Notes from the Landscape: Tremont Job Corps Conservation Center

I was most excited to hear that Camping Con was going to be held at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because GRSM had two Job Corps centers between 1965 and 1969. In fact, Oconaluftee Job Corps Center still operates today. I haven’t had a chance to look at either of these centers, so I saw Camping Con as an opportunity to learn more about them. I put in a proposal to Camping Con to lead a “War on Poverty Hike” and was selected. Since the conference would take place at Cades Cove Campground, I decided to do a tour of Tremont, which is now the Great Smoky Mountains Institute, an environmental education center, less than ten miles away. I reached out to GSMI staff and they were happy to meet with me. Staff took me on a tour of the facility in September.


Entrance to GSMI at Tremont showing bridge over Middle Prong of Little River.

Let me back up a moment to explain my interest in the Job Corps. The Job Corps was a War on Poverty program that was essentially a 1960s reboot of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was set up a lot like the CCC, but there were two notable differences. First, the CCC was created as a response to an economic crisis, the Great Depression. The Job Corps was born during a moment of unprecedented American prosperity, which highlighted persistent pockets of poverty in places like Appalachia and inner cities. Second, the CCC was segregated, but the Job Corps was purposely integrated during an important phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The NPS was heavily involved in establishing the program and operated nine centers in eight national parks between 1965 and 1969, but it is a very little known chapter in the agency’s history. Since 2012, I’ve had the chance to research and write about the centers at Catoctin Mountain Park and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. I’ve also surveyed Job Corps resources at Mammoth Cave National Park a few years ago. I’ve found that these centers had pretty significant impacts to national park landscapes and much evidence can still be found.

Great Smoky Mountains Institute is located on the former campus of the Tremont Job Corps Conservation Center (here’s a map of campus today). The campus itself is a layered landscape. In 1859, Will and Nancy Walker settled in the area. In 1924, the Little River Lumber Company logged the area. In 1925, Colonel W.E. Townsend donated eleven acres to be used as the Margaret Townsend Girl Scout Camp, where it was used until the Girl Scouts relocated to Camp Tanasi in 1959, a much larger location (419 acres) on Lake Norris. The Job Corps was there for only four years (1965-1969). In 1969, Maryville College in coordination with the National Park Service operated an environmental education center at Tremont until 1979. The center closed for repairs, but was reopened by the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association. In 1986, the name changed to Great Smoky Mountains Institute. (For more information, see this excellent timeline)

Although the Job Corps program counts for a very brief period of Tremont’s history, it was still a pretty important chapter. The Job Corps opened in December 1965, nearly a year after Catoctin Mountain Park, the very first center, began operation. Job Corps administrators wanted to open the center early in the summer of 1965, but standards for the Job Corps facilities changed, which delayed the construction of centers at Tremont and Oconaluftee. Tremont was a 100-man center, and what makes it different from other centers that I have studied, is that it was predominately African American. It could provide interesting information about the experience of African Americans in the NPS during the Civil Rights Movement. The Tremont Job Corps Center closed in 1969 when President Nixon reduced the program, closing nearly sixty conservation centers including all but three of the NPS Job Corps Centers.


Map of Tremont Campus, circa 1965-1966. Source: National Archives.

The Tremont campus has undergone many changes over the years, but the Job Corps legacy is still readily visible on the landscape. There are still four buildings from that period that remain and a number of important landscape features. Additionally, the circulation pattern remains the same. Unfortunately, the dormitories, dining hall, administrative building, and staff trailers are no longer extant. Despite the brevity of the Job Corps program, I wonder if the GSMI would even exist if the Job Corps had not built a campus at Tremont.

Work Building

The work building was part of the original center that opened in December 1965. It would have been one of the first buildings that corpsmen saw when they arrived at the center, reminding them of the reason why they were there: conservation work. Tremont corpsmen completed trailwork, roadwork, landscaping, and rehabilitated the campground at Cades Cove. Today, the Work Building is now used as the administrative offices and gift shop for GSMI.


