Here we go a-conferencing!

By Lacy S. Ferrell, Assistant Professor of History, Central Washington University

 

I just returned from a three-day African Studies Association (ASA) conference in San Diego, where I presented some of my research on childhood and schooling in Colonial Ghana. The following are my reflections on the experience.

 

Why do historians go to conferences?

 

I think we all go for a variety of reasons. We’re sharing our research, we’re hearing research from others in our field, and we’re hopefully getting some feedback or ideas that will translate into something that will be publishable work.

 

But really, and not entirely distinct from those reasons above, we go for the people. It’s always interesting to me to watch older, more established figures in the field at conferences; in my experience, they may go to a couple of panels, including ones where they are presenting, discussant-ing (more on that later), or are being honored, but mostly they hang out. Hanging out may be both the most fun and the most productive part of conference attendance. We all know the people we went to graduate school with, and inevitably we’ve collected friends met in archives or field research along the way, but those contacts are renewed and new ones are made mostly at conferences. This is by design; as a researcher on Ghana, for example, one event I attend at every ASA conference is the Ghana Studies Association meeting. There, I meet the scholars I otherwise only know from reading their work. Friends introduce me to their friends, who, if we go grab a meal or drinks, will hopefully become my friends too. Ideas for future panels (or even edited collections!) are batted around. Approaches to particular subjects are debated. Stories of research, teaching, and the various obligations of our professorial (and personal) lives are shared. Facebook friend invitations are sent and accepted, and thus, a longer-term relationship is forged. And of course, you’ll see each other next year, at the conference, where the process will repeat and the network of friendships and personal connections will expand. Wheee!

 

Why do these connections matter? For the same reasons that personal connections are so important in any field, I imagine. Because we are each others’ audience. I may submit an article to a journal (or a press!) someone I know edits. Who knows, I may even apply for a job at a school where I know people, or where people I know know people so they can put in a good word or, even better, a formal recommendation. Because when I publish, these people will read my work and weigh in on it, use it, build on it, and challenge it. And I read their work and I can get ideas from them, too. As a teacher I like to remind my students that when they engage with the secondary literature in a field they are entering a conversation with other scholars. This is, of course, exactly the point of producing research. What students don’t have access to, however, are the conversations that produce the research that contributes to the conversations. It’s all connected!

 

So what is being at a conference like? They’re all different; I’ve been to a few small ones, which are delightful because you end up meeting everyone and going to most of the panels. The one I just attended is very large. It’s not HUGE the way, for example, the American Historical Association conference is HUGE and usually fills two hotels and feels like a cattle call. But it’s large, because it’s the African Studies Association so it brings together historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, etc. The thing we all have in common is that we study something about Africa. Each year the conference has a theme, to which most panels are at least tangentially linked, but which doesn’t necessarily exclude outliers. There are generally a couple dozen panels in each time slot, so it’s impossible to go to more than a fraction of the overall offerings, but the wide variety of interests, regions, and disciplines helps each attendee pinpoint what most interests him or her. This year, for example, the theme was “The State and the Study of Africa,” and since I’m not really terribly interested in the “state,” especially how political scientists view it, there were a lot of panels that simply didn’t appeal to me. In contrast, my wife, who was also presenting at this year’s meeting, IS very interested in the state, so lots of panels explicitly related to the theme appealed to her.

 

So which panels did I go to? Well, first of all, over the three days I generally attended three out of the four time slots of the day (I’m resistant to the 8:30 panel, though I went to one), so I got to a bunch. And they reflect my research and teaching interests; I saw panels on female entrepreneurs along the African coast, abolition and emancipation in Ghana, sexuality and the colonial state, and, of course, my own panel, on education and the state (not, in my case, like, the “state” though. See earlier comment). One new format this year was an “author meets critic” roundtable, in which scholars from a particular field critiqued a specific work and gave the author, who was present, a chance to respond and discuss. I went to two, one on a new book (Saheed Aderinto’s When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism, and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958) and one on a twenty-five year old book (Luise White’s The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi). It was a really cool experience in both cases; one was more about the current state of the field in sexuality and urban studies and the strengths and weaknesses of the author’s approach, and the other was more of a tribute to the lasting resonance of one of the most significant books ever published on African History (which, despite being so old, still manages to feel fresh and challenging, and still is routinely assigned in graduate and undergraduate classes).

 

The typical panel, however, usually has four elements: A chair, who does little more than introduce the panelists and keeps time (and is, usually, also a presenter), the presenters, who read their papers, a discussant, who has read the papers in advance and who offers synthesizing remarks and poses questions for each author, and the members of the audience, who listen to the presentations and then ask their own questions of each presenter. In my panel the organizer of the panel was also the chair, and he presented a paper as well. There were four of us, plus our discussant, and we probably had about a dozen audience members. There are always people who come and go during panels to hear particular papers, so the audience can be a bit fluid. We all presented for fifteen minutes, the chair offered his observations, and then we took questions. I had a few people ask me to speak more on issues I had raised (or hadn’t raised), which was awesome and which indicates, I believe, that people were paying attention to my paper and thought about it! It was a great experience, and after the panel, rather than going to another one, one of my co-presenters and I got a drink and talked about education in colonial Ghana, which we both research. Again, the importance of personal connections—I had never met him before this conference, though we know some of the same people, one of whom had suggested that I should be on the panel…and so we ended up in the hotel bar talking about our work and becoming friends.

