Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No, You Still Cannot be a Professor

The one post I still get comments and emails about is something I wrote three years ago: Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. It is a dark and intentionally strident post, meant to dispel any illusions that impressionable young people might have about joining a vanishing profession:

No, my esteemed student, you are not going to be a history professor. It isn't going to happen .... you are not going to win the lottery, you are not going to be struck by a meteorite, you are not going to be a professor. All of these things will happen to someone, somewhere, but none of them will happen to you.

The post went viral by the modest standards of this blog, with links from Reddit and MetaFilter and the Atlantic Monthly and eventually racked up over 100,000 page views. It still gets about 1200 views a month, and at least once a month I get an email from some plaintive undergrad, still trying to hold onto some thread of the dream, asking if my advice still stands.

Alas, it does, and this report from the American Historical Association confirms it. The number of academic history jobs has dropped again this year, for the second year in a row. "This decline is especially disconcerting when we consider that the overall economy has been improving and the US jobless rate declining. It raises the possibility that this downturn in academic positions for historians is not entirely attributable to the recession, but may be with us for some time." Here is the data in a chart:


Positions Advertised with the AHA
The thing to remember about this chart is that even the peaks represent a terrible job market, with hundreds of applicants for many jobs. There are far more new PhDs every year than there are jobs, and such has been the case for years, and so there are perhaps thousands of recent PhDs who have not landed a permanent academic position but have not stopped trying either. A friend of mine said "I used to tell students that earning a PhD and landing a tenure-track job was like running a marathon. Now I tell them it is like winning a marathon."

So no, my hopeful correspondents, you are still not going to be a professor. The good news is that there are jobs for people with historical training. You need to play all of your cards exactly right, and you need to be geographically flexible, but it can be done. Check out this great guest post by my recent MA student Lee Nilsson, on how he parlayed an MA in history into jobs at the Library of Congress and now the Department of State. There is life outside the classroom.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Invested in a system that renders us irrelevant

Perhaps you have seen this bit of academic click bait: 10 Reasons Professors Should Start Writing BuzzFeed Articles by Mark Marino. There isn't anything there really (and that is kind of the point), a listicle with a few poorly-chosen memes with some halfway funny headings: "No one Believes that “The Next 450 Pages will Blow Your Mind!" and "The RT is the purest form of peer-review." This Chronicle of Higher Education article unpacks Marino's listicle with more gravity that perhaps is warranted, and includes a link to a meritorious example of an academic using social media, Post-Structuralism Explained With Hipster Beards: Part 1, by Chris Rodley. Now that is some worthy link bait.

The idea of academics publishing on Buzzfeed is both a great idea and nothing new. The calls for
academics to engage the public with shorter, more accessible writing in different venues have been around for decades at least. With new platforms the old arguments get rehashed--often by people who seem perfectly unaware of how unoriginal they are being. Hell, tens of thousands of us have been doing exactly this with academic blogging.

The argument also misses the essential truth--it assumes that the irrelevance of academics is because of the way we write. You know--bloated, impenetrable, designed for an audience of 40 people (and finding an audience of ten). This argument is wrong. The irrelevance of academic writing is not because of the way we write, it is because of the way we publish.

The illustration for this piece at the CHE--the Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka meme where he is saying "And I can read more about this in your 30 page article in JSTOR?" points at the real problem that prevents academics from finding a public audience. It isn't just the poor quality of so much of our prose, plenty of poor-quality prose sells like hotcakes. It is that there is NO FVCKING WAY for most human beings to get to our academic articles on JSTOR. Most people are not a currently enrolled student or a university employee, and are not willing to pay $20 to read a 30 page article. And even if you are one of the tiny portion of humanity that theoretically has access to JSTOR article, clicking on a link on a blog will still most likely take you to a pay wall. And you will back up, then go the website of your university, and use the super-s*tty search engine there to find the article, and click through a half-dozen screens to get to the full text. Or not.

I think that actually a lot of people would be willing to wade through academic prose to learn more about topics that interest them if they would get to the damn prose in the first place. We could seed social media with abstracts of what we are doing--in the form of BuzzFeed listicles or whatever--and some people would follow the crumbs back to our academic writing. It would not take a lot of readers to double the readership of most academic article in the humanities, after all. But we cannot do it, because you can't provide an open, public link to most academic articles.