Work Building, now administrative offices for GSMI.


The gymnasium was one of the most important buildings for Job Corps centers. Corpsmen arrived at Catoctin Mountain Park in January of 1965, and staff quickly realized they didn’t have a place for these young men to recreate during winter months. These gymnasiums were essential for morale. Contractors and corpsmen constructed the gymnasium at Tremont in 1966. In 1984, the gymnasium was converted to a new dining hall and classrooms. However, the parquet floors remain and if you go up into the attic, you can still see the upper reaches of the gymnasium.


Vocational Building

Corpsmen also helped contractors build the vocational building in 1966. Here, they would learn skills such as small engine repair or welding to better prepare them for a post-World War II economy. In the 1980s, the vocational building was converted into a dormitory.


Side elevation of Vocational Building, now a dormitory.


This is why visiting these places on the ground is so important. This structure wasn’t on my radar until GSMI staff mentioned that they believed it dated from the Job Corps period. What is interesting about this structure is that it has an extraordinary amount of welding work. When reading through my files, I saw recommendations from staff that welding would be a good vocational program for this center. Job corpsmen may have built this structure for practice.


Pavilion with Gymnasium in background.

Paved Surface Area and Playfield

These landscape features were part of the original 1965 campus. Administrators held the center’s opening ceremony on the paved surface area in April 1966. It is also a physical reminder that corpsmen were between 16 and 21 years old and recreation was an important part of the program. Adjacent to the paved surface area is the playfield, which is still used for this purpose. According to GSMI staff, the campus used to be much more open, but they have started planting native trees and grasses to reduce mowing. Fortunately, this area remains an open space.


Surfaced Play Area with Playfield behind vehicles.


Another important landscape feature is the bridge at the entrance of the center that goes over the Middle Prong of the Little River. One of the first graduates of the Tremont Job Corps was an African American man named Frank Carruthers. He left the Job Corps to join the Marine Corps. There is a picture showing corpsmen lined up along the bridge “drumming” him out of the Job Corps. Corpsmen may not have done this for every graduate, but it is a pertinent reminder that some joined the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War.

Material Culture

For those historians interested in material culture, another interesting find during my September visit were wooden benches in the dining hall. GSMI staff had pictures of the benches from 1970, which points to the theory that they were constructed by corpsmen. Catoctin had a sign making center and constructed picnic tables for parks in the National Capital Region. It is completely plausible to me that corpsmen built these benches during the winter months to learn basic woodworking and construction skills.


Benches believed to have been constructed by Tremont corpsmen. Parquet floors also original to Gymnasium.

Unfortunately, the archival records I found at the National Archives and park only cover the years 1965 to 1967. I would need to do more research to find out about Tremont corpsmen activities between 1968 and 1969. Most NPS Job Corps Centers had at least one major multi-year project for corpsmen, but so far, I haven’t found such a project for Tremont. It could be that since GRSM is such a large park, regular maintenance was enough to keep the 100-man center busy.

I’d like to mention one new source of information that I found very valuable while doing this research. The Open Parks Network launched right around the time as I was researching Tremont. I found a whole trove of historic photographs from the convenience of my own office, which was extremely helpful to me. I’m very excited to have this resource for future projects. Did I mention it is free? FREE!

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Five Stars for Camping Con!


Group Camp 4 on the last morning of Camping Con. My humble abode is on the left. 

I spent a beautiful fall weekend at Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the first ever National Council on Public History Camping Con. When I heard NCPH was sponsoring a mini conference about “Outdoor Public History,” where participants would camp together in a national park, it was a no-brainer. Camping in a national park? Check. Close to my house? Check. Public history peeps? CHECK CHECK CHECK. I couldn’t get my proposal submitted fast enough.

