I Did It My Way—By Accident: Lessons from an Unconventional CareerHistorians/History
Ray Smock was Historian of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995. An alumni of the University of Maryland, he gave the following remarks at that school's annual history alumni address on April 5, 2012. Mr. Smock is currently Director of Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University.
This talk will be, in part, a reflection on the history profession in the past half century, but what it is mostly about is stories from my career. I hope what I say has some bearing on the larger aspects of the profession. Historians can look at the big overarching themes when they tell their stories, but they can also try to see the universe in a grain of sand. What this talk is about is just one historian’s tale, one grain in the story of our profession.
Just a few months ago reports from the American Historical Association (AHA) convention indicate that newly minted PhDs in history find the job market a frustrating experience. There are more people looking for traditional academic jobs than there are jobs available. A large part of this frustration can be laid at the door of too many history departments that continue to train history students the way they have been trained for the past 100 years. Pick a field of history, study under an expert in that field, read the literature of the field, pass a comprehensive exam, and then write a dissertation of your own based on original research. Next, get it published if at all possible. Find an academic job. Teach students, research, write books, and train another crop of students to follow the same path.
This is not a bad system and it has worked in the past and continues to work for many historians. But it is not enough and the profession is slowly realizing this. The AHA has just launched a “Tuning” program to involve faculty in sixty institutions in an effort to arrive at a new articulation of just what it is history students should learn and to determine the “value of a historical study.”
Responding to this AHA initiative Thomas Bender wrote in the February 12, 2012 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education that
The cultures of our [history] departments too often discourage open discussion of nonacademic careers. One of the dirty little secrets discovered by the AHA Committee on Graduate Education, which I and others reported in The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century (2004), was that graduate students from various institutions were afraid to tell their advisers that Plan B, a nonacademic career, was for them Plan A. They preferred to pursue the profession of history in museums, historical societies, filmmaking, and the park service, among other possibilities. But they worried that if their advisers learned of that ambition, they could expect little or no future support from them.
What bothered me about Bender’s article was its assumption that there are only two plans for a career in history, Plan A, teaching and researching at an academic institution, and Plan B, what we have called public history for the past 40 years. The history profession needs to prepare its students for plans A, B, C, D, and so forth.
Graduate training in history should recognize that knowing how to use the magnificent tool called Time can be useful in virtually every aspect of our society and culture. Our training involves understanding things over time. Supplying context to the information age is an essential and vital element of human civilization, whatever the occupation of the historian.
It used to be “publish or perish” if you wanted to move up the ladder in an academic position. This is still true. But too often the formula becomes “publish and perish” because the academic jobs are not there. Professors are living longer and history departments are shrinking, not growing. We read about these things in our professional journals, we see it at our conventions. We wring our hands about this situation but continue to play the same game. What is true of the job market in 2012 was equally true of the job market almost forty years ago when I got my PhD from this department. This has been one very long jobs crisis.
In my case, I published, but I published the wrong thing. I never got a regular academic job, I never got tenure, and I wandered from the academy, to business, to government service as the first official historian of the U. S. House of Representatives, back to self-employment, and for the last ten years I have been director of a center that studies the U.S. Congress, the Constitution, American politics, and has an archive containing the papers of Senator Robert C. Byrd.
Looking back on this unconventional career, I would not change any of it. I loved every minute of it, except the part where Newt Gingrich fired me. I’ll come back to this.
My training at the University of Maryland was excellent because I had the great good fortune to be able to work on a documentary editing project while I was here. That is what made me a historian, not the lectures, or the emphasis on historiography, although they were good things too.
The best thing that came from graduate school was the lifelong friends I made while learning how to be a historian. The interaction with my fellow students was an incredibly important part of becoming a scholar and historian. We made one another better. It was as important as what we learned in class.
I never really had a plan when I entered graduate school. If I did have one when I arrived here in 1966, it was to follow the prescribed path. I expected to be a college teacher. I would wear corduroy jackets with leather patches on the elbows, teach students who would be enthralled by the depth of my knowledge, write a few books, and live happily ever after. I eventually became a public historian, a term that no one was using in 1966. Public history has become a discipline in itself and I see this as a very positive sign in the profession. It is one of the few efforts in the past forty years that recognizes there are many jobs for historians besides work in research universities or teaching colleges.
Mostly my preparation for the life of a historian was a series of fortuitous accidents.
