So What CAN You Do With a History Major? –Part 39

Serve others with AmeriCorps, Teach for America, or the Peace Corps.

Over at History@Work, Jeff Robinson tells his story of moving from an M.A. program in public history to work with AmeriCorps VISTA.  What is most fascinating about this post is Jeff’s explanation of how his training in history helped him with his work.  Here is a taste:

Truth be told, I never had national service jobs on my periphery when envisioning my public history career.  I knew I wanted to return to grad school and earn a Ph.D. at some point, but at the time, I saw myself working in education at a museum or a historic site.  After all, that’s what my grad school training emphasized.  A friend of mine, who recently returned from service in the Peace Corps, asked if I was familiar with AmeriCorps, and suggested that I might marry my love of history and community building into a job that paid (!!) and was an enriching and learning experience.  My early perception of AmeriCorps volunteers was green-sweatshirt-wearing young adults who moved to desolate parts of the country to build schools and the like.  I never knew of VISTA, the professional capacity-building division of AmeriCorps that dealt specifically with fighting the political, economical, and social manifestations of poverty. After a lot of reflection and research, I applied to MACC and they offered me a job at MassArt.  Of course, at the time, I lacked hindsight of what challenges and rewards awaited.  Above all, I did not know in the beginning days that not only would I get paid to be a public practitioner, but I would learn so much about myself within the context of the world along the way.

As a public historian, I brought manifold skills into my AmeriCorps job.  I knew how to have conversations with folks.  I understood that history connects people, places, and things to communities.  I recognized that critical thinking was imperative to understanding the communities I worked in, but also acknowledging many aspects of myself that were vital to service work.  Likewise, I had good written and verbal communication skills.  MassArt had the vision; I had the skills in my toolbox to help bring those visions to fruition.

As the field of public history becomes more professionalized, I see practitioners and students of the discipline losing sight of one aspect of the field’s roots in social justice, change, and advocacy.  In fact, as many know, much of public history started as people’s history, which served and celebrated an important democratic function of giving vernacular publics agency and resources to chronicle and tell their own history.  I think service jobs and opportunities are a plausible way for young professionals and academics to reconnect with communities and identify resources that everyone can deploy to challenge a world of acute adversity.  Joining AmeriCorps, Teach for America, or the Peace Corps, among others, affords historians the opportunity to empower fellow global citizens to tell and learn from their histories, which will create a system of change using the power of the past.

For other posts in this series, click here.