This is Why Every Corporation Needs at Least One Historian on Staff

NikeWhat if Nike has a historian on the payroll?  Perhaps they could have avoided the embarrassment that Megan Kate Nelson describes in her recent piece at The Washington Post. Here is a taste:

It was still early on March 30 when historian Amy Kohout began scrolling through her Instagram feed. An image caught her eye: an ad by Nike promoting its new line of Trail Running gear, which launched this month. It had a throwback feel: a vivid image of a lone runner on a dirt path, bolting along a green bluff above an ocean with inspirational text beneath, urging potential buyers to abandon all of their wayfinding technologies and become reacquainted with “the feeling of being lost.”

These were nice sentiments. But what gave Kohout pause was the slogan in large font underneath the photograph: “The Lost Cause.” And then there was the final sentence: “Because the lost cause will always be a cause worth supporting.”

For historians of the American South and the Civil War, these words are alarming. The Lost Cause was a story that white southerners told themselves after the Civil War to justify their embrace of slavery (it was a benign institution!), secession (a legitimate course of action!) and their defeat in the Civil War (a noble cause in defense of a “way of life”!).

And Nelson concludes:

The blunder that resulted provides more evidence that business majors need to take humanities classes and that corporations need to hire humanities majors. Included in their skill sets are the ability to do comprehensive research and to provide historical context and analysis on the language companies might want to use to sell their products. While an advertising degree might equip someone to know if marketing language might lure in potential consumers, it does not offer the historical training to catch this sort of mistake before it is made.

Read the entire piece here.  I wonder how much money Nike lost when they pulled this campaign? The answer to this question might serve as one gauge for estimating how much a historian is worth.

The Gap could have used a historian as well when they tried to sell this black t-shirt several years ago:

Gap

How to Advise Ph.D Students

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Many of you recall Erin Bartram‘s viral post about her decision to leave academia.  We blogged about it here and will be talking to Erin in a forthcoming episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Her recent piece in The Chronicle Education offers some advice for professors who advise Ph.D students.  Her two main points are:

  1. Be honest about the limitations of your advice
  2. Try to recognize how little you may actually know about us as individuals

Read the entire piece here.

The Next Step in the Humanities “Counterattack” is “Translation”

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In my book Why Study History: A Historical Introduction I wrote:

But there are also larger issues that history teachers and professors, and school and college administrators, must confront if they want to be effective career counselors.  For example, we must equip students to be confident in the skills that they have acquired as history majors….Rather than apologizing to potential employers about being history majors, our students should enter job interviews boldly, discussing their abilities to write, communicate, construct narratives out of small details, listen, empathize, analyze, and think critically.  As Stanton Green, a humanities administrator notes, “People find jobs where they look for jobs.”  We need to instill our students with confidence.  The ability to do this must somehow be embedded in a history department curriculum.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, University of North Carolina-Greensboro  Emily Levine and Nicole Hall describe this process as “translation.”  Here is a taste of their piece:

After years of being on the back foot, the humanities have launched a counterattack. A shelf of new books, including Scott Hartley’s The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World (Houghton Mifflin, 2017) and Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro’s Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities (Princeton, 2017), attest to the usefulness of the humanities for the 21st-century job market. Their fresh message makes the old creed that the humanities are a “mistake” or not “relevant” seem out of touch. Surveying these works in the July-August 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, J. M. Olejarz dubs this countermovement “the revenge of the film, history and philosophy nerds….”

But where we go from here requires the hard work of identifying just what is the common denominator being learned in the humanities and how to parlay that knowledge and those skills into professional success. How do you apply Virginia Woolf to write better code or marshal your skills conjugating Latin verbs to execute an IPO?

At the University of North Carolina Greensboro, we have taken the next step of improving career outcomes for our students in the humanities by implementing the Liberal Arts Advantage, a strategy that articulates the value of the humanities to students, their parents and the community.

Directors of career development are realizing that they can’t do this work alone. They must engage faculty as their partners.