As I was packing, I had some reservations about the conference set up. These feelings mostly focused on my wardrobe and how I would get my caffeine fix in the morning. I knew it was going to be casual, but how casual? After some ruminating Friday morning, I decided yoga pants would just have to do until I set up camp.

I arrived at the group campsite at Cades Cove Campground to find the coolest conference nametags in the history of conferences: tree cookies with our names emblazoned on raw wood with fun colored leather lanyards. I found a spot in the group campground and set up my tent with my queen-sized air mattress that took up almost the entire space inside. Other people came equipped with camping pads or yoga mats. As we discussed the next night by the fire, there is no right or wrong way to camp. You do you.

My reservations about how to appear professional at a camping conference very quickly dissipated. Everyone was excited to be there and had struggled with their tent poles just as I had. It was a smallish group with about 43 attendees, plus one insanely cool Newfoundland named Cady. It was a diverse group of academics, consultants, practitioners, and grad students. One contingent did not overwhelm the other, which is not always the case at the annual NCPH meeting. Some people were old friends, but many I have never met before. Attendees were collegial, friendly, and genuinely excited to be there. We had excellent keynote speakers, including Nigel Fields, GRSM’s new Chief of Resource Education. Dr. Tameria Warren, an Environmental Specialist at Fort Jackson, led an important group discussion by firelight of Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces in White Spaces.


Misty tour of one of my most favorite places, Elkmont. 


Cady was a most excellent co-presenter

I found the best moments of the conference were when campers decided to eschew regular conventions. For example, we had a rainy first night and drizzly morning on Saturday. I stayed dry on my luxuriant boat of a mattress, but others had not fared as well. They remained good sports on Saturday, but still it wasn’t a restful night for them. I didn’t put on any makeup in the morning, and by the time it was my turn to lead a tour of Tremont, I said screw it. I gave my presentation sans makeup, which might not sound like a big deal until I remembered the time I was at a major conference as a grad student and ran into my advisor and her friends coming off the elevator after I worked out at the hotel gym. It really wasn’t a big deal at the time, but I was still somewhat mortified to see my advisor and these leading people in the field in a post-gym state. So to do an entire presentation largely not caring what I looked like was quite liberating.


Group in Cades Cove

My scheduled tour probably did not have the best time slot because it started when most people were starting to eat lunch. I pushed it back a bit so that more people could go. In a normal conference setting, can you imagine saying, “You know, let’s just wait fifteen minutes”? A conference organizer somewhere is having vapors by the thought. Two presenters took advantage of this relaxed atmosphere to combine presentations. Instead of splitting the group, almost everyone was able to attend together and enjoy a beautiful walk around Cades Cove.

Here are some other things I liked about the set up:

  • It was cheap. Registration only cost $40 and included two meals. I bought camping gear, but could have easily borrowed equipment or signed up for the tent share program.
  • Everyone was happy to share whatever they had: food, equipment, and even coffee. That really added to the sense of conviviality and community.
  • There was no cell service, which was awesome. That may be a bit hypocritical on my part because I love using social media during conferences. In fact, that is how I have connected with many public historians. But by not having cell service at Camping Con, I was completely distraction-free and could really engage with people and their work.
  • I have to think camping is much more environmentally sustainable than a conventional meeting.
  • Place is so critically important to public history, it was invigorating to be completely immersed in a place.
  • Campfires every night. Campfires = s’mores. Enough said.

My only complaint is one that is common with many conferences: too many interesting activities happening at once. Look, I get it. You want to get as many people on the program as possible so that they will come. But I had several people tell me they couldn’t make my program because they were eating lunch or wanted/needed to do something else. The nice thing, though, was that because the group was so small and had no electronic distractions, I could talk to people about my research over the course of the weekend. All was not lost.

Several of us mentioned how hard it is going to be to go back to the regular conference model of cold, non-personable hotel conference centers I’m starting to wonder about all those conventions and “conference etiquette” that we normally take for granted as part of “professional development,” and question if they are even necessary.