The problem is not how we write but where we publish. We are invested in a system of publication and copyright that renders us irrelevant.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Corporate History of Washington Water Power--in Video



I just discovered this series of short videos about the history of Avista, formerly Washington Water Power, online at KSPS. There are ten in all, covering topics from the earliest years of the company to (my favorite) the cartoon advertising icon Reddy Kilowatt.

There is hardly a more historic company in the Inland Northwest than Washington Water Power. Established before Washington was even a state, the company has been at the center of everything from the Great Spokane Fire to the building of hydroelectric dams to modern architecture to Expo 74. In recent decades, as the company changed its name to Avista, it seemed to move away from its history as well as its former name.

Now, on the 125th anniversary of Washington Water Power, there is a renewed commitment to that history. The company produced a rather good 40 page booklet on its history, and has additional historical materials on the company website. And then there is the ten-part series of minute-and-a-half documentaries.

These are well-made, but very much from the company point of view. The first details the role of WWP in the Great Spokane Fire of 1889, it is interesting and full of wonderful images. I especially like this one about the 1940s Home Service Program, in which female WWP employees fanned out across the region to show homemakers how to use the latest electric home appliances. Others show early dam building, electric-powered streetcars, and other aspects of WWP history.

Overall, the videos feel more like historically-tinged advertisements for Avista than historical documentaries. This is local history through the rosiest of lenses. An episode named The Fight for Survival even details how WWP fought off the "threat" of becoming a public utility district in the 1950s. Thus was socialist tyranny averted. And the two videos that deal with dam construction have literally no mention of the environmental impact of such projects, or the terrible blow they were to native peoples. None of the videos show any awareness of the larger historic picture of their times--the Great Depression, Cold War culture, or any of the other topics that could have enriched these pieces and made them more interesting.

I suspect that what happened here is that the videos were produced with internal expertise and an outside advertising firm--but they forgot to hire a historian. Still, perhaps these are petty complaints about what are after all a set of 90-second infomercials. It is good to see Avista once again interested in and promoting its own heritage.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Twilight of Columbus Day

This clip from John Oliver reflects pretty well our new understanding of Christopher Columbus:



You probably saw where Seattle just officially ditched Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples' Day. Of course this has been denounced by some on the right as "political correctness" (by which they generally mean "being polite to non-whites").

The charge ignores the fact the Columbus Day is itself a product of political correctness from an earlier era. For most of the 19th-century, Columbus did not occupy a particularly high spot in our historical pantheon. He was certainly in every textbook, but he was lumped in with Cortez and other Spanish conquerors and explorers. Columbus only became an American hero with the rise of the Italian-American community, who by the early 1900s had gained enough economic and political clout in their new home to organize and demand a holiday of their own. Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1937. This pattern--a group is discriminated against, slowly gains acceptance, and uses its political power to push for its own holiday--is of course exactly what gave us Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and now Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Growing up in Connecticut, Columbus Day was kind of a big deal. With our strong and politically active Italian-American population, the day was observed as a general celebration of Italian culture. It was in no way controversial--though it should have been. The current unpopularity of Columbus is not a result of any new information about the man coming to light. We have always known, from his own writings, about the taking of slaves and slaughter of civilians. We just did not used to care, or thought that his skills as a navigator someone balanced things out. This period of willful blindness has come to an end, and we cannot go back.

A hundred years from now some history student will be sifting through some letters and diaries of the 20th century and find references to "Columbus Day?" and wonder--what was that?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Archives Open House in Cheney this Saturday

Did you know that the world's first built-from-the-group-up digital archive is in Cheney? It is true, and this Saturday, October 11 from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. you can get special behind-the-scenes tours to see where the magic happens.

The state had money back in 2004.
Our facility is home to both the Digital Archives and the Eastern Region Branch of the Washington State Archives. This state-of-the-art facility opened it doors in 2004. Downstairs, the Eastern Region Branch preserves precious physical historical records--everything from court transcripts of frontier-
era divorces and murder trials to glass plate photographs of turn-of-the-century Spokane parks. We also have maps and marriage licenses and property record cards and naturalization papers and city council meeting minutes and--well, you get the picture. Archivist Lee Pierce will take visitors into the deep storage to show off some of the treasures that we protect.