Jeremy Podany, founder, CEO, and senior consultant of the Career Leadership Collective, a global solutions group and network of innovators inside and near to university career services, says that helping faculty teach career development is part of the job. “I actually think we need to go to the faculty and say, ‘Let me teach you how to have a great career conversation,’” said Podany. The relationship between faculty members and career development offices — experts in the humanities and careers — is essential to preparing students for the job market.

Why? Because the central issue in realizing a long-term strategy for student career development is translation. That is, how students translate the skills they learn in the classroom into workplace success. This is particularly true in the case of the metacognitive skills that professors in the humanities can, and should, help contribute in their students.

Read the entire piece here.

“I get twitchy when a presenter starts talking about ‘negotiating’ and ‘complicating’ and ‘constructing’.”

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Check out Katy Lasdow‘s interview with Peggy Bendroth, Executive Director of the Congregational Library & Archives in Boston.  It is part of the Junto’s series on “Where Historian’s Work.”

Here is my favorite part of the interview:

JUNTO: When we spoke, you stressed the importance of storytelling as a means of getting a variety of people interested in history. How does storytelling factor into the work that you do? How does it connect to your research and writing?

BENDROTH: I invite a lot of academics to give talks at the Library—we have a monthly “History Matters” series that brings in a mix of people in our downtown area. I get twitchy when a presenter starts talking about “negotiating” and “complicating” and “constructing.”  It’s not that these words are bad—they’re great at academic conferences and I love most of them dearly. But (and I’m overstating a bit) the people in our audience profoundly do not care. It’s not that they can’t understand the concepts—I’m sure most of them could—but that’s not why there are there. I think that, like most human beings, they are looking for connection. They want to hear about other human beings, other lives, stories that make someone from the past both totally foreign and utterly familiar.

We should never forget that. I’m not saying that every historian has to be David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin—would that we could sell that many books! But if we can’t explain our ideas in clear simple language that the average person, they we don’t really understand them ourselves.

JUNTO: Any other thoughts on career diversity for Early Americanists?

BENDROTH: I do have a word of caution. Combining the life of the mind with lots of administrative responsibilities is not for beginners!  If you do not already have a scholarly agenda, a network of friends, and some solid achievements on your resume, the job will devour you. It is so much easier to answer an email or plan a meeting than it is to think and write. My day is full of 10 to 20 minute slots where I’m waiting for a phone call or between meetings, and I used to think I could (or should) switch over to some more academic intellectual task. It took me way too long to realize that this is ineffective and ultimately exhausting—you can only care about so many things at once. Thinking and writing requires days at a time, a place apart from your office and computer. It sometimes means going for a walk, “wasting” time staring out windows. Scholarly work also means having the support of a visionary board and regular explanations to your staff that “working at home” is not a euphemism for goofing off.

Read the entire interview here.

“The Myth of the Unemployable History Major Must Be Destroyed”

34da2-whystudyhistoryThis is the title of a great post at “One Thing After Another,” the blog of the History Department at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.  Here is a taste:

History classes stress the analysis of various media—usually texts but also sources like film, music, painting, and so on. History majors ask and answer questions such as, “Who produced this source?” “Why did she produce it?” and “Under what circumstances was this source produced?” Ours is a reading-intensive discipline because reading is the only way to become practiced at this sort of thing. Doing this kind of work requires the development of analytical skills that lead students to sharpen their judgment. They come to understand what is likely or what is true. At the same time, they are required to synthesize a great deal of material to form a comprehensive picture of how people, places, and things have worked in the past—and how they may work in the future. They are then prepared to answer questions such as, “Why did this happen?” and “How did it occur?” What’s more, students in History are compelled by the nature of the discipline to articulate their thoughts in a systematic and compelling manner, both through discussion and on paper. In addition to being a reading-intensive discipline, we are also a writing-intensive one. Finally, the study of history leaves students with an enormous amount of cultural capital. Among other things, they encounter great literature, music, painting, movies, and rhetoric.  At the same time, they also learn about important events and noteworthy civilizations that we should all know something about—such as Han China, the French Revolution, the Zulu Kingdom, the Progressive Era in America, and World War II. Students educated in this fashion thus add to their stock of experience which helps them confront the challenges of the present.