But, really, the most important question is where will we do this next? Thanks Tammy Gordon, Anne Whisnant, and Seth Bruggeman for getting this started. Can’t wait for the next one!

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Diamonds in the Rough: A Conversation about the National Park Service’s Postwar Turn to Poverty, Pollution, and Urban Planning at the National Council on Public History

On March 16-20, 2016, public historians from across the United States convened in Baltimore, Maryland for the National Council on Public History annual meeting. I joined a group of scholars and practitioners for a roundtable discussion about the National Park Service’s involvement in urban parks since World War II.


Mahoney points out that documentary film maker Ken Burns devoted 16% of his series “America’s Best Idea” to the history of the NPS after World War II. That’s not a lot of time! Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Eleanor Mahoney, a doctoral candidate in history at University of Washington, could not attend in person, but offered the opening remarks. She pointed out that the historical narrative about the NPS has largely been dominated by the creation of scenic, western parks before World War II. Yet, the system has expanded dramatically since then and has become increasingly involved in urban parks. This roundtable was formed with the intention of disrupting this narrative. She also pointed out that the importance of the interaction of political economy with conservation policy. The Great Society programs of the 1960s and environmental movement of the early 1970s provided the impetus for park expansion, but the growing austerity of government spending under Ronald Reagan and his successors prompted the invention of flexible, though not always adequately funded, programs like partnership parks and National Heritage Areas. One of her last points was that these new parks, which are now the standard bearers for the NPS Centennial, are very different from the older, western parks that are continuously referred to as the “crown jewels” of the national park system.

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Cover of Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area, 2014-2015 Visitors Guide. Source: Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area.

Patrick Nugent, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at George Washington University, provided deeper introspection about a specific NPS planning effort at Gateway National Recreation Area, located in the Port of New York and New Jersey. Patrick’s research on Gateway is part of his larger study on the environmental history of Staten Island in the decades surrounding the completion of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (1964). He shows that by the late-1960s, government officials and urban planners were in favor of creating high-density housing with access to mass-transit, and were considering a proposal from James Rouse for a “New Town-In-Town” to help alleviate unorganized, racially-segregated growth in the lower-third of Staten Island. However, the NPS forestalled these efforts when they added the Great Kills Unit on Staten Island to a proposed national park in the area. Congress established Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972, which thwarted opportunities for affordable housing and mass-transit opportunities in southern Staten Island. Instead of bringing a national park to diverse communities as a way to smooth racial tensions, which was President Nixon’s expressed interest, critics argued that the NPS created a playground for rich, white New Yorkers. Nugent concluded his remarks saying that when reaching out to urban audiences, especially low-income residents and people of color, officials need to consider the lost opportunities (jobs, housing, and transportation) and unfulfilled promises associated with the formation of urban parks. He expressed his belief that officials taking on the new Urban Agenda should use program funding to fulfill some of those promises and add a new goal to its long term vision: “to bring affordable housing and mass transit to the parks.”


View of Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (1964). Photographed by Arnoldius. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Map of Gateway National Recreation Area. Source: National Park Service

I presented a brief case study on the Job Corps program (here is a slightly longer post) to bring attention to the fact that urban concerns were often transplanted in rural, traditional national parks. The Job Corps was a War on Poverty initiative during the Lyndon Johnson’s administration. The National Park Service helped launch the Job Corps program by opening nine Job Corps Centers in eight national parks between 1965 and 1969. This program was modeled after the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps, which put young men to work on conservation projects across the U.S. Program administrations targeted impoverished young men from inner city areas and the hills of Appalachia to live and work in these rural national parks. Unlike the CCC, the Job Corps was integrated, reflecting the influence of the Civil Rights Movement. This added an additional layer of complexity that I think makes this program worthy of study. As the Johnson administration fell out of favor, so too did his domestic programs like the Job Corps. President Nixon closed all but three of the NPS Job Corps Centers. The Forest Service administers these three centers today. The Job Corps program is important to look at because it was a notable point in the agency’s effort to diversify its workforce. Corpsmen completed a number of projects that are enjoyed by visitors and park staff on a daily basis, but are often unattributed to them. Finally, it underscores how the NPS has been involved in social and economic reform.