 Upstairs, the building houses the Washington State Digital Archives, which preserves almost 150 million digital records for state and local government. You may already know our website (digitalarchives.wa.gov), this is a chance to get to know us a little better. There will be tutorials of how to use our website, featuring some of the more fascinating and lesser-known digital records, tours of the buildings, and Network Administrator Harold Stoehr will even lead a back-room peak at the thingamajigs and whatchamacallits that keep the website up and running.

 The archives are located at 960 Washington Street, in Cheney, Washington, and you can call us at (509) 235-7500. General tours of the facility will start at 10:15 and at 1, the backroom tour of the Digital Archives begins at noon. Or just stop by for a look around. We will see you in Cheney!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Step 1: Hire a Historian!

So this came across my Facebook feed today: Native America Project: Indian Fur Trade and Trading Posts - Google Maps. Naturally, I clicked:


View Native America Project: Indian Fur Trade and Trading Posts in a larger map

A good ten years back at the Fur Trade Conference I met a couple of gentlemen who had used a GIS program to map every fur trading post in North America. The huge print they brought with them was intoxicating in its detail. I asked if I could find it online or if they would share the file. They said no--they had put a lot of work into it and meant to charge for access. When I saw the link above I thought is was that project, available at last.

Alfred Jacob Miller - The Lost Greenhorn
No such luck. This map is just a mess. For my backyard, the interior Pacific Northwest, the majority of the information is wrong. Spokane House, the fur trading post, is in two different places. The interpretive text is dry and somewhat inaccurate and seems to have been copied from Wikipedia. The military fort of Fort Spokane is mixed up with Spokane House, the description is completely wrong. Fort Okanagan and the Nez Perce people are misplaced.

Historian friends, how does this map do in your regions of expertise?

Sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time in public and digital history. Exhibits, interpretive panels, and digital projects are created by technicians who are experts in presentation. Then fuss over color schemes and illustrations and interactivity. Then they pull some content off Wikipedia or some terrible regional history book published in 1950 to fill in their interpretive captions and metadata fields. Garbage in...

Friends, hire a historian. We know things, and can save you a lot of wasted effort. It is not even like we cost a lot of money!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Creek Indian Artist Todd Harder Coming to Spokane



There is something of a cultural florescence happening in Native America these days, and some of the cultural mixing is surprising and even playful. Take for example the Creek artist Todd Harder and his amazing native-themed skateboard decks:



Harder is quite prolific--you can see more of his work here. A nationally-prominent figure, the New York Times ran a piece on Harder and the annual All Nations Skate Jam that he organized--an alcohol and drug-free gathering of Indian skateboarders that takes place in Albuquerque. Harder is also a central figure in the Smithsonian exhibit "Ramp it Up: Native Skateboard Culture in America."

Harder will speaking at Gonzaga on Thursday, September 18, at 5:00 p.m.  in the Globe Room of Cataldo Hall. A map of Gonzaga campus is here.The event is free and open to the public, and is sponsored by Gonzaga’s Native American Studies program and by the College of Arts and Sciences. For more information on this event, please contact Laurie Arnold, Director of Native American Studies, arnoldL@gonzaga.edu.



Friday, September 5, 2014

It is Time for a New State Song,,,

...and I know what is should be.

Our current Washington State song, Washington, My Home is terrible. Seriously, listen if you dare. As I have written before, it sounds like it was written by a committee of Girl Scouts. And to think we could have had Louie, Louie as the state song!

I want to propose a new state song--catchy, funny, historical, and written right here in Washington State. The song is The Old Settler. It was written by Judge Francis Henry of Pierce County around 1874 and was an instant hit. In fact when the state Constitutional Convention finished their work in 1889, they finished up by singing The Old Settler. The song was was forgotten until the early 20th century, when it was revived by Ivar Haglund--yeah, that Ivar. This charming video from MOHAI tells the story:





Additional information at this webpage from the Northwest Folklore Society. The one thing that the experts are missing is that the tune is not original--Henry set his lyrics to the tune of the traditional Irish folk (by which I men drinking) song, Rosin' the Bow.

