A gallery of projects, historical and otherwise

Author: Anne Whisnant


Academic Administration as a Career Path for History PhDs

Session #166: American Historical Association Annual Meeting
January 5, 2013, 11:30 am – 1:30 pm
Rhythms  Ballroom 1 (Sheraton New Orleans)

Twitter hashtags:  #aha2013 #s166 #altac

Updated Panelist List

Chair:  Anne Mitchell Whisnant, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Twitter: @amwhisnant)


  • Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, University of Texas at Austin  (Twitter:  @DrLaurenA)
  • Pam Lach, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Jason Myers, University of Denver

Panel Description

The Professional division is pleased to sponsor this panel as a part of the “mini-conference” on alternative careers for history PhDs, to be held as part of the 2013 Annual Meeting.  The panel features history PhDs who have chosen to follow a career in academic administration at a college or university.

This kind of employment constitutes a logical career choice for history PhDs.  By the time they earn their degree, historians (like other scholars) know the academic world well; most newly minted PhDs have spent at least a decade attending a college or university, and virtually all are familiar with the wide range of services (both in and outside the classroom) offered by an institution of higher learning.  Moreover, the skills acquired in graduate school—the ability to write well, think critically, organize a large research project, and evaluate various kind of evidence—are often the ones demanded of administrators.

Key Questions

  • What was your original plan or goal on going to graduate school in History?
  • What factors altered or shaped your plans and career course, and how did you end up with your first academic administrative job?
  • What is the specific configuration of your present position, and what do you do, specifically, in a  “typical” day or week?
  • Do you, and how do you, use the skills you honed as a historian in your present position?  What other skills did you need that you had to develop later, and how did you develop those?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of working in academic administration?  What do you like about your work?  What are the frustrations?
  • Do you still consider yourself, or have time to be a “historian” or a “scholar”?
  • Where you see yourself going — that is, what paths of professional advancement would you like to pursue and how do you see/understand the relative openness or closedness of those paths?
  • What tips and advice would you offer those interested in academic administrative careers?
  • Knowing what you know about your work and the demographics of the job market, what suggestions would you have about how graduate education in history should be changed to reflect the new realities?

Participant Bios

Lauren Apter Bairnsfather

Lauren Apter Bairnsfather holds a BA in Plan II Honors and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas (1996), an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago (2000), and a PhD in History from the University of Texas (2008), supervised by Roger Louis, past-President of the American Historical Association. She has worked in the Photo Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at Spertus Museum in Chicago. Her first post-doc job was with a family foundation in Dallas advising on Israel projects and strategic planning. She is currently Institutional Research Analyst for the College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas at Austin.

Pam Lach

Pam Lach received her PhD in U.S. History and, more recently, an MS in Information Science, all from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the Manager of UNC’s Digital Innovation Lab, a digital humanities lab affiliated with the department of American Studies. In addition to her administrative and project management duties, she is leading a digital humanities tool development team and contributes to a campus-wide, Mellon-supported digital humanities initiative at UNC.

Jason Myers

Jason Myers earned a BA in history from Oakland University in 2004 and a PhD from Loyola University Chicago, specializing in modern Irish history, in 2010. His dissertation was titled: “’A Land Fit for Heroes’?: The Great War, Memory, Popular Culture, and Politics in Ireland Since 1914.” He moved from Chicago to Denver in 2010. His current title is Faculty/Staff Support Specialist & Operations Coordinator in the Math department at the University of Denver (in Denver, CO). A monograph based on his doctoral dissertation is under contract with Academica Press and should be published in 2012 or 2013 as The Great War and Memory in Irish Culture, 1918-2010.

Anne Mitchell Whisnant

Anne Mitchell Whisnant has developed a “portfolio career” as Deputy Secretary of the Faculty and Adjunct Associate Professor of History and American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an active public historian working on National Park Service issues. As Deputy Secretary of the Faculty in the Office of Faculty Governance, she provides professional support for the over 3500 members of UNC’s voting-eligible faculty, their Faculty Council, Chair of the Faculty, Secretary of the Faculty, and 22 appointed and elected standing committees.  As a historian, she is the author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History and the co-author (with David Whisnant) of a children’s book and two book-length contract NPS history projects. She is also scholarly adviser for Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway (http://docsouth.unc.edu/blueridgeparkway/), a grant-funded digital, geospatial history collection being developed at the UNC Libraries. Each fall, she teaches UNC’s Introduction to Public History course.

Anne has been heavily involved since 2002 in shaping a national conversation about post-PhD career development issues.  She has served as an official mentor and content contributor for Versatile PhD (http://versatilephd.com/), and helped it achieve important institutional support in its previous iteration (“Wrk4us”) from Duke University.  She has written several articles on academic administrative career issues for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the recent #Alt-Academy collection (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/).  Since 2002, she has organized, conducted, or participated in workshops and panels both locally and nationally on professional options for humanities and social sciences PhDs.  Anne holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she lives with her husband David Whisnant and her two teenage sons.





New directions for North Carolina history

I was pleased last week to be in Asheville as a participant in the third in a series of conferences co-sponsored by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to chart a new course for North Carolina history in the 21st century.  “New Voyages to Carolina: The Cultural Roots of North Carolina” featured presentations by many scholars about literature, religion, NASCAR, music, tourism, the state’s historical infrastructure, and . . . the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I took the opportunity to think about how my research on the Parkway these last 20 years has suggested some larger realities about understanding and doing North Carolina history that might be helpful and relevant to other scholars and to the public.   While my presentation was a bit less polished than I might have liked (it was, after all, a brand new thought piece for me), it seemed to spark discussion–both for its ideas and, I suspect, for my use of Prezi.  I hope to refine the ideas in the coming months and, perhaps, have an opportunity to raise these issues again in other venues.

