public they won’t be able to frame their research or projects in ways that will be productive to masses
  • Audience question 1: How did you lean to be an administrator? Answer: I just had to figure it out, there was no training, but listening was very important.

Saturday, March 7th

9:00 AM: Introductory Remarks: Tania Bhattacharyya, Columbia University: Graduate student welcomes everyone to day two and briefly goes over the problem of academics isolating audiences with jargon and language that is not accessible. Audience briefly discusses how we can provide training for students to write in alternative voices. [No real tangible solution came out of this, other than to say it needs to happen. Later in the evening Jim Grossman suggested that after a student turns in a 20 page paper, assign them the task of producing a 1 page summary memo without jargon for a non-expert.]

9:15-10:45 AM

Panel 2: History and Policy: Chair: Prof. Elazar Barkan, Columbia University

Ambassador John Campbell, Council on Foreign Relations, former U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer: Opens with two famous Churchill quotes about writing history/ diplomacy. John Campbell originally taught British and French history and found it was an excellent prep for a career in foreign service. Took the Foreign Service Exam in 1974 and passed. Briefly discusses that Foreign Diplomacy Officers can have history positions within the Foreign Service.

Prof. Tatiana Carayannis working with SSRC: History integrated into conflict resolution research:

  • Believes historians have obligation to provide solid research policy for court cases and foreign conflict resolution (Ex: Meticulously documenting Rwanda) and sees mobilizing “necessary knowledge” in these world zones as part of “global concern and key function of SSRC mission.
  • Realities: most policy makers are not reading the most recent academic journals or keeping up with the literature, so you need to be assertive and get involved on your own sending 1 page memos of your research summary to key individuals. Note: “no one cares about historiography.”
  • Argues there are two time frames of impact for historical research. 1) Long term (ex: oral histories, collecting archives, digitizing databases) 2) Real time

Four modes of long term intervention of historical research in conflict resolution

  • Transform intellectual environment of conflict to define or redefine concerns in policy
  • Provide tactical guide when sequencing is disrupted (i.e. looking to history for clear models that worked or did not work). Help develop a roadmap for policy debate. Example: Whether or not to intervene is a suspected genocide
  • History can make new coalitions—early calls to take trends seriously from taking a long historical view of issues
  • Research embedded in institutions to set new initiatives and establish new agencies (Ex: UN Women’s Research/ Policy increasingly important)

Best practices for graduate students interested in achieving real time impact with historical research

  • Define objectives of research clearly and succinctly in 1 page
  • “Assure proper buy in” (make sure someone actually cares in what you are researching reporting)
  • Link research to an article, bill, or policy debate that is coming up so your work is relevant
  • Talk to policy makers and find out what their restrains are. Figure out how to resolve that historically.
  • Maintain autonomy so that you can conduct your research on your own
  • What can you do? Put together a crash course for the general public or policy makers that contextualizes a major world event that is unfolding. What are the major places, debates, conflicts?

Prof. Edward Berkowitz, George Washington University, history and public policy

 Opens with story about his experience in the 1968 Columbia protests.  Economists, historians, policy makers don’t communicate with each other, so opportunities, solutions, and information is not productive.

  • Encourages ABDs to contact policy makers about their research and find out if they can get involved in collaborative / interdisciplinary projects
  • All policy briefs should be 1 page, active voice, no historiography, contain a good lead, include paragraph breaks

11:00-12:30 PM: Panel 3: History and Science, Public Health & Environment

Merlin Chowkwanyun, University of Wisconsin-Madison works on public health, racial inequality, and health activism —historian of public health who wanted to work in health policy centers on university campuses while in graduate school, wanted to work on Medicare, outreach with historical perspective (although sociologists & political scientists involved with major public health debates, he finds he’s usually the lone historian).

