History Sells, But Who’s Buying?

So in light of the AHA/Mellon career diversity conference, right here at UNM, I have a handful of reflections. Two panels stood out to me for distinct reasons. The Thursday presentation on advocacy in academia was a mixed bag for me; it raised some important questions that it did little to answer. We are told to engage with the community, with our opinions, and with other organizations outside academia, yet there remains very little institutional support for doing so. Most programs, of course, discount that kind of work, and therefore engaged work typically brings us no closer to the brass ring of a diploma. I know that schools are slowly moving away from the old paradigms; in my undergraduate, I did a degree programs called Public History/Public Service, where engagement was an explicit part of the curriculum. I’d like to see that taken more seriously by graduate departments in History, because it would free up time for people to meaningfully participate in the types of advocacy we are told that we ought to be doing. I think this is a bit of a blind spot (and not certainly limited to graduate students—I’m sure many professors would commit time to community work if their time was not already pre-committed) that we as an academic community need to develop outlets for in the coming decade. If this sounds like a curmudgeon, it’s simply the groanings of a field which knows it needs to expand beyond the academy, but finds itself too comfortable and pedagogically set to undertake the appropriate measures.

The panel in the (snowed-in) morning on Friday was also interesting, for different reasons. Here we got a more practical discussion about skills, collaboration, and working together outside the academy. “Having a historian on your team” is an integral cog for many businesses, and not simply the ones we might expect, such as museums. We heard comments from an institutional historian at Sandia Labs, a historical expert witness and owner of a research firm, a magazine editor, and others. Their comments tended to echo one another; when Dr. Scharff asked what skills are useful in a group, they all emphasized research, flexibility in thought, creativity, the ability to narrativize, communication skills, and the ability to “own it and sell it.” Collaborative work, a hallmark of industries (but not the professoriate) is about taking our expertise and applying it.

Let’s be honest, most historians overvalue specific knowledge (we are trained to avoid generalization, to complicate our arguments, etc.) but are still experts at distilling information. We need to take a page from other disciplines (such as Child Development, for a field I am familiar with) where lengthy articles become executive summaries, which then become two-page or one-page policy briefs. Scary, isn’t it? We aren’t much for brevity, but communicating our ideas in short-form serves us well. Not all historical projects are suited for this kind of trim-down, but projects that aim towards policy should look, well, a bit more like policy. Granted, not all history research neatly ties into policy or activism, but that’s not an excuse to avoid training historians how to produce those types of briefs. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, our pedagogical detritus weighs us down, limiting these avenues, but it’s a two-way street. As this panel showed, some workforces do value historians, and others need to learn how to value us (which is where selling our skill set is invaluable).

The conference started me thinking about ways to produce this sort of policy-oriented work from my own research. School lunches are, I think, an area of continued policy interest, because they form the confluence between food business, child nutrition, public education, and local needs. New Mexico’s hasn’t always had a keen interest in its own school lunch program; in 1971 the National Education Finance Project drafted a report on school food programs across the nation, and New Mexico was one of only two states which failed to provide data. I am not sure why they failed to do so, but the statistics in the report clearly indicate the need present in NM and elsewhere. This tidbit is part of a continuum of problems with NM’s school lunch program. In their departmental handouts for 1986, the selection of vegetables and fruits is severely limited; in the course of rendering food intake scientized, a large number of possible meals are condensed into sets of about twelve realistic choices of fruits and vegetables, because they met the USDA standards for Vitamin A and what-have-you. A list of other vegetables exists in these handouts, but only on an “as needed” basis—that’s a bureaucratic euphemism for “too expensive” and indeed a few of those vegetables, like rhubarb and avocados, would certainly not be purchased by a school district. Condensing the list of fruits and vegetables (to say nothing of the approved meat and dairy list) makes economic sense, but it narrows the horizons and turns school lunch into something students “have to eat” instead of something they might actually enjoy. This strain of thought remains in our education bureaucracy to the modern day, and there’s no easy fix to the budgetary limitations, but it merits serious consideration at local and state levels. Maybe this gets alleviated by a return to gardening in public schools? Or maybe it requires substantial policy shifts that value children more? History rarely gives us a clear policy point, but distilling it is a skill we should nevertheless develop.

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