Clearly, this is our song. Join me, Washingtonians, let's make this our state song. I know it is pretty west-side focused, but in this case we can let that pass. Acres of clams, people, acres of clams! Can't you see crowds of Washingtonians raising their voices to sing the Old Settler at Fourth of July picnics, or Seahawks games? We need to make this happen.

Here is how you can contact your state representatives. Do it today!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nice Piece About James Glover in the Inlander

The Inlander is our mildly-alternative weekly here in Spokane. They run local history stories from time to time. Last week's cover story, Facing History  by Lisa Waananen Jones takes a hard look at the "Father of Spokane," James Glover, and the wife who he had committed to an insane asylum.

Behold my mustache, hipsters,
and despair!
I think that every western town has its Glover--the white male founding father who, despite having streets and parks and like named after him, does not bear close inspection.Our Glover was not actually the first person on the ground here in Spokane--not even the first white person. His 1873 settlement was proceeded in the proximate area by area by the Northwest Fur Company's Spokane House (founded in 1810), Tshimakain Mission (1838), Plante's Ferry (1852) and the bustling settlement of Moran Prairie which began in 1860 and had perhaps more than a dozen families when Glover arrived. Even on the very ground where Glover platted his Spokan Falls, there were two men and a sawmill. Glover would later tell everyone they had been horse thieves--though as historian Tony Bamonte says in Jones' article, they were not.

And yet a town must have a founder and he must be white and male and mustachioed and so James Glover is the Father of Spokane. To be fair, he did a lot for the community, relentlessly promoting it to settlers and to the Territorial government, all in the service of making himself wealthy. And he did strike it rich with the new town--at least until one of those pesky 19th-century financial panics stripped it all away.

Jones does a nice job in her article of poking around the seedier side of Glover--who had sharp elbows in business, abandoned a mentally ill wife and had her committed that he might remarry, and rewrote our early history to make himself the hero. He was also a key figure in the establishment of our city, like him or not. We will always have Glover.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ghost Signs of Spokane, Part Two

EWU grad students Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld leading
a tour of the ghost signs of Spokane
Some time back I posted about a unique class project that I was forcing my unwilling students to do using to enrich my class on Local History Research Methods--the Ghost Sign Project. I thought I should bring the subject up-to-date.

Ghost signs are those faded, painted advertisements that you see on the sides of buildings in the historic areas of many American cities. Painted in thick layers of lead paint, many have long outlived the products and businesses they were created to advertise. In the spring of 2013, my students fanned out across Spokane and did an inventory of the surviving ghost signs.  I thought it would be fun to have my students map and record as many of the signs as they could find, then research the background of these vanished businesses.

The assignment worked better than I dared imagine. The students loved prowling the alleyways (always in pairs!) and finding the old signs. They became quite competitive, trying to see who could find the most. They took with them clipboard, cameras, and a form that we developed together to record their data. You can see the form here.

An online version of the form, created by my student Frank Oesterheld, automagically dropped their information into a Google Fusion Table. This generated a map of the ghost signs of Spokane:



Pretty cool, yes? We found signs for blacksmiths and buggy manufacturers, for early car dealerships and Single Room Occupancy hotels, for cigars and chewing tobacco, for paints and coffee and flour. All in all the signs, most created between 1890 and 1920, painted a picture of a workingman's town where people wanted an inexpensive place to stay and a cheap cigar.

Then we took to the archives to research the histories of the signs. City directories and Sanborn maps were the most valuable sources, but we also dug through Google News Archives, historic register nominations, census records, marriage and other vital records, and oral histories. I told my students to look for interesting stories behind the signs--stories of the business, stories of the owners, stories about the kind of town that Spokane was during the era in which their sign was painted. They found some great stuff, including Japanese hotel owners, the era of cheap downtown lodging, life in the rail yards, and Spokane's "cracker war." The stories were written from our local history smartphone app and website, Spokane Historical. The best of them appear there as a walking tour, Ghost Signs of Spokane.

It was a tremendously successful class exercise. And yet when class was over some of us felt like the topic was not exhausted. How else could this research be presented?