President Lyndon B. Johnson talks to a Job Corps enrollee at Catoctin Job Corps Center in 1965. Source: Catoctin Mountain Park.

Rolf Diamant, co-author of the recently released  A Thinking Person’s Guide to the National Parks, brought to the roundtable nearly forty years experience working with the NPS, including some of these urban areas. He reminded the audience that the agency’s interest in urban eastern areas is not new. In fact, the first directors Stephen Mather and Horace Albright wanted to create parks and historic sites in the east to attract the majority of the nation’s population. They knew if they didn’t have the support of the citizens, the agency would not thrive. The New Deal provided the opportunity for the NPS to expand, using emergency relief funds for land acquisition and labor. This New Deal legacy continued after World War II with the creation of the Outdoor Recreation Review Services Commission and programs like the Job Corps. President Nixon latched onto the urban parks initiative, but dropped it quickly after the 1972 election. Urban parks continue to remain an important political tool. At the dedication of Pullman National Monument in Chicago, President Obama said that it was as worthy of protection as the Grand Canyon. His administration also saw a number of park programs, including “Healthy Parks, Healthy People,” and “Every Kid in a Park.”


President Barack Obama signs a proclamation regarding the establishment of the Pullman National Monument at the Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago, Ill., Feb. 19, 2015. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Missy Morrison is the DC Urban Fellow for the new NPS Urban Agenda’s Model Cities Program. The name itself borrows upon the Model Cities Act of 1965. Missy could not make the panel because of last minute emergency. Her perspective was certainly missed, but Rolf was able to step in to provide an overview. The agenda has three main goals: 1) Be relevant to all Americans 2) Activate “ONE NPS” 3) Nurture a Culture of Collaboration. Some of these ideas go back to the 1987 Urban Superintendent’s Conference.

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NPS Model Cities and Urban Fellows Program. Source: National Park Service

Brenda Barrett, our moderator, asked how we should look to the future. Patrick responded that we need to reconsider national parks as non-residential landscapes. The agency needs to consider lost jobs, homes, and transportation when these parks are created. Rolf emphasized the need for parks to have multiple uses to better meet the needs of visitors. The NPS is more sophisticated and should be able to accommodate a changing population. I responded that the lessons learned from urban parks could be helpful for those units that were once rural, but are now urban. Additionally, we can learn lessons from youth programs like the Job Corps to help improve our current youth initiatives.

We then invited audience questions. These questions ranged from the impact of the National Heritage Area program on the national park system to current resistance to federal landownership. Another audience member pointed out Imperiled Promise’s directive to interpret how the NPS has shaped the landscape. We also discussed the new Coltsville National Historical Park (Connecticut’s first national park) and how/if the park will interpret gun violence at a place that was created with the support of pro-gun groups.

Here are a few tweets for the session, but I’m afraid I didn’t catch them all.

Special thanks to Eleanor and Patrick for their input on this post and Rolf and Missy for participating in our roundtable. Thanks to Brenda Barrett for being a calm, fabulous, and brilliant moderator. 

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Finishing the Sesquicentennial

Daylight Savings has me all messed up. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I let my mind wander. I found myself thinking about how I missed blogging. My various writing projects have made it difficult for me to keep it up. Earlier this month, I submitted the first draft of Stones River National Battlefield’s administrative history for review. I did not want to write a project update, but I kept thinking back to the park’s Black History Month events in February. I got out of bed, found my laptop, and here we are.

