Tracy Chapman sang, “Write it down, but it doesn’t mean you’re not just telling stories,” in her hit single from an album released in 2000. “There is fiction in the space between you and me.” In some knowledge and knowledge-adjacent professions, how to assess stories–or story telling in all senses of the phrase–is a work requirement. Oral histories often include cautionary notes of the type my history office used:
It should be understood that the transcripts reflect the recollections, impressions, and opinions of the persons being interviewed. Like all historical sources, they need to be analyzed in terms of their origins and corroborated by other sources of information. The transcripts in themselves should not necessarily be considered definitive in their treatment of the subjects covered.
A deliberate lie, if identifiable as such, is fiction. But there are other reasons for gaps or inconsistencies. Choosing to exclude individuals or groups. Omission of pertinent facts. Misinterpretation of what is asked. Differences in word usage and workplace context, as in the example I used in an essay I wrote for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations in 2019.
[Does] my use of “participant in” refer to my being the decisionmaker about an operational issue within the government? Or someone who provided analysis and historical summaries that others used in making a decision? Or someone who has played both roles, with additional context needed to show which applied?
The extent to which we navigate fact, fiction, gaps, and interpretations outside our chosen or aspirational jobs varies, although we’re affected by it in many parts of our lives. Small glimpses into the lives of others through their scripted or improv performances and production help us understand them.
LiveJournal and Blogger debuted in 1999, WordPress in 2003. Such platforms enabled many of us with the privilege and sense of safety to do so to blog, sharing our thoughts, our research experiences, our perspective on professions and workplaces. Some historians, such as Timothy Burke, whose essays I first read on the History News Network (HNN), blogged for nearly two decades on open access sites. Among knowledge workers associated with Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAMs), Kate Theimer stood out for me and many others as a role model for two-way engagement (sharing and gathering information).
The interests that drew me to HNN and other forums–how workplace bureaucracies function, what are their administrators’ obligations to subordinates and superiors, whom do they consult, how do bosses see management and leadership, what internal and external elements affect knowledge centered workplaces–came to feel out of place there. My participation centered on preparation but the general readers at the site between 2001 and 2010 weren’t trying to decide on undergrad majors. Or to explore job options in history for holders of bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees.
Visible HNN readers largely were history buffs in other jobs (some of the most vocal commenters were law enforcement officers, lawyers, and people in technical specialties outside knowledge professions and GLAMs). Many used comments posted under history essays to advocate for their own life choices (civilian or military careers) or political beliefs.
Although the site featured articles by a few Federal historians, and even linked to ones by archivists, such as Sam Rushay of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), most of the writers of HNN blog posts or linked articles were academics. Over time I learned from my mistakes on a site which seemed to be about history but drew few comments from practitioners. And started my own blog in 2010, with Dr. Burke’s HNN postings about history in mind.
From 2005 until June 14, 2021, Burke blogged on WordPress via Swarthmore.edu. He now has joined many other academic writers on the Substack subscription platform. One of Burke’s first essays at Substack was “Academia: Falling Away.” He looked at academic expectations, relationships, jobs, change, opacity, transparency, and openness.
You sometimes feel bullied. You are other times cast into situations where the only way to defend yourself or the urgently important professional values you still uphold means directly opposing another faculty or staff member who may themselves feel vulnerable and intruded upon by your opposition. You will quickly learn (or may already be practiced in) reattributions of the reasons for your own choices and preferences to exculpatory narratives that also shift blame and hostility to others—or to cope with the same being done to you.
As in many other workplaces, or even navigating Social Media, deciding what to do and whom to trust can be challenging:
Now that you’ve arrived, you likely have to navigate a deeply opaque landscape of distributed and networked power. You have colleagues who seem friendly but are in fact bad-mouthing you the moment you’re out of hearing. You have colleagues who are guarded who are in fact protecting you fiercely when you’re not there to see it. You have colleagues who are at all times exactly what they seem to be: friendly and supportive or distant and detached. You may meet colleagues who think you’re a student or a spouse, or disdain you not for who you are but for what you teach and research.
Depending on where you work, structure and standards can be limiting or useful. In 2013, Burke described in “An Oath for Experts: First Principles” proposed agreed-on standards for historians providing certain services:
An expert giving advice about a course of action must always be able to cogently and fairly discuss the most prominent critiques of that course of action and readily provide citations or pointers to such criticisms.
The goal here is simple: to establish a professional standard. You should not be able to claim to be an authority about a particular issue or approach if you are not conversant with the major objections to your recommended course of action. You should not force an audience to hunt down a critical assessment afterwards, or wait for an adversarial voice to forcibly intrude on the discussion. This responsibility goes beyond simply providing an assessment of the positive and negative attributes of an argument, interpretation or recommendation: the expert should be able to name the work of critics and generously summarize their arguments or analysis.
Citing one of my tweets about his 2013 blog post, Burke re-visited the issue in 2015. I still was in Federal service at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), where I was agency historian from 1990 to 2016. I found his exploration of the need to develop principles for historians intriguing because GAO issues detailed guidance to its mission staff. Friends in the unit where I worked as a civil servant, the GAO Office of Policy, issued periodic updates to the General Policies/Procedures and Communications Manual that my auditor colleagues used.