  • Begins by arguing that in the run up to Obama’s Affordable Care Act historians were very absent in the debate. Approaching policy issues out of the gate as “historical” can turn public off, he argues that most medical doctors have a predisposed bias to think of anything “historical” as “pedantic” or no longer relevant, so he started matching their jargon by saying he has “data” instead of “primary sources” or “historical case studies” and that when history is presented as “data” it is welcomed enthusiastically.
  • Learn medical and policy jargon, ditch history jargon: Write lit reviews that are very brief distilling only what medical and policy experts need to know. Also understand their methodology is different—they always want numbers. If they are paying you, you need to speak their language.
  • Argues that quantitative data should be considered more serious in graduate training in history grad programs / argues statistics should be a switch out option for passing a foreign language exam, as it’s the quantitative skills that are the true barrier to working with anyone in the sciences. The math can transcend the jargon.
  • Asserts historians should be able to at least consume and engage in quantitative work –not enough permanent structure to facilitate interdisciplinary interaction plus learning of each other’s jargon and methodology—it falls on the individual students right now to go to a one year public health program or take a sequence of methods classes, but historians don’t do that because very few programs give curriculum flexibility. He proposes history programs have interschool joint training programs and history is very behind the wheel next to other social science programs
  • Problems he feels needs to stop: Paranoia about presentism and any sort of “jadedness” that historians relay because of previous negative iterations of policy in the past.
  • He is currently working on a new project with investigative journalism on policy & environmental health issues: building world’s largest database about industrial poisons –lead, PCBs, etc. and sorting these documents from secret corporate archives, tort law suits. For historians it’s a giant stock pile of documents—how much did industrial firms know about hazardousness of products and when? Legal issues, documents offer larger window into health and government in general
  • These archives are usually unorganized, not machine readable or searchable, so had to process millions of documents. He works with Open Science Grid (major R1 institutions all use this) to pool computing power nationally to process documents more quickly. Working with scientists, journalists, policy makers, historians, computer scientists
  • He is very aggressive in arguing that you cannot couch a database like this in language of “ digital environmental history” as they felt it would lessen the appeal to the general public / no one outside of history knows what that means. He encourages students to think broadly rhetorically so that their research can have larger real world implications and not get stuck because of inaccessible language
  • Question 1 from audience: What do non-historians look to you for? Answer 1: They don’t care about historiography debates, but want history for context and significance. They desperately need case material as “memory” in policy doesn’t stretch beyond 2008, so helping provide lineage and tangible examples will make you invaluable. Bringing “new data” can mean teaching them about Head Start or the War of Poverty in 1960s that can have impact now.
  • Historians need to learn to see the present in the past
  • Question 2 from audience: How can historians gain a seat at the table with policy makers? Answer 1: “You can do it on your own as the interdisciplinary person which requires you to show up on medical campuses, you have to go to medical policy conferences, science conferences, go to talks at the med school or public policy school. Just showing up really counts, reading their journals to get a sense of how they frame problems. But this puts the entire burden on the student who is already struggling through the existing program. I wish programs would have more joint degree opportunities to assist with bridging this gap.”
  • Rhetorical question to close: Why is history a powerful methodology itself? What can it bring to the table that is unique and valuable?

Dr. Elise Lipkowitz, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, National Science Foundation –trained as historian of early modern Europe but then decided to take AAAS policy/ science fellow at NSF board.

Professor Lipkowitz is a scholar engaged in policy who writes about scientific communities, their relationships with the government. This job allows her to bring a “long view” of historical perspective, connections, and patterns to the science policy community that people focused only on the last 10 years or Presidential administration might miss.

  • Engagement with policy process spurs her to ask new historical questions than she would have naturally asked about the past. 20% content knowledge and 80% historian skills and sensibilities. Also help policy people understand historical legacy they are structurally dealing with in the government as a system designed to move slowly with checks and balances.
  • Policy is story telling, it’s managing large scale research projects, thinking critically, learning in a self directed manner to master topics outside field of training (i.e. everything a historian can do)
  • Differences from historical training: As a policy fellow she works with an agency that speaks with one voice to the outside world. This means her voice is mediated through appropriate channels, she’s ghost writing for appropriate representations, internal conversations –as a policy writer you can’t speak publicly in your own voice. Need basic comfort with numbers.
  • Number one thing she argues graduate students need: experience in a collaborative research project. Everyone knows a historian can work on their own; can they play nice in a group? You’ll have to prove it.
  • One of the major things historians can do is help break down historical myths that are all over policy rhetoric. Examples she gives—inequality greater now than any time in history, innovation faster than ever, world more dangerous than ever before—all of these hyperbolic phrases liter policy that you’ll have to deal with. Here historians can do very important reductive work and help educate instead of listening with cynicism and disregarding it.

Problems discussed in the Q & A: Grad program requirements & tenure track scholarship benchmarks do not reward engaging public and working interdisciplinary on collaborative projects. How do we get students this experience? Most of the audience seemed to think a required collaborative project in coursework was the best option.

Advice to graduate students: The stories people tell about themselves, their past, their nations, are embedded in every single kind of policy discourse. Think about how to engage in these public discussions in our own time and promote your work by coopting these tropes.

