The Junto Blog Interview

Liz BFWorldLast week, Michael Hattem of The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History interviewed me about Ben Franklin's World and my alternate career path. Here's an excerpt:

JUNTO: What is your academic/historical background?

LIZ COVART: My historical background consists of training in both academic and public history. In terms of my academic training, I worked with William Pencak and Amy Greenberg as an undergraduate at the Pennsylvania State University. In graduate school, I honed my historical research, writing, and thinking skills with Alan Taylor at the University of California, Davis. My initial training in public history began at Boston National Historical Park where I worked as a seasonal interpretive ranger for five seasons. The wonderful experience I had interacting with the public has prompted me to seek out internships and volunteer opportunities with historical societies since 2007.


JUNTO: Can you tell us a bit about your post-PhD, alt-ac experience?

LC: My post-PhD experience has been one of experimentation. About three years before I graduated I started having doubts about whether the “traditional” tenure-track career path was the path for me. I wanted a job that combined serious historical research, with the public history goal of helping people connect with their past. Since 2012, I have explored numerous opportunities in academic and public history. Today, I work as an independent scholar. I am fashioning a career as a hybrid academic-public historian, a position that represents the not-so-distant future of the historical profession. This hybrid position involves historical research and writing, collaboration between academic and public historians, opportunities to experiment with conveying history through new media, and chances to interact with colleagues and non-specialists at conferences and events.

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Why Do We Continue to Label Historians?

Historian LabelingWhat kind of historian are you? Over the last week, I have been asked this question three or four times. It's a question the irks me because I don’t quite understand why we continue to label our colleagues.

In this post, you will discover the various labels we have for historians, why many historians continue to label their colleagues, and why we should do away with most professional labels.


Overview of Historian Label Use

In graduate school, I learned that historians classify themselves by the period and geography they study: medievalist, early modern Europeanist, South Americanist, early Americanist, 19th-century Americanist, etc.

Classification by geography and period makes sense. Historians all study history, but by stating our period and geography in a quick and efficient way we allow our colleagues to know our area(s) of expertise.

Graduate school also introduced me to the fact that many historians like to classify themselves in terms of affiliation and profession: Academic, public, independent, and amateur.

After graduation, I discovered that professional labels did not stop with academic, public, independent, or amateur. Some historians also use the labels of digital historian, digital humanist, post-academic (also spelled post-ac or postac), and alternative-academic (alt-ac or altac) to define themselves.

I understand why many historians use labels: They provide a short code for who professional historians should take seriously. However, these labels of affiliation and profession are fraught with stereotypes. They are also restrictive, exclusive, and obsolete.

Below I offer my basic (and I am sure incomplete) definitions of each historian label. These definitions should help you better understand why I find them restrictive, exclusionary, and outdated.


Basic Definitions for Historian Labels

Academic: An historian with a Ph.D. in history and a tenure track position as a professor at a university of college. Academic historians teach, conduct research, write-up their research, and use this written work to set and participate in debates and conversations about history.


Speak HistorianPublic: Historians who convey history to the public. Public historians work at public and private institutions such as historical societies, museums, national parks, libraries, and archives. Sometimes they hold PhDs, often they have a masters degree. Public historians have expertise in developing exhibits and interpretive programs about history for the general public. They may also specialize in providing assistance to historians and history lovers who want to find information about history.


Independent: An unaffiliated historian. Someone who self-funds their research. These historians can be trained professionals or journalists-turned-historians. They may also be genealogists who perform genealogical research as professionals and who seek recognition as members of the historical profession.


Amateur: Hobbyist historians. These historians have a passion for history and have followed their passion into the world of archival research. They have no formal training and they pursue their work when they have time. They may write short articles for local newspapers or online publications. Sometimes they write full-length books.


Digital: An historian who works with and incorporates new technologies into their research and historical interpretation methods. They may conduct interdisciplinary work and might consider themselves as digital humanists. Some digital historians create computer programs to extract information from big data sets.


Postac: An academically-trained historian who has left the academy. Postac historians might work as independent historians or they might have left the profession altogether.


Altac: An academically-trained historian who has pursued a different career path within academia. They might head a special department or initiative or assist with or perform administrative work. Many altac historians teach history courses when time and opportunity allow.


Thoughts on Historian Labels

With the exception of the period and geography labels, I believe that the 21st century has rendered the above affiliation and profession labels obsolete.

ThinkToo many historians use affiliation and profession labels as a short code to make a quick assessment about an historian’s work without taking the time to get to know an unknown colleague. They assume that if an historian they meet does not have the “right” label then they don’t have the right kind of training or don't use professional research and interpretive methods.

Historian labels have created divisions within our profession; I have heard both academic and public historians use the term “academic” and “public” as pejoratives to describe a fellow historian.

I have also seen, and experienced, affiliated colleagues shrug off independent historians because of their unaffiliated status. The sentiment “there-must-be-something-wrong-with-you-or-your-work if you are unaffiliated" underlies many of these affiliated historians’ dismissals of their independent colleagues.

We all know that there are numerous well-qualified historians who lack affiliation because the recent recession and an overproduction of graduate degrees has reduced the number of available jobs for historians who wish to work in academia or for public and private institutions.

However, it’s not just professional snobbery that renders historian labels obsolete: it’s how the labels limit the range of our work.

Present-day historians wear many hats and cultivate diverse skill sets to prosper in the tight job market and further their professional work.