This spring two of my graduate students, Anna Harbine and Frank Oesterheld, developed a face-to-face walking tour of the signs that they would lead. Adapting the digital to the analog proved an interesting challenge. Which signs do we include? How far do we want to walk? Should the tour be one-way or a loop? Oesterheld and Harbine chose a route, developed scripts, and practiced the walk a half-dozen times. Last Friday they went live, leading a group from the Northwest Archivists Conference through the back alleys of Spokane in search of ghosts. It was a hit! Here are some pictures of the event, taken by Benjamin Helle of the Washington State Archives ~ Olympia Regional Branch. Here we are getting started:


Don't despair if you missed the tour, we are looking at ways to make it happen again, perhaps as part of a First Friday event.

As a teaching exercise in public history, I am delighted how this project has evolved. The class itself was part research seminar and part treasure hunt, both educational and engaging. They course laid the building blocks of a digital tour, and then a physical tour, also spearheaded by public history students. Four of the students in the course also presented their work as a poster session at the National Council for Public History conference this spring. The project built a lot of bridges with the local historic preservation community and most importantly brought attention to some of my students and their work.

I teach Research Methods in Local History again in the coming school year--what should we do as a group research project next time around?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Come see Spokane Historical at the Nostalgia Radio Hour

So here is something a little different. My friend Garrin Hertel, publisher of Nostalgia Magazine and band leader of the Hot Club of Spokane, is putting on a radio show.

The Nostalgia Radio hour is conceived as an variety show, with music, interviews, and etc. around the loose theme of Spokane history and historical nostalgia. The first episode will be recorded live the Wednesday at 6:30 at the historic Glover Mansion. The first episode will be recorded live the Wednesday at 6:30 at the historic Glover Mansion Some of my students will be there, along with myself, to talk about Spokane Historical.

This is the first of what Garrin plans as a monthly broadcast and podcast. The event is open to the public and there is even a no-hot bar. Hope to see some of you there!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

No, You Cannot be a Professor Part III: Survivor Stories

[This is a guest post from friend and former student Lee Nilsson, building from my 2011 post Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor. Lee blogs at The Digital Archeologist.]


Picture
Pictured: Larry Cebula
So you've finished up your fine liberal arts education and have a fresh BA with your name on it from a respectable school.  Congrats!  You did it.  Your capstone paper, History of the Salt Trade in Western Sahara from 1870-1922, was called "riveting" by your favorite professor.  You've moved back in with your parents.  No big deal.  That is common these days, and you'll be out of there soon.  Because you have your sights on something grander.  You are going to graduate school.  You are going to be a college professor.  

And why not?  The local craigslist job openings category is a depressing list of technical work you are in no way qualified for and high-level executive stuff which requires eight years of experience and an MBA.  You don't want to work in medical administration.  You don't want to work in a toll booth.  Sure, your favorite professor gave you a pained expression and mentioned something about the "tough market" when you told him/her about your dream.  But s/he wrote the letter of recommendation anyway.  So s/he is probably not that concerned...Right?  

Picture
Your future?
Naturally, you're first move is obvious, you Googled "how to become a history professor."  That is how you came across a depressing, cynical screed by a mean-spirited and sarcastic history professor named Larry Cebula called "Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot be a Professor."  You read it a few times. You read the follow up "No, You Cannot be a Professor--the Reactions."  At first you were skeptical.

But the reaction pieces are dripping with wishful thinking, and the article confirmed all the doubts in the back of your mind.  Maybe it's all hopeless.  Maybe the toll booth wouldn't be so bad.  I mean, at least you won't have Larry Cebula as a graduate advisor.  What kind of deflated, depressed, and broken students must he be graduating every year?

Picture
Hope is good

Well dear reader, look no further.  I am one such.  And I've been tasked with giving you hope.  Not that you will become a history professor (no, that still ain't happening), but that it is possible to have an interesting and fulfilling career in the humanities.  You don't even have to have a Ph.D. either!  You can do it with a simple MA.  The key is making yourself as well-rounded as possible in this new economy.  Here are a few lessons I've learned which may be helpful to you.


Lesson 1:  Take advantage of every opportunity during grad school, and don't be afraid to take risks.