1:30-3:00 PM: Panel 4: History in Alternative Media

Major issues to think about: How come mass media has not completely transformed how we practice history or fundamentally changed our rethinking of our methods?

Question from audience: If you are thinking about distribution or audience for a website or documentary film, does that make you the opposite of historian who shouldn’t edit out information for a specific narrative aim?

Answer 1 from panel: Everyone is thinking about audience, but with multimedia the goal shouldn’t be to write or edit for a specific audience in mind, but to write and capture what is true, and then use public relations and advertising after the fact to sell to those who have no clue what you are talking about the belief that they need to see your film and experience a new truth. You can’t pander to an audience that you think exists. That never works.

Answer 2 from panel: All I can say is that in oral history we suffer from the problem of the infinite and unknown audience in the future. We don’t know what they’ll need to know, so we just have to try and capture and preserve as much as we can.

Prof. Jennifer Brier, University of Illinois at Chicago, History Moves: A public history project on wheels

History Moves is a mobile bus gallery to display public histories of Chicago, method for curating and collaborating with history –“we put the public back in public history” to think through what it means to live in Chicago (with its tradition of racial segregation, focus on finding new artistic voices, and figure out where history needs to intervene in both of those things).

  • Worked on LGBT exhibition “Out in Chicago” which helped her understand community need for history –queer as a verb—using it as a way to reconstitute stories of Chicago—used mass surveys of Chicago public to find out what they wanted to see and it came out over and over again as “more multiracial history”
  • Physicality: places limit on who comes in and who feels welcomed in historical spaces, so need to get community engagement to advance historical analysis and who can interpret (the public should not just give stories, but also interpret them in some capacity), economic & racial segregation effected viewership made her believe it was important to get away from an established entity but be mobile to cross neighborhood boundaries and bridge gaps
  • Realized mobility suggests you leave the community when you move on to the next stop, but you have to leave something in the community so that there is a tie
  • Book mobiles were developed in context of Jim Crow and needing alternative spaces –what else can historians come up with that can both disrupt discriminatory practices and educate?
  • Creates situations where communities interview each other in oral histories to break out of mold of historical paradigms—what does community find important to remember? What does community want to know about?

How do you move from story to history?

1) Context: but how you define it is critical

2) Community of thinkers: archivists, graphic designers, architects contribute to how space and form matter in how we tell stories

3) Make context visual and graphical instead of just writing a good label like a museum (which she admits is also a hard thing to do)

4) Definitions can be multiple and broad in history

5) Community engagement needs to have boundaries

Question 1: Advice you can give?

Answer 1: You need people who are honest with you for both psychological and aesthetic reasons.

Question 2: How do you secure funding for something like this? Do you go to grants? Collaborative projects?

Answer 2: [Laughter] Are you offering some money? I have no money. There is no money, that’s the problem. I self-fund all this. You can really only get money from your department or a grant if you are a non-profit, but the restraints are so intense, I couldn’t adequately do a gay history mobile bus. I had to do it on my own.

Answer 3 from film documentarian in response to same question: I’ll second that right now there is no money. I also self-fund. We need departments and historical organizations that always claim support for the digital and multimedia histories to actually support it. The other major issue is when you do this kind of work; you have to prepare to go to war to defend it.

Mary Marshall Clark, Columbia University, Center for Oral History Research – 9/11 Oral histories

“At times I felt very lonely as a oral historian as it’s existing in a moment between past and present, something many historians seem scared of.”

  • 12 museums in NYC allowed space to hold conversations with 9/11 survivors and witnesses –had to find spaces where the individuals felt the most safe and free to talk openly
  • Fear of loss of stories because of phones, texting, etc
  • A sense of duty to give historians sources that weren’t the edited and commercialized ground zero narrative
  • Breaking down consensus narratives and government narrative to getting to how individual’s interpretations

Prof. Richard Breyer, Syracuse University, documentary film and history (year program, Co-Director is historian)

  • Describes a class he co-teaches that is 50% historical research methodology and 50% film directing skills. 90% of students in year long course are history majors or graduate students, build on backgrounds and historical methods, production course, and one credit seminar
  • All students produce an historical thesis – either written or a documentary (majority of students produce a film, which they also help distribute)

Website: http://wandbproductions.com/

Panel 5: Graduate Students putting History in Action


Romeo Guzmán (South El Monte Arts Posse, Graduate Student)— Romeo Guzmán is in a unique situation—he is earning his PhD at Columbia by running a non-profit and history outreach project in South El Monte outside of LA, instead of writing a dissertation for his PhD as part of a new outreach initiative.

