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.

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

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.


By Jason Knirck, Professor of History, Central Washington University

The CWU history department started blogging in order to share some of the particular projects our faculty, current students, and alumni are pursuing, and to communicate the vitality and breadth of teaching, research, and outreach engaged in by the members of a relatively small history department at a regional public university.  Some entries, such as this initial one, will focus on research, while others will focus on aspects of our teaching or our engagement with the broader public. Ideally, the blog will also show the process of “doing” history, whether that takes place inside or outside of the classroom.

I am the department’s specialist on Britain and Ireland, and my research in general focuses on the political culture of the Irish revolution. When I was at the national conference of the American Conference for Irish Studies this past March, several of the papers and roundtable discussions got me thinking about my past work in a different way. I jotted some illegible notes on the back of the conference program and filed it until I had some time to work on it this past summer. What I wanted to look at was Ireland’s relationship to the rest of the world at the time of the Irish Revolution (c. 1916-1923). There has been a flood of good work in Irish studies lately about the global aspects of Irish history—Cian McMahon’s recent book about the “global nationalism” of the Young Ireland movement springs immediately to mind—and much of this has focused on the movement of Irish people, commodities, and ideas around various worldwide imperial and migratory networks. Michael Silvestri has studied how Irish guerrilla tactics were influential among Indian radicals, and Michael de Nie and Paul Townend have published on how Irish nationalists perceived Britain’s African conflicts. I have an article and a couple of chapters in my most recent monograph on how the Anglo-Irish Treaty—the peace agreement that purported to end the Irish revolutionary struggle against Britain in 1921—was placed in an imperial context by supporters and opponents alike. For this new piece, though, I needed to expand the focus beyond just Sinn Féin—the party I had previously studied, and the one that led the political movement for Irish freedom after 1916—to include some other research I have done recently on the Irish Labour and Farmers’ Parties. I wanted to analyze the invocations of the rest of the world made by Irish politicians during the revolutionary era. Like historians in the Renaissance, Irish politicians (this is certainly not just an Irish trait) saw world history as a storehouse of examples on which they could draw to make contemporary political points. Looking at when, how, and in what context Irish revolutionary politicians mentioned other countries provides insight into their views on the nature of Irishness and the island’s relationship with the wider world. This meant going back through fifteen years of disorganized notes from various Dublin archives, parliamentary debates, newspapers, and secondary sources (some of these, sadly, started life as WordPerfect files!). After spending the summer looking through these files, it seemed to me that Irish politicians used the rest of the world as a sort of evaluative mirror by which they asserted or assessed Ireland’s historic nationhood, its sovereignty, its level of civilization, and its economic development. I delivered a talk centered on those four categories last week as the Midwest Regional Meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

So who cares? Why does this matter? Ireland is a small, peripheral country and the intersections between Ireland and world history cannot be tremendously great. But the analysis of these intersections brings up several vital issues that have wider resonance. The first issue is that of race. Recent work in my field has focused, somewhat controversially, on the Irish assumption of whiteness, both in America and beyond. Bruce Nelson’s Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race, for example, argued that the Irish claim of whiteness made it more difficult to express sympathy with non-white victims of the British Empire. While I think this is true, I found that Irish nationalists were equally interested in distinguishing themselves from other white-settled regions in the British Empire. Nationalists did at times express sympathy with Egypt and India, but were also concerned that too close association with Egyptians or Indians would weaken the Irish argument for self-government and lower Ireland’s standing in the eyes of European and American audiences. Other times, nationalists sympathized with non-white peoples, but in hierarchical ways that indicated that Egyptians or Indians should learn from the Irish example, with the Irish held up as the tutors and non-white peoples as their pupils. More common, though, were attempts to differentiate Ireland from the white-settled parts of the British Empire, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Sinn Féin nationalists referred to such places as “colonies” (a word they never applied to Ireland) and saw them as fundamentally British in race, customs, and attitudes. Those “colonies,” according to Sinn Féin, were entirely British creations and wanted to be part of the British Empire. They therefore had no fundamental or inherent right to self-determination as did an “historic” or “ancient” nation such as Ireland. The conclusion was that Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa were products of colonialism, whereas Ireland was victimized by it. The Irish were white, European, ancient, and national, features thought to distinguish them from the other settler colonies and the non-white regions of Empire. This approach also entirely wrote out various groups in the settler colonies, as the Irish rarely talked about the Maori, or the First Nations, or black South Africans. Nonetheless, taken together this was thought to boost the claim of Ireland to complete separation from the Empire, instead of self-government within the Empire, as had been accepted by Canada and the other white-settled areas.