When I was twelve, growing up in the industrial town of Harvey, Illinois, twenty miles from Chicago, I got my first look through a telescope at the rings of Saturn. Something clicked in my brain. It was not a picture anymore. I was seeing the real thing with my own eyes. I knew instantly that I wanted to be an astronomer. By 1956, as a high school sophomore, I was a seasoned veteran of the night skies participating as a meteor observer for the International Geophysical Year, which enlisted thousands of sky observers for a major study of meteors.
The next year Sputnik shook the United States to its core and the space race was on. In the year I graduated from high school, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to get more kids into science, especially math.
After high school I tried a number of jobs as apprentice pharmacist, insurance salesman but ended up working in a box factory where I ran a machine that printed labels on boxes, saying such things as Del Monte Canned Corn and Grain Belt Beer. On the inside flap of each box that nobody ever saw unless they ripped the box apart, was a label that said “Printed by Ray Smock and Crew.” These were my first publications.
I took classes in the local junior college during the day, after coming off the night shift. I was preparing for my career as astronomer/rocket scientist. My college algebra teacher, with the perfectly ironic name of Mrs. Sky, brought me back down to earth. I flunked her course three times. I discovered I had no aptitude whatsoever for math. End of career plan number one.
At the same junior college was a history teacher named Dale Chapman who was an amazing teacher. He never used a text book. He taught with original documents. For American history our “text” was Henry Steele Commager’s Documents of American History. For some courses he would simply mimeograph documents he wanted us to read.
He would tell stories that placed the documents in historical context. He would recommend related books that weren’t required but that he talked about in such glowing terms that you would be a fool not to get them and read them. I unlearned all the history from grade school and high school. He treated us like adults and his stories were often dark, disturbing, and did not have the happy endings they had in high school, where Columbus sailed the ocean blue and we never learned about slavery and genocide.
Chapman gave me A's. Mrs. Sky had given me F's. It was history for me.
I applied to Roosevelt University in Chicago for an NDEA loan and got one on the second try in 1964. Why Roosevelt? It was mostly an accident. I didn’t know any kids who were going to college. There was no tradition in my blue-collar neighborhood about where to go or any talk of one institution being better than another. Roosevelt was a forty-minute ride from Harvey by commuter train. I lived just four blocks from the train station. I knew where Roosevelt was because I often went to Chicago to go to museums or to shop at Marshall Field’s department store. It seemed—convenient.
I entered Roosevelt University at the height of the civil rights movement in January 1964. I became an activist in the summer of '64, when three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. In the first demonstration I marched in I carried a sign that simply said: “Goodman—Schwerner—Cheney.”
But the big thing that happened to me at Roosevelt, by accident, was that August Meier started teaching there at the same time I arrived.
I have never met a more intense, totally absorbed, professor in my life. I was reading about the civil rights movement and becoming involved and along came this weird, nervous, hypochondriac, with coke bottle glasses who knew the major figures in the civil rights movement. He knew Martin Luther King, Jr. and wrote about him brilliantly. He debated Malcolm X. He knew Black Panthers and hung around with people from SNCC.
Meier did not suffer fools. For him scholarship was the Strenuous Life. His required reading list scared the faint-hearted away. He told us that history was a reading, writing, and researching discipline and that if you didn’t like to do these things, “consider dropping my class before you fail.” I took every course he offered until I got my B.A. in 1966.
Meier told me that when I got to the University of Maryland I should look up his friend Louis Harlan, who had just arrived on the Maryland faculty from the University of Cincinnati.
I had decided to do graduate work at Maryland for a reason other than the chance to study under Louis Harlan. I needed money and three schools had offered fellowships or teaching assistantships. The thing that sold me on Maryland was my first visit to the Library of Congress and to Washington, D.C. The LC was the other end of the universe from the Carnegie Library in my hometown. The whole city of Washington was Oz to me, and it still is. I caught Potomac Fever on the first visit and have never been cured.
As classes began at Maryland, I went to Louis Harlan’s office and said “Professor Harlan, Augie Meier said to say hello.” After acknowledging his friendship with Meier, Harlan’s first question to me was: “Do you play tennis?” I said I did and the next day I was playing tennis with him and with Pete Daniel, who I had just met at a department gathering for new graduate students. Tennis became a regular part of our routine. Long after Pete Daniel and a dozen other grad students I met that year had finished their degrees and moved on, I was still playing doubles with Louis and other faculty members and students for almost twenty years.