To summarize, the course of study that History majors undergo provides them with high-level analytical skills, a capacity to synthesize large chunks of information, and an ability to present logical arguments in a persuasive fashion. Not only that, but their training offers them knowledge that helps them navigate and understand the world. These are the kind of attributes employers are looking for even in an age where STEM seems to be king (see here, here, here, here, here, and here—you get the idea).

We know these things to be true because we see what happens to our own majors after they graduate from Saint Anselm College. Our department recently surveyed alums who graduated between 2012 and 2015 with a degree in History. We determined that out of the three-quarters who responded to the survey, 100% were employed or attending graduate school. We also found they attained success in a wide variety of fields, most of which have nothing to do with history. For sure, we always have a number of students who double-major in history and secondary education. We are proud of these students, many of whom are high achievers; in 2014 and 2015, the winner of the Chancellor’s Award for the highest GPA in the graduating class was a history major who went on to teach. And yes, we also have a small number of graduates who go on to work in history-related fields (see here and here). But around 75% of our graduates are scattered among a wide range of other jobs.

Recently, One Thing after Another engaged in the exercise of naming all the positions held by History alumni whom the blog personally knows. This list is obviously not scientific; other members of the History Department know different alums who hold even more positions. Yet what follows ought to give the reader a sense of the wild diversity of jobs open to those who major in History. One Thing after Another knows many history majors who have gone on to law school and have since hung out their shingle as attorneys. Many of our alumni also work for the FBI, the CIA, and the DHS. Others have found employment as police officers and state troopers. We have a number of alumni who currently serve as commissioned officers in the armed forces. Many have gone into politics, serving as lobbyists, political consultants, legislative aids, and town administrators. Others have been on the staffs of governors and mayors. Large numbers work in sales for a variety of industries. We have managers at investment firms and folks who work on Wall Street. Other history majors this blog knows are in the health insurance business, serve as economic consultants, hold positions in import-export businesses, have become construction executives, and work in public relations. They have also become dentists, software engineers, filmmakers, nurses, social workers, journalists, translators, college coaches, and executive recruiters. Some work in the hospitality industry as the managers of resorts, hotels, and convention centers. Others are to be found on college campuses as administrators, financial aid officers, reference librarians, and so on. And then there are the archivists, curators, and museum staffers. Remember, this list (which was compiled in a somewhat off-hand manner) is not exhaustive. It only consists of alumni whom One Thing after Another knows personally. There are many other history alums out there doing even more things.

Read the entire post here.

Let’s try to keep chipping away at this myth.  We at The Way of Improvement Leads Home have been trying to do our part through our “So What CAN You Do With a History Major Series” and several chapters in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

 

 

Is History a Useless Major?

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Today we recorded episode 21 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  The episode will drop soon. We are not yet ready to announce the topic of the episode but I will say that our guest is a venture capitalist and a great defender of the liberal arts.

After the recording I came home and found Paul Sturtevant’s article in the April issue of Perspectives on History: History is Not a Useless Major.”  This is the kind of article that should be placed in the history department information folders that are given to prospective or undeclared students at open houses and campus visits.  It does a wonderful job, using data, of debunking three common myths:

  1. History major are underemployed
  2. A history major does not prepare you for gainful employment
  3.  History majors are underpaid.

Here is a taste:

In advising students, talking to parents, and listening to the priorities articulated by state legislatures, we continue to encounter widespread myths about the lives of people who graduate with history BAs. These myths are largely based on misinformation about the prospective lives of those who major in history. They paint life with a degree in history as a wasteland of unemployment and underemployment—that careful study of Asoka’s conquests or the Industrial Revolution leads to a life of “Would you like fries with that?”