Studying Irish invocations of the rest of the world also speaks to the Irish experience with migration. Irish politicians, both within Sinn Féin and in the Labour party, spoke of Ireland as a “mother country,” and this production of a diaspora was another factor that they believed set Ireland above other white-settled regions in the British Empire. In short, Ireland was an originator of a diaspora, while Canada was merely the recipient or product of one. This vast Irish international network—most notably in the United States—was seen as a potent economic and political ally for independent Ireland, and gave the country an expanded global status despite its peripheral location and small size. A handful of nationalists admitted that one critical and troubling element of this diaspora were British soldiers—privates and officers alike—of Irish descent who were engaged in the suppression of a variety of other colonized peoples, but most emphasized more positive aspects of the diaspora such as the contributions made by Irish emigrants to their new homes.

Irish politicians also invoked examples from the rest of the world when plotting Ireland’s future economic course. Although there was some discussion of the revival of Gaelic economic principles after Ireland received independence, there was also an unspoken agreement on the essential banality of this phrase. As a result, Irish economic models often came from abroad. The most intensely debated of these was communism. The Irish Labour Party, naturally, looked to the fledgling Soviet Union as a model for potential economic development. Despite the vast difference in size and resource base, the USSR proved alluring to the Labour Party for the same reasons that it appealed to many such movements worldwide: as an example of an under-industrialized or underdeveloped country freeing itself from foreign capital and modernizing based on its own resources. Labour party politicians marked the various anniversaries of the Russian revolution, noted the expansion of educational and vocational experiences available to Russian workers, and observed the attempted creation of a non-parliamentary Soviet democracy. Communism’s detractors, on the other hand, saw any flirtation with socialism as a sign that Ireland’s level of civilization was crumbling. After centuries of being termed uncivilized by British colonial authorities, the Irish were eager to demonstrate the falsity of these assertions. As such, they wanted an Ireland that was orderly—“Mexican politics” was often used as shorthand for a state that was lawless, violent and fratricidal—economically responsible via a balanced budget, Catholic (although this was often implied rather than directly stated) and noncommunist. For opponents of communism, Spain was invoked as a warning for Ireland—a previously Catholic country where a combination of (according to Irish politicians) apathetic voters and an unwise experimental bent led to the creation of a weak Republic that proved a back door for communism and atheism.

Finally, the topic allows a discussion of Irish modernization. Despite the frequent (and incorrect) assumption that Irish nationalism was backward-looking, romantic, and agrarian, most Irish revolutionaries and politicians wanted some form of modernization. The Irish Farmers’ Party often looked to small European countries (such as Denmark and Belgium) as models for economic development. Denmark, for example, combined a strong export-driven agricultural sector rooted in rather small-scale farms with a healthy agrarian co-op movement, state-funded technical and agrarian education, and industrialization. The Farmers’ praise of Denmark shows the complex relationship between Irish parties, even agrarian parties, and modernization, as the Farmers’ Party often railed against features of modern life such as urbanization, secularization, the cinema, bureaucracy, and higher education, but it also demanded state-funded modernization of Ireland’s agricultural production and marketing. Modernization was not seen as all or nothing.

I hope that the study of the ways in which Irish revolutionary-era politicians used examples from the rest of the world raises issues that are vital to both a scholarly audience and to students in the classroom. I am now working on turning this talk into an article, and would also like to incorporate this as part of a new course on Ireland and Empire. A colleague at another university has offered a similar course at the graduate level, but my goal is to make it an undergraduate course. I think such a course could look at the somewhat anomalous position of Ireland structurally within the British Empire, as well as the role of various groups of Irishmen and Irishwomen (soldiers, missionaries, colonial governors, migrant laborers) in creating and shaping that Empire. I intend to spend next summer putting such a course together and continue building on the study of Ireland here at Central Washington University.