Harlan was just beginning what would be his life’s work as editor of Booker T. Washington’s papers and as Washington’s biographer. I went to work for the editorial project, along with Pete, Stewart Kaufman, and William Welty. I saw my name on a title page of a book as an assistant editor for the first time in 1972.
I was shopping around for a dissertation topic and planned to write a biography of Oswald Garrison Villard, the liberal crusading editor and the descendant of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. I did research on the subject on and off for years but my heart was not in it. I found Maryland and Washington, D.C. to hold too many wonderful distractions. I was offered a job as a research assistant to the Maryland Constitutional Convention, which was a four month stint from late 1967 to early 1968. Louis Harlan told me not to take that job because it would slow down progress on my graduate work. He told me tales of students who got side tracked and never finished.
I took the job anyway, mostly because of the pay, which was double that of a teaching assistant. In retrospect this brief foray into state politics, involving the drafting of a new state constitution, was one of the best experiences of my career. I used my training as a historian, as a researcher, as someone who knew how to get information out of a library, to help write reports that were used to help decide provisions in the state constitution. It was applied history. It was public history before the label existed. Academic training was not merely for academic purposes. It had real consequences. I wrote dozens of reports, against tight deadlines, at the request of the delegates.
I recall one day after I had prepared a report on unicameralism vs. bicameralism, I was on the floor of the convention when one of the delegates waved my report over his head, and said, according to our researcher, Mr. Smock, there are very few advantages to unicameralism. I discovered then and there that my history training was good for something else besides classroom teaching.
The following summer I delayed my graduate studies again to take a governor’s fellowship at the Maryland Hall of Records. Again, I did it for the money, but also for the experience. I spent the summer indexing colonial court records from the 1740s. If this sounds boring, it wasn’t. Some of those court cases were a hoot. The records, all handwritten, of course, were in beautiful script rendered by professional scribes and clerks. The language was often incredibly racy and the clerks had a sense of humor when the F-word would appear in the story, as it frequently did. They would give it a large capital F with flourishes and write it three times larger than any word on the page. Those of us there that summer from various Maryland institutions kept ourselves in stitches reading cases out loud to one another. One of my cohorts in this enterprise was a Johns Hopkins student Peter Onuf, now Thomas Jefferson Memorial professor at the University of Virginia.
I got all the satisfaction and professional reward I could ever want in my years of association with Louis Harlan and the Booker T. Washington Papers. Total immersion in the world of Booker T. Washington meant long hours reading through the million items in this vast collection at the Library of Congress. It took our small staff, almost ten years to read through the material. From the million items we selected about 100,000 to photocopy. Of that 100,000 we published about 6,000 in 14 volumes.
This is a highly selective edition. But all documents are not created equal. I think we squeezed the essence of Washington’s thought and actions into these 14 volumes. Over the years many historians have used the Washington papers to write books, articles, and film scripts on Washington’s career. Harlan said many times that his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography benefitted immensely from the editorial work. The Booker T. Washington Papers was one of the first documentary editions to find its way online thanks to an agreement with the publisher, the University of Illinois Press and the History Cooperative.
I am a strong believer in the power of documentary editions as a high form of historical enterprise. I say this even though our graduate schools are still wedded to the monograph, where scholars go off on their own in a lonely, independent project that produces a dissertation that is supposed to be a new contribution to the field. Documentary editions, on the other hand, are collaborative projects were historians work as team members. Academic training in history is geared to the lone wolf who is supposed to say something original and do it on his or her own after mastering the bibliography of what earlier scholars of the subject have said.
This independent, lone wolf process is one of the flaws of higher education in history. Look what the result is. Overspecialized professionals sitting in their own tiny offices where many of them are incapable of even talking to their department colleagues and may never see them at all if they have Tuesday-Thursday teaching schedules instead of Monday-Wednesday-Friday. How are professors like this going to be capable of training students to produce collaborative projects, which are the hallmarks of many other disciplines in the liberal arts and especially in science? We need to rethink the notion of a history professor as a lone wolf and rethink graduate training and dissertation writing as solitary exercises.
More than a hundred years ago when a young student named J. Franklin Jameson, the first history PhD at Johns Hopkins in 1884, asked the great American historian Henry Adams what kind of work he should seek, Adams replied “... the best work for a beginner was editing.” (Morey Rothberg, et al. (eds.), John Franklin Jameson and the Development of Humanistic Scholarship in America, vol. 2, 109.) More than a hundred years later when I was finishing up my work with another Hopkins graduate, Louis Harlan, I came to understand that documentary editing was not only the best work for a beginner, it was the best work for a master, too.