The strangest thing about the Stones River project for me has been drafting the last chapter, because it covers a period that I am familiar with—the Civil War Sesquicentennial. I discuss how the park has been at the leading edge of embracing the theme, “From Civil War to Civil Rights.” These efforts can be traced back to 1998. That year, park staff helped organize a conference in Nashville for Civil War battlefield superintendents and stakeholders called “Holding the High Ground.” The takeaway from this meeting was that the NPS should do a better job incorporating other stories beyond military history into the narratives they tell at Civil War parks, particularly slavery as a central cause to the war.[1] However, incorporating this vision into park interpretation took time.

Stones River National Battlefield has especially strong partnerships with Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of History and the Tennessee Civil War Heritage Area, which have helped the park incorporate new scholarship into its interpretation. Dr. Rebecca Conard, in particular, and her graduate students at MTSU have helped bring to light the story of Cemetery community, an African American post-emancipation community that settled on the battlefield but was later removed by the War Department to create a battlefield park.[2]

As planning for the Sesquicentennial geared up, the NPS chose the theme “From Civil War to Civil Rights.” This theme provided a framework to connect the legacies of the Civil War to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement.  Staff at Stones River took on the charge. On New Years Eve 2012, the 150th anniversary of the battle, park staff held a vigil at a nearby African American church and did a program about the Emancipation Proclamation. There were no reenactments that first day. Despite more inclusive programming, few African Americans attended the 150th anniversary programs.

Like parks across the system (as recently discussed on NPR), Stones River National Battlefield has had a difficult time reaching diverse audiences. It was not for lack of interest or effort on part of the staff. It took the leadership of an outward looking superintendent, who was adept at engaging community members in the park’s mission. Gayle Hazelwood was able to reinvigorate the Friends of Stones River National Battlefield, which was largely inactive upon her arrival in 2012. The Friends group in turn established a committee on African American history, but still struggled to bring in people of color. I remember attending a meeting last year with the purpose of planning an African American history event with only white people present. It was not very encouraging. But Gayle kept at it; she met with members of the African American Heritage Society. They became involved and helped plan a fantastic program of events at the park for Black History Month that centered on the story of Cemetery community.


Cemetery community tour at grave of William Holland, February 6, 2016.

For the first Saturday, the park organized a bus tour of historic Cemetery community. We began at the visitor center and then drove to Stones River United Methodist Church, where we heard resident Boe Washington speak about her memories and knowledge of Cemetery community. We then headed to Van Cleve Lane in the park, where Tiffany Momon, an MTSU graduate student, talked about the Cedars portion of Cemetery community. Our next stop was Evergreen Cemetery, the local African American cemetery where residents held Memorial Day celebrations for many years. Our last destination was outside the Hazen Brigade Memorial wall, at the grave of William Holland, where a United States Colored Troop (USCT) reenactor told us Holland’s story in first-person. We ended the tour back at the visitor center. The tour was a great way to provide a visual and spatial understanding of Cemetery community, both historic and current, by including stops that showed spaces historically occupied by African Americans, but no longer extant, and the spaces their descendants continue to use today. The tour also kicked off the new cell phone tour of Cemetery community developed by the park that can be downloaded by visitors. This tour is available through the OnCell app.


Dramatic performance at Stones River National Battlefield, February 20, 2016.

The second Saturday felt like a daylong celebration. Park staff provided a big tent for the day’s activities. Local African American singers gave amazing performances, singing powerful music that told the African American struggle and the freedom promised by God. Boe Washington and Anthony King, who both grew up in Cemetery, talked about their life experiences. There was an art show inside the visitor center and the USCT had an encampment nearby. Perhaps my favorite part of the day was a spoken word and dramatic performance about life in Cemetery community, centering on the moment when Rowena Minter received a letter telling her that the government wanted to buy her farm for the park. I was amazed at how well the script and actors so effectively brought this dramatic episode to life, capturing the emotions of the prospect of having to leave one’s home. I was so enthralled that I came back in the afternoon to watch the performance again. Thanks to good weather, there was a full audience for both the morning and afternoon programs. It also attracted regular park visitors, who stopped to see what the hubbub was about.

