What I Do: Historians Talk about Their Work
Staff, May 2014
For the past nine months we have been talking to historians who work outside the academy and posting the videos on the AHA’s YouTube channel. Our most recent installment, a conversation with Rachel Reinhard, brings the number of videos to six, and presents a good opportunity to revisit this project. The videos can be found at www.historians.org/perspectives/what-i-do.
What Do You Do?
Lincoln Bramwell, chief historian, National Park Service: [It’s] like being a department chair, trying to explain to leaders and showing [them] there is a value to this. There is a value to history.
LuAnn Jones, historian, Park Service Program, National Park Service: In the past three years I have organized three week-long oral history trainings that I have held in different parts of the country for people who are interested in [getting] better at the planning and implementation of oral history projects. A lot of what I do too is working with interdisciplinary teams and really bringing the perspective and skills of historical thinking to the table.
John Lawrence, former staff member, US House of Representatives: I worked on Capitol Hill for 38 years; the last eight I was chief of staff for Speaker and House [of Representatives Democratic] Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Carol Geary Schneider, president, Association of American Colleges & Universities: A lot of our work has to do with public positioning and advocacy and articulation of what a liberal education is about, why the humanities and history are essential to it.
Stephen Aron, chair, Institute for the Study of the American West: What we wanted to do was to really think about a research center that would be entwined with the work of a museum and that would bridge the divide that had grown up between the academy and the world and public history, but even more between the universities, and the research that goes on there, and museums.
Rachel B. Reinhard, director, UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project: Our mission is to serve as a bridge between the university and K–12 classrooms and to support the professional development of K–12 instruction.
On Being a Historian Outside the Academy
Bramwell: It’s more of a business model, where you are constantly connecting and trying to work on things . . . . It’s unpredictable at times.
Jones: I feel in many ways that I have transferred how I thought of myself in terms of teaching research and service as an academic into this particular arena.
Lawrence: As historians we know it’s not always . . . yes-no, true-false. You know, there’s a lot of gray. And law and statutes don’t do well with gray. They need to know [that] this is allowed/this isn’t allowed. So at some point you’ve got to make that pivot.
Schneider: Historians are trained to think about: What is the interplay of competing interests? . . . Where can we find commonalities? The same way that you look for some organizing themes when you’re doing historical analysis, I’m looking for organizing themes to move change forward.
Aron: I hope that in the next generation of students the divide will be less meaningful, that all historians in some ways will learn to be more public in what they do and how they do it and appreciate the audience we reach and the necessity of learning to communicate with a broader public.
Reinhard: I worked with the History-Social Science Project in grad school; I was struck by how good the work was and how supported the teachers felt. The teachers who are involved with the project felt really elevated and respected and strengthened in their instruction.
Advice for Graduate Students
Bramwell: If you’re interested in any aspect of history and think about doing something outside of academia with it—get involved with that activity or organization or subfield or whatever it may be. Just get involved.
Jones: I used to tell my graduate students I thought it was really important for them to cross-train like we cross-train when we exercise . . . . And getting some public history training, an internship, a summer job, or something like that, even if it’s just something small, shows employers that you are interested in a variety of ways of doing history.
Aron: When I started, I really knew little. I had not been trained in museum studies. I had no background in material culture. Like most historians, I tended to view images or material objects as things you might include as illustrative afterthoughts . . . . Really learn how to use material culture; use the interpretation of visual imagery not just as a slapped-on afterthought, but really make it central to the kind of interpretive work we do.
The quotations above have been lightly edited for clarity.
What I Do:
A Conversation with Rachel Reinhard
Rachel Reinhard talks to What I Do about her role as the director of the UC Berkeley History-Social Science Project, which serves, she says, "as a bridge between the university and K-12 classrooms, and to support the professional development of K-12 instruction."
Reinhard was an elementary school teacher before she went to UC Berkeley to get her PhD in history. Being hired by the History-Social Science Project under a Teaching American History grant to return to K-12 classrooms, she adds, "really informed [my work] when I became a professor myself. I was working with students who wanted to be history teachers, and I used a lot of what I learned from the History-Social Science Project."
Reinhard, after several years as a professor, is located at Berkeley, and often finds herself in the role of a mentor to PhD students. She calls this an "unanticipated joy," while noting that "when you're getting a PhD, particularly at an R-1 institution, you don't have a sense of what's possible outside of what is being modeled for you."
Watch Rachel Reinhard's video at www.historians.org/perspectives/what-i-do.
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