The Maryland history department faculty did not see it that way even though Maryland has been one of the leading history departments when it comes to documentary projects. During my work on the Washington papers moving up from assistant to co-editor, I developed a reputation as a documentary editor. Our volumes received very positive reviews in scholarly journals. We were pioneers in treating the career of a black American with the same care and attention given to the papers of the founders or presidents of the United States. So when I came up with the idea of editing a volume of the Booker T. Washington papers on my own as my dissertation, you could hear the faculty suck wind simultaneously creating a huge vacuum. This was never done before. It is thinking outside the very tightly closed box of what qualifies as a dissertation.
Louis Harlan liked the idea but said it was up to me to sell it to the department and he would back me up. I did research showing how some of the best schools in the country allow documentary editing to qualify as dissertation topics, although some were in fields that required translation of ancient texts, or in Biblical scholarship. I pointed out that many nationally-ranked historians were also documentary editors, such as Arthur Link, editor of the papers of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. If documentary editing was a worthy occupation for top historians, why would it not be a good thing for a dissertation? The history department finally approved the plan and my dissertation became volumes 5 and part of volume 6 of the Washington Papers. But I had to prove that I did this work independently without the help of Louis Harlan or the project staff. This was our genuflection to the lone wolf concept.
One of the members of my dissertation committee said to me as finished my defense, “This is all well and good. Congratulations on your fine work. But your career will never amount to anything unless you write a monograph.”
The Booker T. Washington editorial project was a marvelous experience but the salary was not that good. We depended on grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I was always looking around for something to do. If it wasn’t for the fact that my wife Phyllis was working at the university, I could not have afforded to stay on the project as long as I did.
I had always been interested in photography, having my first darkroom when I was fourteen. I liked the history of photography too, reading as much as I could about it. While working on the Washington papers, Pete Daniel and I discovered a collection of great photographs at the Library of Congress. Nobody had paid much attention to them. They were the works of one of the nation’s first female photojournalists, Frances Benjamin Johnston. She had photographed Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute on two occasions in 1902 and 1906. We had a great time co-authoring a “photo-biography” on Johnston’s career, which was published in 1974, the same year I received my PhD. But nobody in the history department considered a photobook a serious contribution to history. But I saw photographic research as one more tool in my professional bag of skills.
Through a mutual friend I learned that a man named Don White, the chief lobbyist for the California department of education, and the founder of the National Audio Visual Association, was looking for someone with a history degree who knew photographic research. He had an idea to produce a slide resource on American history for schools. I met with him at a townhouse near the U.S. Capitol. We decided to form a partnership. He would put up the cash needed and I would conceive, research, and execute the project. We formed a company called Instructional Resources Corporation in 1975.
Within eighteen months we had our first product on the market. The “American History Slide Collection” consisted of a guidebook of captions and 2,100 images color-coded by topic in a large custom made wooden box that covered American history from Columbus to the Moon landing. We marketed the product by direct mail advertising to schools and colleges. The set sold for $795 and in a year we had grossed $1 million in sales.
I never thought that my history training could pay off in a commercial business or that I was cut out to be a businessman. But it was a very easy transition. I basically went to work at the same place, the Library of Congress, where I was allowed to bring in my own camera equipment to copy historical images.
I sold the business in 1983 when Speaker Tip O’Neill appointed me to the position as the historian of the U. S. House of Representatives. I did not want it said that the House historian was making money on the side from images gathered from the Library of Congress. The company, all digital now, is still operating.
To this day I am not sure how I landed the job as the first official historian of the House of Representatives. I applied for the job when it was advertised. More than one hundredpeople applied. Seventeen of us were brought to the Capitol for interviews with House leaders of both parties. Newt Gingrich, [then] a young congressman from Georgia who had a PhD in history was on the search committee. This was a very unusual hire for the House. It was conducted like an academic hire based on qualifications, not on political favoritism.
I think my application may have stood out because of the range of my experience. I had worked for a legislative body, briefly. I had archival experience. I knew the Library of Congress. I had some executive ability. I had demonstrated an ability to self-start projects. Beyond this speculation, the next best reason to hire me may have been the fact that the Senate already had two Maryland graduates who were doing great work, Richard Baker and Don Ritchie.
The Senate Historical Office, established seven years earlier under the direction of Baker and Ritchie cemented the University of Maryland’s reputation on the Hill long before I arrived. Baker was working at the Library of Congress when he was tapped by Senate leaders to take on the historian’s role. Dick did not have a PhD at the time, but wisely came to Maryland to get one, knowing that a PhD would help the credibility of the office among academics and senators.