In this outreach and community history program, primarily targeted at the history of Latino activism, he provides a series of services for the community:

  • Birthday For Our Books à Community parties to promote literacy and writing
  • Oral histories (He has high school students collect oral histories after he has trained them. They then play these oral histories at community events and public hearings so that additional elders can add to them, clarify, and contribute further questions to ask so that students can go out again to collect oral histories with further insider information)
  • Holds talks/ cultural events for the community where elders share their stories and the students have to help document them in a newsletter
  • Document digitalization: He has been building a database of documents like graffiti removal requests filed with the city to document bottom up art and activist expression
  • Creative writing projects
  • Online reader with original essays : Thirty columns of 3,000 words that explore South El Monte & El Monte 1) political events and social movements 2) Migrations and arrival 3) Popular and Youth Culture 4) Natural and Build Enviornments 5) Lit & Arts 6) People/ biographies
  • They want to make a new history mural with community involvement and begin an ethnic studies program for the high school curriculum
  • Funded through a “History In Action” project award from Columbia University

George Aumoithe (Graduate Student) (#BlackLivesMatter)

Problem: What do you do when grad students have a moral calling to get involved in a social issue or movement related to educating the public that is not directly related to their dissertation?

Issues: Presentism creates an excessive fear (that is largely unfounded) that limit historians efforts to engage the public. Students are sent conflicting information: cultivate a digital persona, but don’t get involved in politics or social movements. How do we define ourselves so we are memorable and true to our callings without being cut from job prospects for being too unique or controversial?   If we are cultivating “truth” and “knowledge” than why is there a fear to speak truth to power?

The problem in this movement for justice against police brutality is helping teach how #BlackLivesMatter historically. Social media can provide a real time insight into the historical actors now and a living archive that can be used both now and later to counteract distortions in the mainstream media.

  • Students who want to be involved in this movement intellectually worry about professional exposure if they have a twitter account but some not compelled to be silenced –use historical training to counteract stereotypes, twitter is a great leveler while only 1% of Americans have a PhD
  • Twitter helps assuage need to have a charismatic leader, it’s stronger when it’s in the masses –twitter is a neutral tool but you can use it to connect and inspire communities, find intellectual coordinates
  • Skype oral histories for #BlackLivesMatter from people in Ferguson

 5:00-6:30 PM

Concluding Workshop

Discussion with audience of what graduate students need to be successful right now both to secure a job in academia and especially a job outside of it:

  • Digital literacy and be able to create digital projects / digital persona that gets their work out to public (stop shaming students into fearing twitter and online world—this is the reality of 2015!)
  • Accessible writing and portfolio in multiple genres
  • Public speaking skills and lots of practice interviewing (recorded examples)
  • They need to have taught their own self-created/ self-guided class
  • They need to have experience with at least one collaborative research project with a tangible product they can show employers. Historians can already prove they can work on their own; they need to prove group work.
  • Quantitative training/ interdisciplinary training (sometimes more useful than language)
  • Ability to attend conferences outside the AHA –go to public policy conferences as a historian, go to journalism conferences as historian
  • Need access to an alumni base outside of tenure-track / academia
  • Students need to be able to create projects beyond a dissertation—exhibits, websites, multicultural history outreach programs, work on court cases, work with NGOs, documentaries, community experiences, lecture series, something that is accessible and tangible to the general public
  • General belief from audience that all of these things not only help students get outside jobs, but would also enhance the quality of work as academic historians
  • We have endless content assessment in graduate programs, but what about skills assessment and feedback for things like public speaking or leadership?
  • Students don’t have it.

Unresolved problems discussed: 

  1. General discussion that right now graduate programs are providing almost none of these opportunities and that many are discouraging students from training/ experiences outside of the dissertation, focusing instead on time to complete. Also general consensus in conversations that the G4s-recent graduates / post docs are being wholesale abandoned by departments who don’t know how to help them, so faculty and administration are creating programs to address these needs, but phase them in with newly admitted students, leaving a generation of PhDs with little assistance or support.
  2. Problem of structural change – curriculum, degree requirements
  3. Problem of funding – advanced students and faculty members are already doing many of these innovative projects on their own. How can departments or history organizations support them in being successful?
  4. Need help converting CVs to Resumes


Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).