Ask a Public Historian Q&A: Anne Mitchell Whisnant

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This is the first in a new series “Ask a Public Historian,” brought to you by the NCPH New Professional and Graduate Student Committee.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant, PhD, is Deputy Secretary of the Faculty and Adjunct Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also Consulting Historian, Primary Source History Services, and the author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (UNC Press, 2006).

Anne Mitchell Whisnant. Photo credit: Evan Whisnant

Anne Mitchell Whisnant Photo credit: Evan Whisnant

Why did you choose to enter your field?

I have two fields–“alt-ac” university administration (where I make the majority of my living) and public history consulting and teaching.

I started graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1989 to become a college professor. By 1997, I had my degree and a husband who was a full professor of English at Chapel Hill. Doing a national assistant professor job search was not an option, and I spent five years raising our two sons. Only after my husband David retired and the stock market tanked (in that unfortunate order) did I start trying to figure how to forge some “other” kind of career/employment path with my history PhD. In 2002, I attended a joint OAH-NCPH (Organization of American Historians and National Council on Public History) meeting featuring many public-history-related sessions about “what you can do with a History PhD.” I was introduced both to the wide world of “public history” and the radical idea that history training could be useful beyond professor positions. The insight about transferable skills led directly to my first “alt-ac” job, and I’ve remained in that realm.

The public historian part of my identity emerged from my dissertation and later book on the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although I didn’t realize it until much later, studying the national parks was a path into public history–a way to connect my scholarship with my quest for non-faculty work.

Publishing my book and making connections with the staff at the OAH, which held a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service (NPS), eventually helped me develop a small side-consulting practice with David; all of our work has revolved around consulting for NPS.

What was the biggest opportunity that you accepted?

Probably the invitation in 2008 to participate as one of four evaluators on a team of scholars charged with reviewing “the state of history in the National Park Service.” This project, co-sponsored by NPS and OAH, involved three years of incredibly challenging work trying to wrap my mind around who and what constituted “history in the National Park Service.”

I ended up chairing the project and was so proud when Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service finally appeared in early 2012. I met dozens of truly wonderful public history colleagues through this work and finally felt like I had real “street cred” as a public historian. But it also was a much larger project than I’d imagined. Doing it on top of my “day job” stretched me nearly to the breaking point. It is also disheartening to see that, despite some scattered improvements and dogged efforts by many in the agency to adopt or promote some of the report’s recommendations, the overall state of history in NPS remains fragile.

How did you begin working with NPS? What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of working with the federal government?

I got connected with NPS not primarily working “with” them, but working “on” them– researching the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This gradually led to a bit of light consulting with Parkway staff from time to time, which, to my frustration, has never evolved into significant paid work opportunities.

My main conduit to consulting with NPS was the OAH-NPS cooperative agreement. In 2006, David and I formed Primary Source History Services (as a sole proprietorship) and undertook the administrative history of De Soto National Memorial. Two other projects followed: the Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resources Study and the Shenandoah National Park Historic Handbook. Later, OAH invited me to join the team of scholars for the study that became Imperiled Promise. I have also done a few invited review projects related to NPS history work. I haven’t made a serious attempt to break into consulting through the true “federal contractor” route.

Most rewarding? Learning about histories I never thought I’d be interested in. Doing history work that might make a difference to the public. Meeting some wonderful historians in the NPS. Working together with my husband.

Most frustrating? Feeling that NPS mostly didn’t want the history work we did, did not take it seriously, or did not have the capacity or inclination for it to make a difference. De Soto declined a debriefing meeting about the administrative history and never posted it on the park website. The Cape Lookout HRS is still in production, five years after we completed it, and has made no discernible impact upon planning or interpretation at that park (the park interpretive plan published later makes no mention of it). Shenandoah rejected (and cut) large parts of our manuscript outright, publishing a poorer final product than we gave them. That turn of events relates significantly to problems identified in Imperiled Promise, but the essential difficulties emerged from a pervasive anti-intellectual, anti-analytical tendency within NPS that created an environment not very receptive to new approaches to the agency and park history.

Given what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently in your career?

I would definitely have used my summers during school more strategically to explore public history work and make connections. It seems most people I know who work for the Park Service started as seasonals somewhere, meaning it is nearly impossible to come in later, as a fully trained professional, on a full-time basis, though in retrospect I am not sure that’s what I would have wanted.

What practical advice do you have for those looking to do independent consulting?

Study architectural history and some archaeology. Learn about historic preservation (I like Tom King’s books, especially Cultural Resource Laws and Practice). If you are interested in federal contracting, find someone to mentor you; this is a highly complicated environment seemingly dominated by large cultural resources management firms. Perhaps connect with one of them to do some sub-contracting to learn the work and procedures.

For any kind of consulting, keep track of your time and charge enough to cover your myriad expenses–office, insurance, equipment, transportation, etc. Don’t under-charge!  We did our first NPS project for what amounted to less than $20/hour. It wasn’t enough and taking that kind of pay undercuts the field. On the other hand, be aware that trying to charge what you are worth may mean you don’t get some jobs you really want.

Finally, review any contracts carefully so you understand precisely who makes final decisions about your work and how that relates to how and when you get paid.

Is there another piece of advice you’d offer current public history students and job seekers?

Make as many connections as you can with people doing history work. Attend the NCPH conference. Talk to people. Ask how things get done. Get on social media. Read. Teach yourself skills involving–especially–digital media. Learn about the structural factors affecting the institutions in which you wish to work so that you go in with your eyes open. Take your professional education into your own hands. Practicing history is often about being entrepreneurial and flexible and making your own opportunities wherever you can.

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