The University of Maryland has an incredibly rich tradition of historians who made excellent careers for themselves in public history in general, and federal history in particular. I cannot begin to name all the graduates from this department who worked at one time or another for the federal government. In addition to the names I have mentioned, J. Samuel Walker went to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and wrote the best account of the Three Mile Island Disaster, John Birnbaum went to the State Department, Steven Tilley went to the National Archives, where he worked on the Nixon Presidential Materials. David Kepley has held numerous top administrative positions at the National Archives. Matthew Wasniewski carries the Maryland flag as my successor as House historian. David Corbin, retired after a long career on the staff of Senator Robert Byrd, and in now a speechwriter for this University’s new president, Wallace Loh.
Pete Daniel did it both ways. He published his dissertation and found an academic job with tenure at the University of Tennessee. He surprised a lot of people when he gave up tenure to take a government job as curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, where he was able to continue to write outstanding books in his chosen field, create exhibits, and be a national leader in preserving the history and culture of the South’s transformation in the twentieth century. Richard Hallion, who built model airplanes when he was a youngster and hung them from the ceiling over his bed, wrote a dissertation on supersonic flight, was an Air Force historian, the Charles A. Lindbergh visiting professor at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and went on to be Senior Adviser for Air and Space Issues at the Pentagon.
Why this university and this department, does not have one of the best, and most robust public history programs in the nation is beyond me. It sits within a few miles of the one of the largest single employers of historians in the world. This university has all the resources to make public history a successful program and its alumni have already paved the way. If this department wants to see its graduates get good, interesting, well-paying jobs, it might behoove the faculty to look beyond the hallowed halls of Ivy and begin to consciously and deliberately mine the gold in their own backyard.
I have two more stories to tell and my tale will be complete.
I was fired from my job as U.S. House of Representatives historian by Newt Gingrich when he became Speaker. My service with the House ended officially on Jan. 4, 1995. My office was part of the Speaker’s office, and the rules said that the historian served at the pleasure of the Speaker. I was among the first of many people who were fired when the Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in forty years in the election of 1994.
I didn’t like what happened, but I understood the historical and political context. Gingrich saw himself as a revolutionary who was going to change the culture of the House. In revolutions, heads roll. I hoped the Speaker would appoint another historian to continue the office we had built. He did have a historian in mind, not a historian but a political scientist who was one of his acolytes from Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Christina Jeffrey.
Within a week Newt fired her because the press had picked up on a story about her. Earlier she had served on a review panel for the National Endowment for the Humanities regarding a teaching package on the Holocaust. She said it was unbalanced, in part, because it did not include the Nazi or the Ku Klux Klan point of view. It was a very poorly phrased critique, to say the least, and no one paid any attention to it at the time. But it was part of the public record. When Gingrich picked Jeffrey to be the House historian, Democrats, eager to jump on the new Speaker, cited the Jeffrey story on the floor of the House and she was inundated with negative public opinion. She was not anti-Semitic, but Gingrich chose not to defend her. He was not going to have his moment of triumph side-tracked by this diversion, so he fired Jeffrey before she was able to unpack her bags.
It took several years before my former office slowly came back from the wreckage caused by Speaker Gingrich. It is to the credit of the current leaders of both political parties that they recognized the importance of this office as the nonpartisan, nonpolitical office the House originally intended it to be. It is now back stronger than ever under the capable hands of Matthew Wasniewski and his associates.
So it was 1995. I was fifty-four years old and out of work for the first time since I was sixteen. I printed up some business cards and declared myself a historical consultant. I called my business History House. It took a couple of years before I made any steady income doing this work, but I landed a couple of nice jobs. I did a book for hire for Congressional Quarterly called Landmark Documents on the U.S. Congress. I got no royalties but was paid up front for the job.
One day I got a call from an old friend, Don Miller, the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College, one of Maryland’s most distinguished alumni, who was leading a team of prominent historians in producing a 26-part television series called A Biography of America, for WGBH Public Television in Boston. This was one of the most exciting projects imaginable. Don needed someone to assist him with script writing and I signed on. Don and his colleagues were on camera; I was not. I was called the Senior Historical Consultant if you look quickly as the screen credits rush by.
