Hustling historians: selling your trade

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stev_007Create a hero. Use suspense. Set scenes. That was the advice offered by renowned food politics author Michael Pollan to a room of professional historians who struggle to sell their books to a wide audience and still rely on a model of doing history created at the profession’s birth more than 100 years ago. They were gathered to watch the plenary session, entitled “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age,” at the American Historical Association’s 127th meeting, which met in New Orleans from 3–6 January. Another panelist, Richmond University President Ed Ayers, mused that historians missed the pre-modern movement, the modern movement, as well as the post-modern movement, implying that we might miss the digital movement, too, if we’re not careful. Case in point: American Historical Association President Bill Cronon (University of Wisconsin) noted that no other discipline still publishes (and reveres) books as history does. Yet this remains the only way to obtain tenure at most research universities. The overarching question of the session became: How does—and should—the practice of history change in light of the vastly different technology and platforms of expression that exist today?

The AHA met in the context of ongoing crisis in the profession, the key feature of which is presumed to be an overproduction of history PhDs, given the dearth of university jobs awaiting them. I argue that the crisis is equally attributable to outdated standards, arcane training methods, and difficulty understanding how to bless—encourage, even—history careers outside of the academy. But this year’s meeting offered some hope that the discipline’s largest professional organization is up to the challenge and is working on changes that will benefit us all.

In October 2011, AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman and former AHA President Anthony Grafton spearheaded a forum in Perspectives, the AHA’s newsletter, focused on “Plan B,” better known to the rest of us as, “how to get a job,” or in the world of Twitter, #altac (as in “alternative to the academy”). Never mind those of us who chose this “alternative” world intentionally. I’m not the first to observe that most of our mentors and peers perceive anything other than a position in the Ivory Tower as a fallback, at best. Indeed, many of our colleagues perceive doing history outside of academia as not having made it in the profession. A colleague drove home this highly salient point to me over dinner during the conference. He—who holds a tenure-track job at an R1 school, albeit in a less-than-desirable location—surprised me with his interest in my career and job. Nevertheless, he told me that, despite his dissatisfaction, he wouldn’t leave academia until he had “won.” In other words, he wouldn’t contemplate such a move until he secured tenure. Then, he implied, he could fall back to a Plan B. One of the points that Grossman and Grafton made in their article, however, was that it is high time that the profession to move “beyond” Plan B, and begin the process of changing minds and curriculums.

The most recent outgrowth of the Beyond Plan B forum was a track created at this year’s conference for what the AHA called the Malleable PhD. (Note that the track was not named “your dissertation stinks, so see what else you can do,” so read this to be a good sign!) The first Malleable PhD session, entitled “The Entrepreneurial Historian,” was held on the first afternoon of the conference. Two public history professors participated—Michelle McClellan, professor at the University of Michigan, and Patrick Moore, director of the public history program at the University of West Florida and the NCPH’s incoming president. Both Michelle and Patrick are members of the academy who have been innovative in their approaches to history, helping graduate students get the kind of hands-on training they need to get non-academic jobs. Indeed, Patrick helped to launch Next Exit History, a suite of mobile apps. The balance of the panel was an eclectic blend: Kristen Gwinn-Becker, who started and runs History IT; Brian Martin, CEO of History Associates, Inc., where he has worked nearly thirty years; Lexi Lord, an historian in the National Park Service who has invented at least two things along the way, including the Beyond Academe Web site and The Ultimate History Project; and me, who runs SHRA, a small public history consulting firm in Boise.

A snap poll of the audience revealed a surprising number of academic historians in attendance among the 84 attendees. As questions rolled in, it became clear that some of them were interested in learning what we thought their students needed to know to be successful outside the academy. Others seemed to have made time for the panel in the interest of their own careers. Some very promising graduate students were also present. One audience member asked how to get a job or how to get started in the public history field; Our collective answers included advice on business basics: make contact, follow up, follow up again, then follow up again. Write a very good letter. Explain (and demonstrate) your skills. Get experience.

In discussing the idea of a history customer in the business world, or the general market for history, Brian made the point that academics have customers and markets, too, and encouraged those in the audience to recognize this reality. Like historians outside of the academy, those who remain on the inside also share control over their teaching and scholarship, with book publishers, department chairs, students, and others. Historians who remain in the academy have to sell themselves just as public historians do. Lexi pointed out that finding and understanding your audience was an important part to succeeding as an entrepreneurial historian. Her efforts in launching the Ultimate History Project unveiled a huge audience for Scottish history, and so she has tried to serve that need. Everyone on the panel agreed that pinpointing your customer’s needs and interests is critical, no matter your practice area.

Listening to the conversation, one audience member concluded that the session’s “takeaway” was that historians needed to be educated on how to be a good “hustlers.” I argue that in a world where humanities education is being chipped away at bit-by-bit (and sometimes with a sledgehammer), she was exactly right. And there’s no shame in doing it. If you believe as strongly as I do that historians have a great deal to offer the public writ large, then you’ll agree. So, for professors who may be stumped by students who probably won’t get, or perhaps don’t even want (!) an academic job, I offer the following advice: (1) encourage your students to take a writing class from the English Department so that they can learn how to write à la Michael Pollan, and (2) revise your curriculum to include a seminar on “hustling.” Or at least bring in someone like me or one of my fellow panelists to help you make the case. You’d be doing your students a huge service.

–Jennifer Stevens is the principal of Stevens Historical Research Associates (SHRA) in Boise, Idaho.

  1. Mark Tebeau says:

    Bravo. Historians do indeed have markets and clients, which we do not serve well, judging by the current crises besetting academic life broadly and publishing specifically. At every turn there is a crisis that is rarely conceived as one of audience–of clients and markets.
    Also, I would note that once ensconced in the university, the rules change and morph so that your possibilities for “plan B” diminish. This is partly due to the culture of rewards at universities and the time commitments of your day job. But, also, it is about risk. Embracing “plan B” demands that one embrace risk in all its dimensions. Sadly, the culture of universities, and the culture of tenure, discourages risk taking because we serve our colleague’s expectations (and the profession’s long-standing guidelines that change glacially.) We lose that entrepreneurial spirit that so often pervades the lives of graduate students.

  2. Blogs, facebook, e-books have certainly changed the way history (and everything else) is disseminated. While there is still the issue of quality, I mostly feel it’s up to the user to evaluate things (and yes, I know that far too many do not; wasn’t it Abraham Lincoln that said not to trust everything you find on the Internet?). But if the academic world is not including significant focus on those avenues of information sharing, then they are missing out, a lot in my opinion – seems like a no-brainer to me. And yes, I still treasure (and write) physical books too.

  3. Thanks for your replies. I was very lucky personally to have a mentor who encouraged my natural interests, and supported me in pursuing both academic as well as other career paths. I think it takes a high degree of integrity to be that mentor, and to know that being a mentor to someone in a doctoral program is about more than just placing them; it’s about helping them find a way to channel their passion into something that will lead to a fulfilling life. That answer is different for everyone, and I’m excited about the prospects being entertained by the profession right now that lead people in those varied directions. p.s. I happen to like books a lot, too!

  4. Zach Wnek says:

    Great article, as a graduate student it is refreshing to hear that perhaps people will recognize work done outside of the Academy.

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