Grad school is about resume building.  A good academic department will have trips, internship opportunities and job openings you should take advantage of.  While in grad school I went on an archaeological dig to Cyprus, worked in the Washington State Archives as a researcher/writer, served as associate editor of the local history website and mobile app spokanehistorical.org, and went to Portland, Oregon to present a paper with the Phi Alpha Theta history society.  All of this is great resume fodder.  It also gives you experiences and contacts you would not otherwise have if you had spent all your time in the library staring at black and white photos of early-period Saxon pot shards. 
Picture
NDSR second cohort starts January 2015. 

In this economy it is often going to be more important to have some real work experience than it will be to have a paper published in a journal read by literally tens of academics (though being published does not hurt).  It may take some risk or sacrifice in the short term to make yourself more employable down the road.  I had to give up a graduate teaching assistantship (and quite a lot of money) to work at the state archives, but it paid off.  My work at  spokanehistorical.org and the Washington State Archives led directly to me being chosen as the first ever National Digital Stewardship Resident for the Library of Congress (an amazing program, by the way, check it out).  

You will want to accumulate a large set of skills that do not fall into the traditional "liberal arts academic" framework.  You want a huge advantage right now?  Learn to code.  The future is in the digital humanities.  People with those skills are already in high demand.  Most of all learn how to teach yourself new skills.  If you take anything away from grad school.  Let it be that. 


Lesson 2: If you want to be successful after grad school, you must be mobile and flexible.

Picture
Its a big country
This is increasingly true in nearly all fields these days.  Being able to pack up and move to Bozeman, Montana at a few weeks' notice can be a real strength when looking for work in the humanities.  Cast a very wide net.  You may not be able to get that amazing job in New York City right out of grad school.  Look for parts of the country where your skill set-may be in more demand.  Don't limit your search to the "dream job" you've been pining for for years.  Having trouble getting a curatorial job in a city museum?  Try administration and communications.  Failing to get a federal writing job in the black hole of USAjobs.gov?  Try contractors and vendors.  Can't get that archivist position with your local state archives?  Try the private sector.  Be flexible.  You may find you'll like where you end up better than if you'd gotten your "dream job."

Lesson 3: Be creative.

"I am a hard worker with lots of experience in content management.  I've managed content on a weekly basis for one year at Content Management LLC. and for two years at Content Dynamics Industries, Inc.  I have been instrumental in increasing productivity over five percent in..."

Asleep yet?  Yeah, don't be like that.  Hopefully, you got into the humanities to be creative.  Sometimes its valuable to take a risk to stand out.  Don't go off the deep end and be unprofessional.  But the people who do the hiring at cultural institutions are looking through stacks of identical cover-letters and resumes.  All of them have the same two to five years experience in "whatever" that you do.  Hiring managers hate reading those letters just as much as you hate writing them.  Sometimes it's okay to make a high risk, high reward move.  Take for example this:


The job was for the Civil War Trust, a group of people almost certainly familiar with the mammoth Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War."  One hour of late-night video editing later I had a short and ridiculous parody of Burns' style which served as a fun addendum to my traditional cover letter.  I submitted it at midnight and by eight-o'clock the next morning I had the interview.  High risk, high reward.

Lesson 4: Be personable. 

Picture
Not you...Right?
Jokes aside, you could not ask for a better advisor than Larry Cebula.  He works like hell to get his students employed in their fields and is tireless in the networking that requires.  Indeed your graduate advisor and other professors can be an incredible support system when looking for work.  But all of that is dependent on you not being a jerk.  

Some common jerk moves:  Acting childish and raising your voice.  Getting mad about little issues and burning bridges.  Showing absolutely no interest in them as human beings and demanding all attention be on yourself.  Treating professors like they are your servants.  The list goes on.  Always remember that these people can be your colleagues and friends after school ends.  Act like it.

Another pro-tip:  Dress for the job you want.  Not the job you have.  It pays off in spades to show some appreciation for the fact that other people are forced to look at you.

Lesson 5: Have some ambition, but be smart about it.