This was so much fun, and rewarding, because in graduate school Don and I spent a lot of time drinking beer and talking history. Now many years later we were able to pick up where we left off. We drank beer, wrote history, and got paid for it. This is the good life! A number of the still images used in the TV series came from an arrangement WGBH made with my old company, Instructional Resources Corporation.
About the same time I landed two other contracts. The first was as a consultant to the new National Constitution Center, the first major museum dedicated to the U.S. Constitution, a $175 million edifice on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. And the second was to be a consultant for a group of Senator Byrd’s friends who were helping him plan a center for the study of Congress that would also contain an archive of his papers.
The National Constitution Center had assembled a distinguished panel of historians on their advisory committee but nobody from the committee was regularly on site to do research and supply the content of the story that would fill the exhibit halls. The National Constitution Center’s administrators had selected the superb museum designer Ralph Appelbaum. But designers need content experts. So I became the historian on the scene. One of my jobs was to do research on what the Signers of the Constitution looked like, the kind of clothes they wore, their height, weight, age, and other physical characteristics.
The idea was to create a Signer’s Hall with forty-two life-size bronze statues of the men who were in the room when the Constitution was signed (including three who did not sign). A studio had been hired to create the statues, and a foundry was ready to create the bronze from the sculptures provided by the artists. But nobody had a clue about how the men looked, what their personalities were like, or how they would be arranged in the hall to tell the story of the drafting and signing of the Constitution. Enter the historian.
Many of you here tonight know that my real fame as a historian, such as it is, has nothing to do with any accomplishments over the years, other than one. My body is the same size as that of Benjamin Franklin, so I became his body double. I was cast in plaster from head to toe and now my body resides in bronze immortalized forever more. I discovered that the Smithsonian had a suit worn by Franklin just a few years before the Federal Convention of 1787. We measured it precisely. I don’t think history departments should train students to be models for historical characters, but I must say this was one of the pleasant surprises in my career. I would not have missed it for the world. It had the additional dimension of giving me a much fuller appreciation of the entire process of creating these works of art. It was art informed by historical research and interpretation.
I get great satisfaction when I go to the National Constitution Center. I stand in the corner of Signers’ Hall and watch school kids interact with the statues and see them sit in Ben Franklin’s lap or shake his hand.
The other job, creating the Robert Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, at Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, involved lobbying three different West Virginia governors, working for several years with two different presidents of Shepherd University, consulting with architects on the design of the building and meeting from time to time with Senator Byrd to keep him up to date.
With some good luck and several happy accidents, and with the help of my friends, I am still studying Congress from the Robert C. Byrd Center. During my time on Capitol Hill I came to love and appreciate the United States Congress despite the fact that it is held in such low public esteem. My firing did not improve my opinion of Newt Gingrich, but it never diminished my love for Congress. It has survived many eras when it has been maligned and publicly despised. But it is too important an institution to ignore or to dismiss. It is the fulcrum of the American experiment in representative democracy and some of us need to keep saying so.
Two members of my staff at the Byrd Center have PhDs from the University of Maryland history department. David Hostetter got his degree in 2004, and has been my friend and colleague at the Center for six years. He is the director of programs and research. Keith Alexander, who got his PhD from Maryland in 2003, teaches half time in the Environmental Studies Department at Shepherd University and half-time as director of the Byrd Archives and works on our oral history program.
Are there any lessons in this story that others might use? I like to think there are a few. I have seen the important work historians can do in the federal government. We are a profession that can put things in context for policy makers and explain the role of the federal government to the public. Time is our tool and the world needs to understand how and why things change.
Historians can be very flexible and adaptable when we raise our sites above the things we were trained in as specialists. Louis Harlan in his three presidential addresses before the AHA, the Organization of American Historians, and the Southern Historical Association in 1989, cautioned his colleagues not to overspecialize. He said the best work historians were doing to reach a larger audience was coming from public historians and popular writers like David McCullough and Barbara Tuchman. We have, as a profession, honed and narrowed our fields of study into excessive specialties even though we have the talent and the training to think big and make history an even more vital component in shaping civilization.
I hope the AHA’s plans to conduct a three-year study of “tuning” the profession can “tune in” to the reality that the history profession, broadly defined, is too important to confine its work to specialized academic research alone. History departments across the nation need to rethink the role of the monograph in gradate training, rethink the nature of the real job markets (plural), where Plan A-academic jobs, and Plan B-non-academic jobs, does not begin to cover the range of opportunities that we need to prepare for in the twenty-first century. Historians are as vital to the future of world civilization as any other profession. Graduate training in history should recognize this fact and act upon it.
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