AHA Activities

"Let's Put History Everywhere": A Career Diversity for Historians Interview

Emily Swafford and Virginia Scharff, April 2015

At the end of February, the University of New Mexico history department hosted the first regional conference under the AHA’s Mellon-funded Career Diversity for Historians initiative. The panel brought together history PhDs employed beyond the professoriate, primarily UNM alumni, for a series of panel discussions with graduate students and faculty from several history graduate programs. The program from the conference can be found online at history.unm.edu/career-diversity/conference-2015.html.

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Credit: Enrique A. Sanabria, UNM

Emily Greenwald, Bob Donia, and Jim Walther help graduate students hone their elevator pitches.

Emily Swafford had the opportunity to converse with Virginia Scharff, faculty lead of the UNM pilot program, after the conference.

Emily Swafford: The conference was titled “What Use Is History? Scholarship, Skills, Careers.” Where did the theme come from?

Virginia Scharff: With the humanities (including history) under assault, and so many people, from governing boards of universities to governors of states, insisting that higher education at least consider the utility of our disciplines, we thought asking this question would be both timely and provocative. It has been both—when I asked the question on Facebook, faculty colleagues from across the nation gave very high-minded and sometimes bristly answers. When I put my question to colleagues in the UNM administration, they said, “Good question. Are you going to answer it? And will there be outcomes assessment?”

ES: How have the other history faculty and units of the university participated in the initiative and this conference?

VS: The dean of arts and sciences has weighed in with generous support for the project as a whole. The provost, an engineer, has taken a keen interest in what we’re doing, as has the vice provost for research, a psychologist. We’ve also begun working with UNM programs including Career Services, Sustainability Studies, the Office of Graduate Studies, and the School of Architecture and Planning.

Nearly half the department volunteered to serve on the faculty advisory committee, and they are providing the vision, critical perspective, and essential support for the three-year initiative. Our department chair, Melissa Bokovoy, and graduate director, Mike Ryan, have been instrumental in planning for the three years we will have support from Mellon. The advisory committee is already pondering longer-term changes, though at this point we don’t know precisely what we will be doing differently from what we did before the project.

ES: The other, perhaps primary, constituency for this initiative is graduate students. How did UNM graduate students help in planning and carrying out the conference?

VS: Our postdoctoral fellow, Eric Payseur, has been very active in organizing a graduate internship program with public history venues around Albuquerque. Jennifer McPherson, ABD in US history, recruited a cadre of students who participated in every dimension—working registration, running the camcorder to record every session, editing the video for the web, presenting “elevator pitches” to prospective employers, schlepping out-of-town guests, and I could not even guess what other things. I am particularly interested in their feedback on what worked and what didn’t.

ES: I was interested to see so many UNM alumni represented on the conference panels. What’s it been like, bringing such a diverse group of UNM alumni back to campus?

VS: We are blessed with a graduate culture that nurtures lifelong friendships. That has opened out into a corps of alumni who remain connected socially and professionally, even as they use their history training in fields including and beyond the academy. They are, as a group, so smart, funny, creative, and hardworking that we are always looking for ways to bring them back, and they always love to come. So it wasn’t hard to get them here. The problem was that we couldn’t possibly invite everyone who had something to contribute. Seems like the time has come to formalize those alumni networks, using social media and (I hope) some cool programming on campus.

ES: What do you think were some of the big takeaways for the conference from the various attendeES: graduate students, faculty, UNM alumni?

VS: Grad students saw historians who do everything from leading protest movements to leading major financial services companies. They met alumni both in and out of the academy and made great connections. I hope they came away from the conference feeling as if new paths were open to them, and eager to learn new things.

It was really exciting to see how faculty connected with alumni they might not otherwise have met. They also saw the incredible variety of things our alumni are doing, and that’s good for everyone.

It was also wonderful to see how alumni who work outside the professoriate felt not just valued, but honored, for the work they do. We, of course, hope that this is the beginning of a development effort that appeals to alumni inside and outside the academy.

ES: One theme that emerged during the conference was the importance of being a learner. It’s probably something that attracts people to graduate education, but it’s also a character trait that makes them successful in jobs beyond the professoriate.

VS: Honestly, if people came away with nothing else, I will be satisfied if they remember that whatever they’re doing, they’ll have to keep learning to keep growing. But as a next step, I would like us to think about how being a learner and being a leader are connected. We have a lot more to do to think systematically about how historians can be leaders.

ES: Speaking of leaders, Bob Donia, history PhD and retired vice resident for Merrill Lynch, was a great keynote speaker. The point he made that really resonated with me was “You are an accomplished professional seeking a match of your interests and abilities with the needs of an organization.”

VS: That, of course, is true for those who hope to land teaching jobs as well as those who follow other paths. And thanks for reminding me of that statement—when students ask how to approach their AHA conference interviews for academic jobs, I’ll remind them of this point.

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Credit: Enrique A. Sanabria, UNM

Virginia Scharff opens the What Use is History? conference at UNM.

ES: In addition to the conference, one of the big projects at UNM this semester is a field course. I love what I can see in the online syllabus, how it encourages students to build the skills of communication, collaboration, and intellectual self-confidence. Where did the idea for the field course come from, and what are you hoping students will gain from it?

VS: We knew we wanted to do a collaborative, project-based course with a client and a product. We hope students will see that they can both do work that interests them as individuals (and thus, each student is free to choose a particular angle on the larger project of developing a food history of New Mexico), but also contribute something to a larger effort, and work a lot as a team.

The conference showed me what we aren’t doing, as well. Emily Greenwald from Historical Research Associates noted that it’s important in organizations to set concrete objectives and deadlines, and, most of all, to do some cost accounting on time and achievement. Next time, whoever teaches the field course might want to set up a spreadsheet and calculate time, labor, and progress toward objectives.

ES: You’ve been promoting the career diversity initiative on Twitter, where you’ve said things like, “We owe PhDs all possible options” and “More historical knowledge, not less.” Would you care to expand on those thoughts beyond the 140 characters?

VS: I could get really bombastic here and say that I believe that the future of American democracy, justice, prosperity, and, well, happiness depends on Americans understanding history, warts and all, and not just American history narrowly construed. I’d love to see a “history minute” at the beginning of every board meeting, every management seminar or employee training, every legislative committee hearing, you name it. I’d love for people who have always hated history to learn something that makes them say, “Aha! That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that. What else have you got?”

The public has a huge appetite for history—you can see it at airport bookstores—but we need to do a better job not only of writing accessible books, but more importantly, of nurturing respect for, knowledge of, and interest in history in all kinds of places.

That’s what I mean by “More historical knowledge, not less.” Let’s put history everywhere, and see what happens.

Emily Swafford is the AHA’s programs manager. Virginia Scharff is associate provost for faculty development and distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico. More information about the AHA initiative and programming at UNM can be found at historians.org/careerdiversity and history.unm.edu/career-diversity/index.html. Follow the project on Twitter with the hashtag #AHACareerDiversity.


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