The future is bright! :)
The "millennial" generation is positively drowning in cynicism.  While our parents and grandparents imagined a glorious future in outer space and flying skateboards, our generation is focused on predicting how civilization will collapse, whether it be zombies, super-volcanoes or something else.  It's important to stay positive.  Government institutions, historical societies, archives, libraries, museums, journalism, think-tanks, publishing etc. etc.  All of these and more are open to you with a simple MA or less.

My humanities story has taken me from a small suburb of Detroit to the Library of Congress and eventually the  U.S. State Department.  There are literally thousands of great opportunities for people with our weird interests.  Very few of them will involve teaching students at research universities.  But that should not stop you from doing something you'll love.   You might even like where you end up better than you would have liked being a college professor.  Because again, you aren't going to be that. 



Some Resources for the Humanities Job Seeker:

  • USAjobs - Yes, it may be a black hole where resumes go to die, but its essentially the only way to get direct federal employment.  And it is possible to get responses.  Write a very good resume with their resumebuilder app.  If you can find any way to justify making yourself an "expert" in every question a position asks, do it.  Do not lie.  But really think hard about it.  Every Library of Congress, Smithsonian, or NARA job might get 400+ applications.  At least 50 will have veterans preference.  You have to really stand out to get passed the folks at the Office of Personnel Management.   Make use of the Saved Searches feature: "National Archives," "Library of Congress," "Historian," "Archives," "writer," etc.  Check daily.  These change fast.   Dont put off applying.  They  will sometimes end an open period early.  
  • Code4lib - For those with library science and archival experience as well as some tech savvy.  
  • American Library Association Job List - All of these will say "MLS required."  Ignore that.  If you have the skills, demonstrate them with your application.  I've met librarians in the federal government with backgrounds in archaeology, medieval studies, computer science etc. etc.    Can't win if you don't play.  
  • H-Net - For general discouragement.  Try looking up your area of expertise in the location you want to work in.  Cry.  But dont worry.  You are going to be fine.  Especially if you take my sage advice.  If you see that list and think, "Gee, there are so many professor jobs!"  Remember that every job posting will have hundreds of applicants, many are not tenure track, and that site is literally global.  
  • AdjunctNation - For those who have taken the dark path of the adjunct.  Some people just have to teach.  If you are one of those, the best approach may be the old fashioned style.  Every community college gets a stack of adjunct applications.  Go there personally, meet the head of the department during his/her office hours.  Hand them your packet (syllabi, CV, etc.) personally.  If he/she likes you, it may get you to the top of the pile when they need someone to teach a course.  Also, professors in your department will often know professors in other schools.  Don't be afraid to ask for an introduction.  Remember, this path lacks security and basic benefits.  You spouse or partner better have a great job and be cool with you making less than a fry-cook at McDonald's.            
  • Idealist.org - Idealist has many of the sorts of jobs you will get a call-back for.  Its all non-profits and most of them are east coast.  But these are the sorts of writing/editing/administrative jobs that a humanities MA can get.  Beware of low non-profit wages.
  • Historical Consulting Firms such as History Associates or The History Factory do for-profit research on behalf of government and corporations.  I've known some people who have gone this route.  Many of these jobs are on a project basis and will be temporary.  
  • A lot of organizations don't post to these sorts of lists.  So check the job listings pages of organizations you might want to work for.  If the Gates Foundation or Coca-Cola is hiring a historian or archivist, they may not be as familiar with these sorts of lists and just throw it up on their website.  Look for yourself.  
One last thing:  Apply.  Don't be discouraged by the fact you only have 7/10 of the requirements.  If you think you can do the job, apply.  Many people hamper their own success by undervaluing themselves.  This is especially true for womenwho tend to have less bravado and stupid confidence when applying for jobs. Be stupid.  Be bold.  Apply.  You deserve it.  Now go be successful.  

Lee Nilsson earned his Masters in History at Eastern Washington University in 2013. He was a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the Library of Congress from 2013-14. In August Nilsson begins work as a Junior Analyst for the U.S. State Department.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Want to Buy a Piece of Spokane History?

Last week the Spokesman-Review ran an interesting piece about a historical mural that is for sale. The giant painting (149 inches wide by 89 inches tall) is an artistic rendition of a well-known 1884 birds-eye view map of Spokane. Apparently it was created for an unknown Spokane Bank in the 1930s and hung there until the 1950s. A neighbor of Dina Carlson found the mural in her garage and brought to Carlson, who owns Lillian Conn Antiques & Gallery.


