Sustaining Collaboration Is a Skill
My Twitter feed is full of advice for people with PhDs who are exploring alternative careers outside of academia (#altac). It is not really relevant to me since I do not have a doctorate (just a Master’s), and I got my foot in the door of public history/humanities work almost twenty years ago—but I still sympathize with the struggle to find a job in one’s field after graduate school.1
What concerns me today is that as #altac PhDs move into positions at cultural organizations, they may bring with them the individualistic (some would say isolating) culture of academia. Museums, historical societies, libraries/archives, and other cultural nonprofits have been bastions for generalists and people, like me, who want to work collaboratively. They say that academia leans Left, and in my experience, people drawn to public history/humanities are even more radical in their personal analysis of power.
I am thankful for the increase in scholarly rigor that PhDs bring—and I hope that PhDs emerging from academia can likewise appreciate the organizing and relationship-building skills that those of us working with broad communities have developed through years of experience. Community engagement takes time and trust and a willingness to listen. This is particularly true for a (historically) PWI in a borough that is majority POC, such as Brooklyn Historical Society, where I worked for eight years.
I continue to see the results, 30+ years later, of the academic solo-author model for doing public history work. Scholars drop into the institution with their expertise, mount their exhibitions, and then they leave— often taking all the records of their processes with them. To be fair, the scholars’ departures were probably due to the end of grant funding. But had they chosen to work more collaboratively, they could have helped to build capacity and knowledge within the institution and the communities they engaged.2
For example, Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) had a very robust reputation for collecting oral history in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and it was known for its socially engaged historical work. Yet when I first started at BHS in 2006, there was neither infrastructure nor any procedures or guidelines for collecting oral history interviews, despite the existence of boxes of (safely preserved) unprocessed oral histories on audio cassettes dating back to the 1970s.
As I began rebuilding the oral history program at BHS, it was foremost in my mind that we take care of these legacy projects from the 1970s - 1990s by cataloging, digitizing, and making them available.3 And also that this work be done in a way that would be sustainable going forward so that I could honestly and confidently say to the people I was interviewing at that time and onward that their interviews would be available in the archives for generations to come.
Staff may come and go and we must remember the lasting impact our choices have on an institution’s relationship to the communities it serves.
I am forever confused why the great Marxist Feminist who founded my Master’s program in 1995 was okay with us taking on private loans and unpaid internships when everyone knew longform journalism and cultural criticism was a fading field. We could (neo-liberally) say it is the student’s responsibility to do the math on debt vs. future income but it is hard to be logical when one is full of hopeful aspirations. ↩
This was one of the goals of the oral history and digital humanities project I directed at Brooklyn Historical Society 2011-2015: Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations. http://cbbg.brooklynhistory.org/ (accessed October 12, 2018). ↩
Many of these legacy interviews are now available with indexing via an online portal: http://www.brooklynhistory.org/library/oralhistory/(accessed October 12, 2018). ↩