At one point a friend said to me, “Can you believe that this is happening here?” I shook my head. This programming was everything that many of us hoped the Sesquicentennial would be. We hoped it would be inclusive and engaging to bring in new audiences to Civil War sites. Staff at Stones River had good intentions, but they needed more time and the right guidance to develop meaningful relationships to make such programs possible. But if I am suggesting that this is the end of the Sesquicentennial, is the job done? Not by a long shot. This is just another point in the interpretation continuum.[3] I hope that the success of this program will provide the necessary momentum to help the park delve into the legacies of Reconstruction and continue to nurture this relationship with the Rutherford County African American Historical Society.

As I gear up to meet other public historians in Baltimore this week at the National Council on Public History meeting, I will keep this experience in mind as we discuss “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” I freely admit that I did little to plan this program. Its success can only be attributed to the members of the Rutherford County African American Heritage Society, park staff, and members of the Friends of Stones River National Battlefield. I attended planning meetings to lend my support and be a cheerleader. Obviously, I was there for the events and encouraged others to attend, but really I was in a good position to observe. I think Stones River National Battlefield’s experience reaffirms that telling new stories is a great way to bring in new audiences, but partnerships are key to ensuring that these stories are actually heard by new audiences. Otherwise, they are just new stories being told to old audiences, which can be helpful in some respects, but does not fully challenge the “exclusive past.”

For further reading, here is the park’s Long Range Interpretive Plan.

[1] Robert Sutton, “Holding the High Ground: Interpreting the Civil War in National Parks,” George Wright Forum 51, no. 3 (2008): 51.

[2] See Rebecca Conard, “The Changing Face of the Country: Environmental History and the Legacy of the Civil War at Stones River National Battlefield,” George Wright Forum 28, no. 2 (2011): 161-81.

[3] John Hennessy, “Touchstone: The Sesquicentennial, the National Park Service, and a Changing Nation,” Common-Place 14, no. 2 (Winter 2014).

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Putting my Ph.D. to Work

I think many of us writing our dissertations look forward to those few months after graduation to recover and decompress before we start whatever our next chapter might be. I know I was thinking about stretching out on a sandy beach somewhere drinking something very alcoholic. Daydreams aside, whenever I envisioned life after graduation, I expected some sort of fog to lift and everything would normalize again. Instead, I am busier than ever. The fog lifted, but only to reveal my mostly empty bank account.

With summer coming to a close and classes about to start, I thought now might be a good time to post an update about how I’m using this degree I worked so hard to get. I am one of the fortunate few PhDs to have a job waiting for me after graduation. Many of my friends and colleagues know that I started a postdoctoral fellowship in May to write an administrative history for Stones River National Battlefield. This is a great transitional project that builds upon my doctoral residency and dissertation, while also providing new experience in writing an official administrative history for the National Park Service. While it is a fantastic opportunity, it also means I’ve had to research and write three chapters this summer, which is not easy to do so soon after finishing a dissertation. However, the importance producing such a document for park managers was certainly underscored by debates over the Confederate flag this summer and how we make meaning of Civil War commemorative landscapes like Stones River.

In an interesting turn of events, I became a tour guide for a history walking tour company in Nashville. I first came to this job out of necessity (I needed the money), but have stuck with it because it gives me the chance to interact with the public on a weekly basis. I’m learning a ton about Nashville, how best to engage people with historic urban landscapes, and working for a for-profit history business.

I have taken a break from my work on Cumberland Gap National Historical Park for most of the summer, but I am happy to report that my research is starting to reach new audiences. I had the privilege of presenting a public program at the park to celebrate its Job Corps Center’s 50th anniversary. I have also been talking to CRM contractors about NPS Job Corps history, because they are working on projects that deal with these resources. Now, I am starting to think seriously about journal articles and book proposals, and trying to figure out how to fit these with my already full research and writing schedule.

Each of these new adventures delves into important issues in public history and cultural landscapes. There are too many things to bring together in one post, but I may follow up with some special posts in the next few weeks. Let me know what you’re interested in hearing about!