Here for comparison is the 1884 map:


According to the Spokesman, "An inscription on the back indicates it was completed in 1938 and signed by an artist with the last name of Hart."

This week I had the opportunity to view the mural myself. It was on display at the quarterly meeting of Spokane Preservation Advocates (join now!). I did not think much of the mural when I read the newspaper article, but in person it is really quite charming. It has been rolled up for fifty years and is in excellent condition. The colors are bright, the paint is not flaking or damaged at all. Hart the painter was no Michelangelo, to be sure, but it does not feel amateurish either--it is really a wonderful portrayal of Spokane in its first decade: I took quite a few pictures:

The full mural. It is a tiny bit ragged on some of the edges where it was cut down.


Some of Spokane's first businesses harnessed the power of the river.

Original Post Street Bridge?

Havermale Island.

Street Scene.

Northern Pacific train coming into town.

Spokane College.

First Northern Pacific Depot.

The artist added several groups of Indians not present in the original map.

Another street scene.





I love the simplicity of this detail.

Indians fishing at the falls.
I have no idea how much money they are asking for this mural. I don't think it is worth tens of thousands--it is not after all, from 1884, or from a famous artist, and the potential customer base for this item is very limited. The Spokesman article mentions that the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture declined an opportunity to buy the piece.

It should always be remembered when dealing with those very popular birds-eye maps of the 19th century that most were produced by real estate speculators and town boosters. They very often depict towns not as they were but as they wished to be seen, in an effort to stimulate investments from back east. The 1891 birds eye of Spokane, for example, shows neighborhoods platted out half way to Canada! As seductive as these old maps are, we should analyze them as we do period advertising, with a shaker of salt at hand.

The most striking thing about the map, however, was how much people loved it. All evening there were different groups of people gathered around, pointing out different features to one another and exchanging conversation. The rich details of the map draw in any Spokane history buff to stop and look for a long while. I hope it finds a public home.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Damnation, and the Reclaiming of Northwestern Rivers

When I was in elementary school, at least once a year the teacher would haul out the movie projector and show us "It Couldn't be Done," a 1970 TV special featuring a hippie-ish Lee Marvin and the band the Fifth Dimension presenting inspiring stories of American achievement. (Trippy excerpt here.) One of the achievements celebrated was the Hoover Dam. Who could doubt that the dam was one of the greatest efforts in the history of mankind?

Lately we have been reconsidering. One of the most interesting developments in the western environment in the reevaluation of the many dam projects which remade our rivers in the mid-20th century. Many aging dams don't produce all that much electricity or other economic benefits, yet continue to have enormous environmental impacts. Why not take them out and restore the natural rivers that we have lost? In 2011 the removal of the Elwha Dam on the Olympic peninsula began what is shaping up as a national movement. A new film, Damnation, reviews the history of damming western rivers and the possibilities and benefits of removing some of them:



I am going to see if we cannot get a local screening of this film. Are you listening, Bart Milhailovich?


Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Boondocks

If I were teaching a course about race in America, I would be tempted to use the animated series The Boondocks as the primary text.

The Boondocks is the work of Aaron McGruder, who began drawing the strip for his college newspaper. The core of the show and its conscience is Huey Freeman, a radical black revolutionary trapped in the body of a ten year old. His hip-hop loving little brother Riley is often at odds with Huey. Both fight with their old-school grandfather Robert Jebediah Freeman, who moved the boys from Chicago to an unnamed white suburb ("the Boondocks") to raise them. I read somewhere that nearly every character is an archetype, which is very true. Supporting characters include Thomas Dubois (the black sell-out who has forgotten his roots and his masculinity), Thugnificent (the decadent rapper who thinks he is somehow carrying on the legacy of MLK), and most memorably, Uncle Ruckus, the colorful self-hating black man.

The writing is amazing, both very funny and politically-pointed. McGruder has two targets--the racism built into American society, and the problems in African-American society that hold back the community. The show is very controversial.

The best introduction is the first episode, below. Warning--the show makes free use of the N-word, and other offensive speech.