When we see something wrong, we should say something.
Yesterday, I saw something wrong: a reference to “alternative career paths” for historians. It’s a statement that qualifies historical work by defining the professoriate as “the proper” career for historians and labeling all other historical careers as non-traditional, different, and secondary. It’s an alienating statement so I said something in a tweet:
This tweet discharged my frustration and it struck a chord. Less than 24 hours later it had received over 450 likes and 80 retweets. It also prompted many to tweet back about how they feel alienated and excluded when historians who work as professors set them apart from the historical profession with the “alternative” label.
I read everyone’s comments and empathized. I’m a historian who pursued a non-professorial career path, by choice. I didn’t want to be a professor. So after graduate school I fumbled around and experimented for a couple of years until I figured out what I wanted to do with my career. And just as I thought I had figured it out, my podcast took off and quite quickly opened a different career path for me. While I admit my career as a historian-podcaster is different, I’ve never thought of it as an “alternative.” It was never a secondary or unconventional option for me. I wanted, sought, and created a career that would allow me pursue both scholarly and public-facing work.
I’m really fortunate in how my career has worked out. I live a “Cinderella” story. I went from being an unaffiliated scholar to a scholar who is now affiliated with the Omohundro Institute. I like to think of the OI as “the premier institute of early American history and culture” and as an organization which sets the highest standards for scholarship on early America. My colleagues are much more modest. They simply state they work for an organization with a mission to support scholars and scholarship in the field of early America. My affiliation with the OI makes a BIG difference for me as a working scholar. Not only do I now have access to library resources that were once out of my reach, colleagues take notice and treat me differently than they did before my affiliation.
For example, at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, several colleagues who used to brush me off and speak down to me, approached me and treated me with respect. They even offered to do me favors because of my professional position. And yet, nothing has really changed! I’ve grown as a scholar, but I haven’t changed. I was a good historian before my affiliation and I’m a good historian with it. I stand as an example of how there are a LOT of great scholars who work outside of the professoriate. We are not lesser or inferior historians because we are not professors. In fact, many of us do work that make the work of professors possible.
As I read all of the tweets people sent me, I realized I shouldn’t have just tweeted. I should have really said something. I should have written to the authors of the “alternative career paths” reference and asked them to drop the “alternative.” So I did. I asked the authors to consider changing the reference so it reads “career paths” and explained how the use of “alternative” alienates and excludes a majority of historians from the profession. I referenced the large response to my tweet as evidence. I’m pleased to say the authors and I enjoyed a polite exchange and they agreed to make the change.
While tweeting created awareness, writing to the authors created change. It’s a small change, but small changes add up! So going forward I intend to think about not just if I should say something, but how and where I say it. There is a difference between creating awareness and creating change and the mediums we use to communicate are often more effective at doing one than they are at doing the other.