 

Despite all this emphasis on personal connections and friendship, conferences are also terrifying. By which I sort of mean inspiring and invigorating, but by which I also mean potentially rather discouraging. I’m there, presenting my paper, just over two years out of graduate school and with a not-yet-published chapter to my name, and I’m listening to people who wrote the books that changed my life as an Africanist historian and that changed, in many cases, the field. These are the people who go to multiple conferences a year, who receive invitations from all over to speak, who publish like machines, and who have the best jobs. They also, unfortunately, can have a tendency to make it look easy (even though it’s NOT and they’ve worked very, very hard to get where they are). I think that general feelings of inadequacy (on my part) can be inspiring, as I said above, because I walk away wanting to work harder and push my research further, but it is also terribly daunting because I know the kind of commitment and effort it all takes and I’m not sure that I either can or want to keep up. But I love being around the people who do put in that commitment and effort, and I love the parts of the conference that push me to be the best scholar I can be. I always look forward to ASA, and I hope that, as my career progresses, I continue to produce the kind of research and writing that will give me a spot on the program and a reason to go see all of my old, new, and yet-to-be-made friends.

Why Students Should Consider Taking Pacific Northwest History

Pacific Northwest History has a strange past in the State of Washington. Many think that the only reason to take a Pacific Northwest History course is to become a teacher. There is a reason for that. For decades, the state required that all education majors take it in order to get their degree and be certified to teach in Washington. Even kindergarten teachers needed it.

The crush was huge at teachers colleges like Central. Dr. Kent Richards, History Professor Emeritus, recalled teaching sections of 300 people each quarter in McConnell Auditorium. Needless to say, lots of the students forced to take Pacific Northwest History hated the requirement. Under this pressure, eventually, the state relented. The days of massive Pacific Northwest History classes are firmly in the past, but they have left an unfortunate negative legacy.

Now, Pacific Northwest History is only required for Social Science Secondary Education teachers and those wanting to teach humanities in middle schools/junior high schools, so, if you want to become a high school history teacher in Washington, you take it. If not, you don’t. As a result, many other students who could benefit from knowing about their region have decided that since they won’t teach there is no reason to learn about the Pacific Northwest.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are many good reasons to learn about the Pacific Northwest that go far beyond teaching it. Regional history is important and relevant to any understanding of national history. It is also an exciting tale that is very relevant to anyone planning to live and thrive in this unique region.

The first reason to study this narrative goes back to that old saying, “know yourself.” We can only truly know ourselves if we understand the environment in which we live and how we have affected that environment. The land, the resources, the history and the possibilities for the future are crucial to understand because, together, all of these factors contribute to the full meaning of this place. Without an understanding of how we arrived at this juncture, we are limited in assessing the possibilities when we want to create a realistic vision for the future.

The next reason to study Pacific Northwest History involves the idea of the case study–understand at the micro level in order to understand the macro level. The Northwest is both different and like the rest of the United States. Major trends that affect the entire country play out here in the Pacific Northwest. It provides a case study for understanding the nation.

If you want to deepen your understanding of environmentalism, start here and see how it has affected this region. Then apply your understanding nationally. The same goes with other movements. For example, Progressivism changed the country in the early 20th century. It profoundly affected this region, so studying the Pacific Northwest can show important trends applicable to the nation as a whole.

Third, Pacific Northwest History provides a unique window into something that is very hard to see. It shows how community is created in both the towns and the region as a whole. There are few histories that can trace how people came into a land, affected its original inhabitants, and created towns, economies and institutions from scratch. In this respect, Pacific Northwest History provides an essential tool for understanding such diverse fields as planning, economic development and community revitalization.

Pacific Northwest History is more than just a required class for budding teachers. It is not just a narrative featuring descriptions of wagons on the Oregon Trail. Instead, it is a vehicle to forming a better understanding of our region, for seeing how that region fits into the larger framework of the nation, and for understanding ourselves as we work for a better future for our families and friends.

Ken Munsell

CWU Department of History

Would You Like a Career With That? History Beyond Traditional Teaching

“I love history – but I don’t want to teach.”

At some level, you are a little out of luck. One of the most important things about history is communicating research to others – and in that regard, the person trained as a historian is always teaching. But if by “teaching” you mean standing up in front of Junior High students and talking about the Gettysburg address, then I get what you are saying.

What can you do with a history degree other than teach? At CWU, an important part of advising and the History 302 and History 481 courses is a discussion of what students can do with their history degree, including careers beyond the traditional classroom.