A potent way to combat these myths is with concrete data. Thankfully, a massive repository of data, the American Community Survey (ACS), tells us much about the lives of history majors. Conducted by the US Census Bureau each year since 2000, the ACS is a statistical survey of 3.5 million American households. It includes questions on a wide range of topics, from demographic details like age and race/ethnicity to situational data like housing and employment status. Most usefully for us, it also records individuals’ undergraduate majors. These data are then compiled and aggregated into one-, three-, and five-year estimates.

From the ACS, we know that over the years 2010–14, some 29.7 percent of all American adults over 25 completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of those, 2.21 percent received a bachelor’s in history or US history. The ACS data offer us a snapshot of these history majors across the country and at different phases of life: from recent graduates to those in retirement.

Overall, the ACS data suggest that the picture for history majors is far brighter than critics of the humanities would have you believe, even those who think the sole purpose of a college degree is to achieve a well-paying job.

Read the entire post, with graphs and charts, here.

The History Majors We Celebrate

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I am convinced that the culture of college history departments need to change.  History majors have a lot to offer society and the marketplace in a variety of fields, yet the faculty in history departments honor and celebrate those students who go to graduate school in history, largely because these students aspire to be just like us.  Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  So faculty think of these students as feathers in their caps–evidence that we are educating them in the right way.

I am not so sure that this approach is healthy.  It is time that history faculty develop a different kind of culture in their departments–a culture in which the model students are the ones who go into nonhistory or nonacademic fields where they can find meaningful and fulfilling work.

What would happen if we celebrated our graduates who get jobs in the corporate or nonprofit world in the same way we celebrate those who have been accepted to graduate schools at Ivy League universities?

(This post is adapted from Chapter 8 of my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

Is It “Stupid” to Take Out a Student Loan to Major in History?

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I don’t know the story behind the woman who just called Dave Ramsey‘s show, but Ramsey has decided to take whatever she said and apply it to everyone who is “stupid” enough to major in history or let their kids major in history.  In the midst of his ranting, raving, and name-calling he advances a very “stupid” and uninformed and ignorant argument about the value of a history major.

What saddens me is Ramsey’s complete ignorance of the many ways the study of college-level history prepares young people to contribute to our democratic society.  For him, history is little more than a fun hobby that is not useful to society unless it can provide someone with a comfortable middle-class income.  Ramsey offers a vision of the good life informed by economic determinism.  I have never listened to Ramsey, but I am guessing that he gives reasonably good economic advice.  Too bad it is at the expense of strengthening democratic life and perhaps even the life of the church.

But even if you do think a nice middle-class income and all the accoutrements that come with it are important, studies show that history majors do just as well in the long run as those who majored in other subjects and disciplines.  Ramsey is buying into a false narrative, one that we have debunked over and over and over again here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home in our  “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series and in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past? He also assumes that history is a “career” and not a course of study that contributes to ways of thinking that can be useful in all kinds of fields.

Majoring in history is not only a wise decision if you are interested in making the world a better place, but it is also a good economic decision, even if you need to take out a student loan.

There other implications to Ramsey’s tirade.  Most of Ramsey’s listeners are evangelical Christians.  By telling parents not to let their kids leave the state or attend a private institution, Ramsey undercuts evangelical Christian colleges.  In essence, he is saying that a Christian college is not worth it if you cannot pay the full tuition.  If this logic were to be put into practice Christian colleges would close.  Most students do not pay full tuition.  Parents who send their kids to these schools believe that it is worth taking out a loan for their children to get a faith-based education. In his next episode, I want Ramsey to be more specific and tell his audience that it is “stupid” if they send their kids to an evangelical college unless they can pay for it.

Ramsey also unwittingly undercuts the religious liberty arguments made by California Christian colleges in the face of the proposed bill (which has now been tabled) that would not have allowed students who attend Christian colleges to receive state loans because these colleges take traditional views on marriage and homosexuality.  In response to this bill the presidents of California Christian colleges argued that struggling poor and lower-middle class families could not receive a Christian education without these loans.  The premise behind this argument was that a Christian college education has benefits that go beyond student debt and economic considerations.