I know plenty of academic historians who have a passion for public outreach and plenty of public historians who cross over into the academic realm by conducting high-quality, historical research and conveying what they find in scholarly publications.

There are altac historians who create interesting digital projects and independent historians who work with public and academic history institutions as consultants. Furthermore, there are amateur historians who have a deep passion and know more about certain subjects than those who teach those topics in college classrooms.

No one label can possibly fit most historians because most of us have multiple historical and professional interests.

Furthermore, labels also exclude a number of professional historians because their job descriptions do not fit into any of the above labels. Take documentary editors, for example. These historians have a specialized skill set and job functions that place them in numerous categories: academic, public, altac, postac, and digital. However, using multiple labels is cumbersome and the practice fails to produce a quick short code for their work.



It’s time that historians stop obsessing over professional labels.

We are losing the funding fight with STEM subjects in part because our profession can become consumed with internal fighting over professional labels and the boundaries of work that they supposedly create.

Labels breed professional snobbery and inhibit profession-wide collaboration.

All historians need to be engaged in a quest to reassert the relevancy of history. Therefore it shouldn’t matter what field you study or where you work. We should help instead of exclude and fight with each other.

Discarding labels won’t be easy.

When was the last time you attended a professional seminar, conference, or event that didn’t have you fix an affiliation on your name tag or state your affiliation at the start of the event?

I don’t like labels and I dislike it when my colleagues try to affix a label to me, but I occasionally use them. And yes, I am guilty of using labels to make quick and unfair assessments about unknown colleagues.

But I will do better. I will make a conscious effort to discard labels.

The next time I attend a history seminar or attend a conference that requires me to place a label on my name tag, I will say that I am an historian of early America. Because this is the only meaningful and comprehensive label that describes what kind of historian I am.



Share StoryWhat Do You Think?

What do you think about professional labels? 



To Intern or Not to Intern?: Internships and Volunteer Opportunities for Historians

On Monday August 19, the National Council on Public History posted “Unpaid Internships: A foot in the door or a step backward?” on their History@Work blog. In this roundtable discussion, four public historians offered their insights on whether historians should “pursue unpaid internships or volunteer opportunities as part of [their] professional training.” The panel did not reach a consensus. I believe that historians who want to work for public history organizations need to seek out pre-employment experience through internships or volunteer work. Given the current economic climate and number of people looking to enter this line of work, my experience has shown that these opportunities are likely to be unpaid and competition stiff.


Think DifferentMy Story

While in graduate school, I volunteered at public history organizations like the Albany Institute of History & Art, the New York State Museum, and the Van Schaick Mansion. I also entered graduate school with a background in public history: I worked as a seasonal interpretive ranger at the Boston National Historical Park for 5 years. I thought that I could translate this experience and my academic credentials into a public history job. However, my academic training and interpretive background were not enough. Public history organizations want job candidates with more diversified skill sets.

Historical organizations in Boston tend to favor candidates with either a master's degree in library science (from programs that teach students social media skills and about digital humanities) or an M.B.A. in non-profit management.

After a few failed applications for public history positions, I changed my strategy. If these organizations want historians with a background in non-profit management and fundraising, then I would find a way to acquire experience with those skills.

I kept my eyes peeled for paid internships, but I did not see any.

There are two reasons for the paucity of paid public history internships:

First, most public history organizations do not have the money to pay for enough staff let alone interns.

Second, competition for unpaid internships is stiff. How stiff? I may have a Ph.D. and a willingness to learn, but that did not help me best the undergrads and master's students who garnered the advertised internships I applied for.


door-of-opportunitySeek Your Own Opportunities

Frustrated, but not deterred by my lack of success, I created my own opportunities. Rather than seek out internships with well-known public history organizations, I sought opportunities at smaller organizations.

First, I contacted Boston by Foot. This non-profit organization coordinates over 200 volunteer docents who lead history and architecture tours of Boston. At first, I volunteered to be a docent. However, as I went through their “Guides-in-Training” program, I realized that with a staff of two, I might be able to assist the organization in a mutually beneficial way. I asked the organizational director if I could volunteer in a way that would help them and allow me to learn more about how to run a non-profit. End result: I am learning how to cultivate corporate sponsorships.

Second, I e-mailed the South End Historical Society. I explained that I wanted to explore a transition into public history and asked if I could volunteer. Short on staff, they gladly took me up on my offer. Presently, I am serving on the House Tour Committee, which organizes and coordinates the largest fundraiser for the organization.


Ideas5 Valuable Lessons       

My search for public history employment and internships has taught me several valuable lessons:

1.     Do not discount the specialized skill sets and training public history organizations want. They hire people who possess experience with social media, digital humanities, and non-profit management.

2.  A Ph.D. in history does not automatically lead to a public history job or internship.

3.     Seek out and create your own opportunities. If an opportunity with well-known historical organizations does not work out, research and reach out to smaller organizations.

4.     Be specific about the opportunities you want. Tell historical organizations what it is you want to learn, why they can help you acquire this knowledge, and what skills you possess that they might make use of.

5.     Don’t be afraid to volunteer if you have the means to do so. Unpaid internships/volunteer opportunities pay, just not in money. Instead, you will gain experiences and connections that you will later use to obtain a paying job.


What Do You Think?

Do you think historians should pursue unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities as a part of their professional training?