Get Creative – Get Entrepreneurial

In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers approached a professor at the University of Montana about a research project. Unable to or uninterested in the work, he pushed it off to one of his students – Alan Newell – who turned to Gary Williams, a recent MA graduate unable to afford the PhD program he was accepted to in California. Together, the two founded Historical Research Associates, a private firm that helps public and private parties engage in natural resource management, historical research, and litigation support. The company works on topics related to Native American land rights to the history of roads in Utah and developing historical apps for smart phones. HRA has offices across the United States (including Seattle) and employs historians in many facets of the operation. You can find out more about HRA here.

Gary Williams later left HRA to pursue a more personalized approach to research and develop a research niche. His firm – Heritage Research Center – has employed as many as forty people around the United States – which varies according to the needs of the firm. Employees see a starting pay of twenty-five dollars an hour (Mr. Williams stressed this point with me when we talked about his business), and carries out research projects all over North America. You can find out more about HRC here.

What does this story mean for you? Networking, creativity, and the application of the skills acquired during your BA and MA in history are the key to a great career moving forward. Even if you despise the idea of thinking about history as “vocational,” you still have to admit that a history degree gives you a broad range of opportunities by virtue of teaching you how to think and communicate.

The research, writing, analysis, and information synthesis skills of a history student are far beyond what your peers in STEM and business fields are exposed to – so turn that to your advantage. But how do you do that? Get creative and think expansively, because history does not lock you into a single career path.

At the heart of historical research is looking at the past and asking new questions – of creatively considering new ways of reading documents and the discovery of texts, images, or material artifacts that nobody has considered before. The same goes for finding a niche for your employment future. Can you merge your history skills with other passions like art, science, cooking or something else to work for an existing company or create your own?

For example, I recently attended the game developer conference PAX-Dev in Seattle as part of a College of Arts and Humanities teaching grant on incorporating games into the classroom. I spoke with game developers (video and table top) from mega-companies like Wizards of the Coast and Blizzard to indie creators starting out – and they all agreed that writing quality, problem solving, and historical knowledge (for game accuracy) were skills their companies wanted for scripting, design, and concept work. There wouldn’t happen to be any history majors at CWU that like video and table top games, would there?

Add Skills to Your Tool Box – and Sell Those Skills

Non-governmental organizations, the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, legal firms, film studios – these are just a few examples of entities that employ history grads. Not because they know the names of all the officers at the Battle of Celaya (though that is pretty cool), but because of their research, writing, and analytical skills.

Your peers in STEM and Business can’t write and research like you can – but you can’t stop there. The history major large plan at CWU only requires 79 credits. Use some of your time to pick up courses in the basics of geographic information systems (GIS), coding, communications, political science, tourism management, botany – whatever might give you additional skills that match with your interests and goals. If you are a small-plan major, try to think creatively about your minor. Will it be museum studies or anthropology (both great), or will it be economics, physics or computer science? Don’t even get me started on what mastering a language will do for your marketability.

While attending the 2007 World History Association meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I presented on a panel with a historian of the Caucasus. His employer? A giant text-book company. This particular scholar leveraged his skills as a historian to enter publishing where he finds authors, edits books, and travels around the globe researching and presenting – all while working for Oxford University Press.

Use Your Resources

The CWU History Department has three formal internships with great practical experience that will bolster that CV: The Washington State Archive Central Branch, the Ellensburg Public Library, and the Kittitas County Museum. What a great way to get college credit and practical work experience – which is why it is such a shame when we only get one or two applicants for each internship or students who intern but don’t do it for credit.

Internships, conference presentations at Phi Alpha Theta or other organizations, volunteer work – all of these are great ways to use resources provided to you by the University to deepen your experience. They also allow you to build professional networks. And don’t forget the basics of just doing your best in your class work instead of looking for shortcuts to get around an assignment: Your skills will improve but you’ll also win over your instructors and make them part of your career and mentoring network.

In Sum

The personal philosophy of history influences the ability of the history student when it comes to the job market. If all history is to you is a series of entertaining stories, you may have trouble finding ways to look beyond the use of history for the job market. If, on the other hand, your philosophy leaves room for history as a creative endeavor of inquiry after knowledge that links you to other people, you might just be able to imagine something more: You can creatively conceptualize how the skills you acquire as an undergraduate or grad student can solve global problems, network you into a career you might actually like, and allow you to “teach” history in ways that you will love.

A Short List of Resources:

For more on Public History jobs and careers (and some other examples of thinking creatively for jobs in history), see the National Council on Public History.

For a great data base of NGO and Public Service careers, see Idealist.org.

For more on the State Department and the Foreign Service Exam.

For careers at the CIA.

For more on tech companies and liberal arts degrees, see Forbes.

For an example of teachers – particularly professors or those teaching in history – that opted for different career paths, see Out-Ac at The Professor Is In blog.

Jason Dormady, Associate Professor of Latin American History, Central Washington University.