Publication Date

March 3, 2015

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Career Paths

This blog post is part of a regular series to inform the AHA Today readership and AHA membership about Career Diversity for Historians, the AHA’s initiative to broaden the career horizons of history PhDs.

“What’s old is new again.” A trite phrase, perhaps, one heard most often as a lament, an acknowledgement that things never change. But for historians, the past is our present. We spend our time and careers, to varying degrees, exploring the richness and contours of the past, parsing its shifting and confusing layers as we try to resurrect past voices, tell and re-tell forgotten or obscured stories, and shed new light on past subjects.

Even as history is as vital as ever, however, it remains difficult for graduate students and academic historians alike to conceptualize and explain the role of history outside of the academy. While some historians have made successful (if serendipitous) transitions from academic writing to popular writing, others continue to emphasize the need for historians to engage more with the present, and apply not only historical knowledge but also research and writing skills to contemporary issues.

Yet the question remains: How? In the hopes of answering these pressing questions, Columbia University’s Department of History will host its second “History in Action” conference on March 6 and 7, as part of the AHA’s Mellon-funded Career Diversity for Historians initiative. History in Action is a graduate student-led project that started in 2013. The conference, which features a keynote address from former New York Public Library President Paul Leclerc, will address some of the major questions circulating today about the role and uses of history in public life, and introduce necessary conversations about where historical knowledge and interventions are needed most in today’s world. The panels will focus on the relationship between history and four areas: activism, policy, public health and the environment, and alternative media. The conference will also hear from four Columbia graduate students who use history ever day, whether in advocating for the rights of graduate student workers, helping people learn more about the city of New York, giving communities a voice through art and oral histories, or combatting racial injustice.

The field of history is changing. The academic job market continues to shift and contract, even as popular interest in history and its uses remains strong. Historians must still work to engage with the world outside of the academy, even as they must also learn more and think more broadly about the intersections between historical research and a complicated world that needs historical perspective more than ever.

Editor’s note: Join the discussions at History in Action II by following #AHACareerDiversity, starting this Friday, March 6, at 4:00 p.m., ET, and continuing Saturday, March 7, at 8:00 a.m., ET.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

Andrew Lebovich is a doctoral student in the Columbia University history department, one of four pilot programs participating in this initiative. His research focuses on Islam, politics, and society in colonial and post-independence North and West Africa.

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