Sadly, a lot of evangelical Christians think all of Ramsey’s financial advice came down from Mount Sinai.

Thinking About Careers in History: Join Us!

One of my favorite annual events sponsored by the Messiah College History Department is “Career Night.” Each year we bring back two of our alums to talk to history majors and anyone else who wants to attend about how the study of history has offered a solid foundation to their career and vocational pursuits.

The format of the event is a public Q&A hosted by your truly. It is followed by questions from the audience.

This year our speakers are Justin Bollinger (’06) and Katie Garland (’12).

After a stellar career at Messiah College and Penn State-Dickinson Law School, Justin currently works as a lawyer with a central Pennsylvania firm.  He was also one of the first students I ever taught as a new Messiah professor in 2002.

Katie Garland had an equally stellar career at Messiah and then went on to pursue an M.A. in Public History with a certificate in Arts Management from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  She is currently loving her work as a fund development coordinator for the Girls Scouts of America.

The event is open to the public. If you are the parent of a high school student interested in studying history, a history teacher, a student at Messiah College considering a major or minor in history, or just someone in the area who wants to have their mind stimulated for an hour on a Tuesday afternoon, please join us.

The event will be held at 4:00pm in Boyer Hall, room 237.  Light refreshments will be provided.   See you there!

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So What CAN You Do With a History Major?–Part 51

cali-in-greenwichWhat can you do with a history major?  Work as a Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy.

Its been almost a decade since Cali Pitchel walked into my course on the history of the American Revolution. After a few false starts, today she is putting her history major to use every day.

Here is a taste of a piece she wrote at her blog:

I entered college as an “Undecided” freshman. Admissions assigned a well meaning but under-qualified Residence Director as my guidance counselor. Under her guidance direction I decided to take twelve credit hours my first semester — a hapless decision that would come back to haunt me during the first of a few eighteen credit hour semesters.

During the second semester of my sophomore year, I found myself sitting in the front row of “History of the American Revolution,” a small and rigorous upper-level history course. It was in this lecture hall where I would fall in love with the study of history and meet the faculty member who would have the most profound impact on my intellectual growth. Enthralled and stimulated in ways I hadn’t been during the first two years of college (and a full academic year behind on the Social Studies Certification), I declared myself a History major.

While my roommates studied for their state boards and MCATs, I took research trips to Greenwich, New Jersey and pored over Revolution-era documents at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.

As we neared graduation I got nervous. My friends headed onto medical school, Big Five accounting firms, and full-time positions as RNs. When I chose history, I didn’t choose a career. Next to their narrow, yet practical paths, mine looked roomy and indulgent. But at the same time my choices seemed limited. I had dropped the Social Studies Certificate, so I couldn’t get a job as a teacher. Did I want to do research? Become an archivist? None of the “traditional” paths appealed.

To buy myself time — two years to be precise — I went back to school for American Studies. I wrote about post-war America, industrial design, and what Rachael Ray’s success can teach us about nostalgia. It was fun. But again, seemingly indulgent.

Fast forward to summer of 2012. I’m wrapping up my second year of coursework in a PhD History program. The PhD felt like the natural choice after the MA. But I was burned out, unsettled, and agitated. I decided to take a leave from the program. Just one semester. That’s all I needed — a respite from the intensity of the program, and more importantly time to evaluate what I really wanted to do.

Teach? Research? Back to the archives? I was yet to imagine a professional life outside academia. I had bought into the narrative that the most acceptable place for a history major (or any other humanities student for that matter) was the classroom, the library, or the archives.

But I had sharpened very important skills as a history student, ones that applied outside the classroom. I could read. I could research. I could write. I could tell stories — stories marked by empathy and stories that accounted for context. In essence, I had the most practical education possible: I could listen to, interpret, and understand other people. And these weren’t just any people, they were people from the past. They didn’t look like me, think like me, or act like me — but my discipline required that I learn to understand them.

