Publication Date

May 1, 2015

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities

On March 6 and 7, 2015, the history department at Columbia University hosted a conference, History in Action: Historical Thinking in Public Life. The program is online, at

At the conclusion of the conference, Manan Ahmed, one of the two faculty codirectors of the Columbia pilot program for 2014–15, had a conversation with Emily Swafford about the origins of History in Action and how it is evolving as one of the four pilot programs in the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative.

Emily Swafford: This was the second History in Action conference; the first was held in 2013. Could you start by telling me a little bit about where the idea for History in Action came from?

Manan Ahmed: The HIA conference was initiated by graduate students in the history department who wanted to assess the role of history in public as a way of breaking out of the “decline narrative” of the humanities. There was tremendous faculty support for the conference, and when the opportunity came to apply for the AHA/Mellon grant, the department was able to commit resources to it. An announcement about receipt of the grant can be found online:

ES: History in Action is unique among the Career Diversity for Historians pilot programs because it is organized by graduate students. What has it been like working on this project as it has developed over the past few years?

MA: The first HIA conference was coordinated by Noah Rosenblum, and this year the coordinator was Tania Bhattacharyya. They worked closely with a group of students, and with faculty. Hence, History in Action is truly a collaborative endeavor of senior and junior faculty working closely with graduate students. In the process of planning for the AHA/Mellon grant, we held a number of brainstorming sessions early in the project to outline the activities. That exercise resulted in an explicit goal: that HIA would be committed to providing resources and skills training to graduate students. The challenge was to create a range of resources and an array of workshops that can reflect the intellectual and temporal diversities of the history program at Columbia. We are committed to that vision and are continuously working toward it.

ES: How have the faculty at Columbia responded to the ideas and organizations of the graduate students?

MA: The faculty are supportive and enthusiastic. They participated in the writing of the grant proposal to Mellon, and three senior and three junior faculty members committed to leading the project for three years. At Columbia, the faculty have always taken seriously their role in contributing to and shaping public discourse. On that front, HIA was a very easy case to make. However, they were also concerned about adding to the burdens of graduate students in their formative, training years. We did our best to create a balance in that regard.

ES: “History in Action” seems to have two overlapping meanings: historians engaging with communities and publics, and the usefulness of history as a discipline for thinking about problems with impacts beyond the academy. Is this a useful tension, or is it hard to make a two-pronged project coherent?

MA: We believe it to be a productive tension because it allows us to think about graduate student training in new and critical ways. Take the case of digital humanities—clearly it offers new ways to disseminate research and new forms of publications. However, how would we make a case that a graduate student in history should know how to do some Python programming or geo-visualization, or be able to interrogate big data clusters? How do these activities map onto the understood categories of “primary source analysis,” “research,” “archive,” or “publication”? We hope that with HIA we can draw attention to the ways in which our communities, archives, and selves are shaped by the “digital,” and we need tools and concepts to respond to this—as a discipline. History, not only computer science or data science, must contribute to this disciplinary as well as public conversation.

ES: In addition to the HIA conferences, the department also administers grants to students working on public-facing history projects, is working on expanding work experience options for graduate students, and organizes a clinic course. Why don’t you tell us about the History in Action Project Awards, known as HAPA grants?

MA: HAPA grants are discrete project awards, for which any graduate student in the department can apply. We think of this as “seed money” for a project that could entail anything from working with a community center or museum to writing a blog or making an iPhone app. We have funded all of those. We will have one round of funding per semester for the duration of the grant—and we aim to fund two or three students each round.

ES: Tell me a little bit about the clinic course that is being offered this year. How does the department expect it to evolve over the next several years?

MA: We want HIA to have an impact on the curriculum of the department, and our clinic course is aimed at that. In spring 2015, the clinic course is led by Professor Pamela Smith and me. We brought to the campus six professionals from various industries (documentary film, journalism, publishing, NGO, etc.) who individually led sessions for two weeks and then guided a team of students on specific projects. (The course website is at In spring 2016, the clinic course will be led by Elazar Barkan, the director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. The course will focus on addressing the memory of extreme historical violence and its impact on contemporary politics and culture. We hope that these courses will transition into regular offerings in the department and create a continuous space for History in Action.

ES: One of the really innovative features of the Columbia department’s program is the launching of History in Action Research Associates (HARA). Can you tell me a little bit about that program?

MA: We did not want to think of (or call) it an “internship” program since there are issues of fair labor practice and compensation involved. We also wanted to protect our graduate students from being told to do work unrelated to their intellectual training. Hence we called our program Research Associates since research assistant is a common term in the academy. To deal with the complicated issue of compensation, we reallocated the TA duties (for one semester) of students who would work as a research associates.


Credit: Daniel Morales

Columbia associate professor Caterina Pizzigoni and graduate students in Latin American history Rachel Newman and Amy Christensen attend HIA II.

Initially, we approached the organizations ourselves (though, in the future, students can propose host organizations to work with). To approach the host organizations, we first created a key skills profile of a graduate student. You can see it at We initiated conversations with host organizations based on this profile, the number of hours that an RA can work, and the type of work (research, writing, presentation, event organization) they can do. We worked closely with the Career Education program on our campus (they had extensive experience on the undergraduate level but nothing really for the graduate level). We then created a short agreement that the host organization can endorse, laying out the above parameters. At the moment, the Social Science Research Council, the Tenement Museum, the New York Times, and Al-Jazeera are organizations we are working with.

ES: I understand that there are plans to create a new website for HIA soon. How is this related to the program’s goal of reaching a broader audience?

MA: We think the web and social media are integral parts of our effort—as vehicles for speaking across the boundaries and as forms of content themselves. We are working with Miguel Ripoll Design Firm to create a unique interactive publishing space for HIA. We hope to unveil the website in June 2015. One of the innovations will be a Reddit-style “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) forum whereby we can have historians in the department hold public Q&As on topics of immediate concern (such as #BlackLivesMatter). We are keen to develop that forum and see what changes it brings.

ES: What do you think has been learned so far, and what questions remain for future HIA conferences and other departmental ventures? Is this the kind of program that could be successful without the resources and opportunities provided by Columbia’s location in New York City?

MA: The big challenge we face is how to incorporate as wide a swath of our diverse student body as possible in the program. I am a medievalist working on South Asia; Pamela Smith is a historian of science in the early modern period. Yet students still feel that HIA speaks only to “Americanists” or to “contemporary topics.” We want to illustrate to the department as a whole, that, first, history in the public sphere is not restricted by geographies or temporalities; and, second, the skills we are looking to develop (public speaking, digital humanities, writing for different audiences, community access) are critical for our work as historians in all fora and in all forms. We think our model can work anywhere. It is about committing to working closely with graduate students, to providing them with resources and skills training, and to provoking conversations that can reflect critically on the culture in the department. New York will hopefully help us in the coming years to leverage this conversation to a broader audience.

Emily Swafford is the AHA’s programs manager. Manan Ahmed is an assistant professor of history at Columbia University.

More information about the AHA initiative and programming at Columbia can be found at and Follow the project on Twitter with the hashtag #AHACareerDiversity.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.