For now, I thought some might be interested in the Prezi itself.  It may not make much sense without me talking, but the basic idea was to talk about five areas in which my Blue Ridge Parkway work is suggestive for the larger project of doing North Carolina history.  Enjoy:


Regarding the AHA’s “Tuning” Project

When I first read the news of the American Historical Association’s “History Tuning” project last week, I was excited about what seemed to me to be a timely undertaking to rethink history education at the university level from a skills-based perspective that would undergird assertions of the relevancy of historical study to many career paths and professional arenas.

The project, it appeared, dovetailed helpfully with the AHA’s recent, welcome calls for expanding graduate education and enlarging the universe of possible professional outcomes for the profession’s Ph.D.s (the articles on “No More Plan B” and “Plan C” in Perspectives last fall by Jim Grossman and Tony Grafton, for instance). Indeed, I forwarded news of the “Tuning” project to my own Ph.D. department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is just beginning a conversation about “Historians and the Public Sphere,” in which I, as an adjunct member of this department, am to be involved.

Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading this morning the call for participants in the project that the AHA has issued seeking “an enthusiastic group of 60 history faculty” who are employed full-time as “history faculty at the post-secondary level.” As an active professional historian building a “portfolio” career that encompasses full-time “alt-ac” employment, ongoing historical research and publication, and adjunct teaching of my university’s only public history course, I am stunned by this narrow definition of potential participants in this very important undertaking.

If the project aims (as the AHA web announcement noted), to “spell out the distinctive skills, methods, and substantive range of [the] field,” articulate “the significance and value of a history degree,” include “historians front and center at all stages,” understand “how potential employers value the skills and knowledge of history majors and how students have used their degrees over time,” explain “the significance of historical study to audiences beyond the profession,” and “answer the critique of history as an irrelevant luxury,” it absolutely must incorporate at its core professional historians who, in their own practice, deploy those skills in a variety of settings and provide employment for future history majors trained in these new ways.

While it is true that, to succeed, the Tuning Project must involve those history faculty members who have the power to enact curricular change, and while I see that the funder has defined the project as “faculty-driven,” I believe that leaving the conversation to be controlled exclusively by this group is to doom it to insularity and, ultimately, marginality and limited effect – for students, for history departments, for universities, and for history practice.

Reforming the history curriculum cannot productively proceed in the absence of sustained participation, from the outset, by historians who represent the full breadth of the history profession writ large. It is hard to imagine faculties in other professional fields (journalism, public health, education, social work, law) undertaking such a project without engaging practitioners in all of those areas. It’s high time we stop thinking that the domains “historians” and “history faculty” are fully, or even largely, congruent.

As has been well documented elsewhere, historians whose entire careers have unfolded within the academy (as history faculty careers most often do, since there is little room for “lateral re-entry” in traditional arts and sciences academe) often know little about how history skills are deployed outside of a few areas (primarily teaching, discipline-based research, and scholarly publication). Such historians often know little to nothing, for instance, about historic preservation and the matrix of laws and regulations that shape the lives of other historians who make their living in “cultural resources management,” to name one single public history arena.

How, then, can a group composed solely of full-time academic faculty be expected to take charge of a radical re-envisioning of history curricula to make it sufficiently flexible and broad so as to prepare history graduates who are well positioned to move into the wide variety of fields often touted as common paths for the undergraduate history major?

Consider a single concrete case: Working with three other historians (all holding Ph.D.s from major universities) who are leaders in the field, I have just completed a three-year study of “the state of history” in the National Park Service that was commissioned and sponsored by the NPS Chief Historian’s Office (Dr. Robert K. Sutton) and the Organization of American Historians. That study (Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service), will be released within the next month.

This study was built on a survey of NPS professionals whose work shapes NPS history practice. One of our key findings is that historical research and interpretation in the parks is often managed by staff with little to no post-secondary training in history. Indeed, the minimum educational requirement for being hired as a federal historian (series 0170) is only 18 hours of history at the college level, and many ranger-interpreters in the parks have no disciplinary training at all.

Since two-thirds of our national parks are designated for their historical/cultural significance as opposed to grand natural features and scenery, one of our major recommendations is that the standard for hiring historians be raised, and that more MA-trained historians be hired to manage the NPS’s important history work. In making our case, we argue that MA-level training in history imparts an indispensable set of skills and awarenesses that are critical to effective, accurate, flexible, and relevant public history practice. These are, no doubt, many of the same skills that the Tuners will identify: an ability to assemble, judge, read, and understand the fragmentary records (both written and material) left to us from the past, an understanding of the constructed and changing nature of historical knowledge, and an ability to cope with and present multiple perspectives in and on the past.

Yet, we recognize, hiring more conventionally trained historians will not, by itself, be enough.  It is also evident to us that historical work in many non-university settings, such as the parks, requires additional knowledge, skills, and experience: in historic preservation, digital presentation, archival description and organization, curation of material objects, architectural history, K-12 pedagogy, and collaborative work styles — things that that most history majors do not routinely get exposed to. This fact, indeed, may at least partly explain why so much history work in the public sector seems to be done by non-historians who have colonized our field while we have focused so internally.

If correctly managed, the Tuning Project offers an outstanding opportunity to build curricula (at all levels) that will give real meaning to the assertions of countless history departments that the study of history opens many doors. Such curricular reform, indeed, has the potential to re-invigorate “the connection between history and civic life” that historian Thomas Bender argued for in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education article (“What’s Been Lost in History,” February 12, 2012, login required). If left only to history faculties in academe, however, the project will be simply one more bit of evidence of how out of touch academic history and the AHA are with where the history profession is and needs to go.

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