Over time, I read most of the audit manual and often referred to it. As agency historian, a mission support position within GAO, I found officially codified policies and prcedures and informal conversations about the agency’s work culture useful in understanding my place of employment. It often took new executives two or three years to begin to understand GAO’s culture. Some of the research I did on the experiences of BIPOC employees revealed stories newcomers hadn’t previously considered.
There’s more in view now on official websites and Social Media about history and GLAM jobs than for Boomer and Gen X job seekers. But parsing it is challenging. Unhappy employees or former employees may feel a greater need to share their perspectives online than satisfied ones. On the other end of the spectrum, employees vested in “vocational awe” may paint overly rosy pictures of what GLAM work entails.
In a bad job market, you may have take a job or accept a career path you hadn’t planned on in grad school. It helps to be prepared. Classroom instruction for undergraduate and graduate programs can and should play a part in exploring what different private and public sector jobs require and entail.
In April 2021 the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations published forum essays in its Passport journal about the current academic jobs crisis. The authors of the introductory essay noted,
The U.S. academic job market is in total freefall. As the American Historical Association’s (AHA) 2020 jobs report bluntly stated, “History Ph.D.s who graduated the past decade encountered fewer opportunities and more competition on the academic job market than any cohort of Ph.D.s since the 1970s.” And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which, the 2021 jobs report noted, has resulted in numerous “program closures, enrollment declines, and faculty layoffs.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that, even if things improved tomorrow (which they won’t), there will be several “lost generations” of historians who will never secure stable academic employment.
Writing within the structure of a limited word count for a forum, or an op ed, conference presentation or executive summary, differs in latitude from choosing illustrative examples when writing a book. Some participants looked at prior jobs crises, including Careers in Business initiatives in the 1970s, others examined academic culture or expectation setting for alt-ac jobs.
Michelle Paranzino’s forum essay called for “Rethinking Tenure: Serve the Public, not the Profession.” Although the forum included no historians whose duties include providing analysis for internal decision making within the Federal government, her essay touched on the value of writing in accessible language.
Most academic historians (myself included) have not been trained in how to write history as a compelling narrative story. We have been trained to find gaps in the existing literature, which tends to narrow the focus—and thus the appeal—of our work. Yet given that higher education is taxpayer-funded, academic historians have an obligation to serve the public….Public policy research and advocacy, community outreach, and teaching and writing for underserved audiences should be valued just as much if not more than peer-reviewed publications.
Tenure has contributed to an unjust and exploitative two-tier system of academic labor and has disincentivized academic historians from engaging with the American public, with damaging consequences for our nation’s collective understanding of and interest in history
I Follow some on Twitter but don’t know any of the forum authors in person. But in some essays I recognized a familiar challenge from having tried to examine systemic issues while also sharing my personal experiences. If you’re trained to apply traditional academic rigor to a complex topic, there is no easy answer to how to share what happened to you to validate your central thesis.
Recognizing human elements in navigating stories is part of being a historian. Within the Federal government, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management examines this in standards for us in 170 Series Historian jobs.
The historian subjects each piece of evidence obtained to critical evaluation in order to establish its relative value. This includes investigation to establish the reliability of the evidence which may involve such matters as identification of the author, consideration of his personality and reliability, his relationship to the event described (was he an eye-witness? a participant? or is he relating an event described to him by others?), and the elapsed time between the occurrence and the recording of the event.
….In assessing the value of evidence gathered by personal interview the historian must have an understanding of the interviewee’s personality and background to recognize personal prejudices and idiosyncrasies, to check the accuracy of memory, and to consider the knowledge and understanding of surrounding circumstances at the time the event took place or the decision was made.
In political science practitioners may use quantitative or qualitative research methods. Dr. Paul Musgrave, an Assistant Professor of Political Science, recently offered a fascinating look at the “difficult and lengthy” multi-level examination process for entering the governing class during “the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and its successor, the Qing (1644-1911).” At each level, only an estimated 1 in every 6,000 test takers succeeded.
As a grad student, Musgrave worked from 2006 to 2009 in a National Archives Office of Presidential Libraries unit as a Special Assistant to a director. His duties included managing an internship program and assisting with oral history interviews. During his first two years at NARA, an academic historian headed the agency. In 2009, a longtime civil servant briefly served as Acting Archivist.
Musgrave notes of the Ming and Qing system that “there’s nothing any more arbitrary in basing the selection of officials on their ability to interpret texts concerned with law, governance, and moral uprightness than in the traditional British equivalent (studying classics at the University of Oxford or Cambridge) or the contemporary American version (a law degree from Yale University).”
He adds “reliance on the system meant that, by the late Qing period, Chinese officials were confronted with problems hardly conceived of in Confucian classics—but on the other hand, vanishingly few U.S. policymakers have degrees in science or foreign languages, and yet they nevertheless make decisions regarding nuclear weapons, biotechnology, and international trade.”
In my experience, top policymakers rely on their own knowledge and on internal experts. Briefers can include Federal historians, who, as I did, analyze why prior initiatives worked or not. At both nonpartisan agencies at which I worked, NARA and GAO, the current agency heads started out in junior, entry level positions in their professions, then worked their way up, learning experientially and through formal study what handling increasing levels of responsibility entails. Both executives display that in their work.
By striving to balance theory and practice, educators can help undergrads begin to view history and GLAM job options realistically. The goal isn’t justifying what we chose, but helping others develop empathetic self and situational awareness. With so much at stake at the human level, isn’t that worth a try wherever we are?