The Dictionary defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors. From the back-of-house in a restaurant to the boardroom or corner office, empathy and an ability to communicate clearly are requirements for any job.

John Fea, Professor of American History at Messiah College, has a lot to say about historical empathy and the employability of history grads. (He’s even written a book about it.)

While perusing his blog, I came across a QZ.com article from 2014 that demonstrates the importance of “intellectual humility” (i.e., empathy) in Google’s hiring practices:

It took me five years (and a few detours) after I graduated from college to learn how to articulate the value of my humanities education. My degree didn’t read “Marketing,” so I lacked the confidence necessary to apply for jobs that I truly found interesting. Instead I continued down the obvious raod that was indeed productive, but not necessary to get me onto my current career path.

Today I’m the Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy in Seattle, Washington. If you asked me in 2007, while I donned my cap and graduation gown, where I’d be in five to ten years, I would have told you a classroom somewhere. I hadn’t left any room for possibility. I hadn’t begun to imagine how well-suited I was not only for a job outside of academia, but a job in marketing and advertising that demands you understand your audience, their behavior, and their wants and needs. My current role requires all the things I learned while I studied history — especially empathy.

I’ll end on this: If you studied history and you can’t seem to find the words to express your value in the workplace, email me. I want to help. If you’re an employer, I urge you to consider “nontraditional” applicants, those without the typical Communications, Marketing, or Business degrees. Your workplace will be better for it.

Dispatches from the History Major: "The Benefits of Jousting"

I hope you are enjoying “Dispatches from the History Major.” Here is the next installment from Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller.  –JF

I had never met these strangers before. We were a mixed group of four students and four adults, and the eight of us did our best to keep the awkward silence at bay by introducing ourselves. It was my turn. After I said my piece, the middle-aged women sitting across the dinner table began the attack: “Ahh, you’re a history major, huh? Interesting….” I sighed and started mentally preparing myself for the verbal joust I knew would follow. “So, what will you do with your history major?” she interrogated.

I started my charge, “Oh, I plan on translating in the future. I’ve studied both Latin and French at Messiah College, and I’m studying abroad in Paris next semester. When I come back I’ll be bilingual and have a minor in French language.”

She lowered and aimed her lance, “Mmm. I see. But where does the history major come in to play? I don’t see the connection.”

I hesitated. Wasn’t it obvious? When I study a primary source I have to understand what it’s trying to convey. I have to explicitly listen (understand what the author is saying) and implicitly listen (understand the genre of the source, the bias of the author, and any cultural references which could confuse the chronologically and socially removed modern reader).

Then I have to write about what the source tells me. I analyze pieces of a foreign past, construct an argument, and present that argument to an audience who may be completely unfamiliar with this part of the past. Isn’t this sort of listening, people reading, and interpreting exactly what translators do every day?

I wasn’t quick enough on my horse, and these weren’t the words that came out of my mouth. Instead, I half-confidently muttered something about the connection between history and people, and how studying history helps me to better understand the human condition.

She politely smiled, nodded her head, and changed the subject. I fell off of my figurative horse into the mud and cursed myself for letting such a great opportunity to defend my discipline slip away.


If I were a STEM major, I could avoid the work, frustration, and self-reflection these jousts cause. But even though they can sometimes feel defeating and shameful, I’m glad I have to participate in these jousts. Instead of coasting through my college career due to guaranteed job-security, I have to constantly think of new ways to combat the popular stigma that history majors can only be teachers, librarians, or hobos once they graduate.

This constant tension helps me to develop the creativity and conviction I know will be necessary to convince future employers that my historical skills are valuable assets. This constant tension helped me to come up with a better answer for the next time someone asks me how history relates to translating.

I look forward to my next battle, because jousting is teaching me how to be a better salesmen as well as a better historian.