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“Don’t Let Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story:” Interpretive Themes at Jack Daniel’s Distillery

At the beginning of Jack Daniels Distillery tour

At the beginning of Jack Daniel’s Distillery tour

I spent Mother’s Day with my family in Lynchburg, Tennessee, at Jack Daniel’s Whiskey Distillery, because moms like Jack Daniel, too. I have wanted to write about one of these tours for a couple of years now. Not because I’m a huge whiskey drinker (most of my friends know I’m perfectly happy with cheap beer), but because I am completely fascinated how these large distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee use heritage to sell their brand and product. These efforts aren’t just a casual occurrence; companies are spending millions of dollars on visitor centers and other services, catering to what I consider a public history experience.

I first noticed this a couple years ago when I stumbled into the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience in downtown Louisville. I didn’t mean to run a public history analysis on the place (I was celebrating my 26th birthday, after all), but I couldn’t help myself once our guide mentioned the number of people that make the pilgrimage to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. This trail, created and trademarked in 1999 by the Kentucky Distillers Association to educate the public about the bourbon craft and its important contribution to Kentucky heritage, now links 18 Kentucky distilleries. The KDA itself dates back to 1880, formed so that distillers could lobby for state laws and regulations that favored their industry. It is with little surprise that they continue to work together today for a common marketing strategy.

In each of the past five years, Kentucky Bourbon Trail visitors have set and smashed attendance records. In 2014, participating distilleries welcomed 725,000 visitors. Some companies might hesitate sending customers to their competitors, but the KDA wisely encourages visitors to pay homage to multiple distilleries on their trip through a passport program (designed in a similar fashion to the National Park Service program) they launched back in 2007, in which visitors can collect stamps from all the distilleries they visit. Although, I’m sure most of the lushes on the bourbon trail are much more interested in collecting bottles than stamps, which is probably what the KDA is hoping for.

My family shopping after the tour

My family shopping after the tour

I give all this background on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and KDA to bring up my recent tour of Jack Daniel’s distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. JD is not a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail (although I’m sure there are plenty of sots that extend their tour from Kentucky to Lynchburg), and I am not going into the debate about Tennessee whiskey versus Kentucky bourbon. But I do think that both the KDA and JD both know the importance of using heritage tourism to support and sell their brand and products. I noticed certain themes used by both the guide at Evan Williams and those presentations I’ve heard at JD. I want to talk about those themes and interpretive strategies in this post.

First, these distillery tours, including JD, really do benefit from a cultural landscape approach, meaning that guides work to point out the importance of setting, natural resources, and built environment in making fine spirits. Whiskey making at JD has changed a lot over the years, and a cultural landscape approach helps explain changes over time. At JD, tour guides place emphasis on the natural resources both local and imported to craft their product, including the spring that Jack Daniel purchased when he started the business.

Ben, our guide, talks to the group about the spring that  becomes whiskey.

Ben, our guide, talks to the group about the spring that becomes whiskey.

The quality of the natural resources in relationship to the setting is notable, because these themes help tour guides explain how JD “crafts” its products and makes a unique Tennessee product. It is amazing, then, that in the midst of walking through a factory that produces so much whiskey en masse that guides effectively show how each bottle of JD is handcrafted, particularly the ubiquitous No. 7. I’m sure this emphasis on craftsmanship is necessary for a company like to JD to stay ahead of all the artisanal enterprises that have been cropping up in recent years.

Jack Daniels's office

Jack Daniel’s office

Contributing to this idea of craftsmanship is the cult of personality that is exploited by tour guides and furthered by preservation efforts at the site. Jack Daniel’s original office is just a few steps away from the spring. The company has carefully preserved the building and uses it as a stop for its tours. Inside the office, you learn about Jack and his larger-than-life personality. Guides then talk about Lem Motlow, his nephew who inherited the business and brought it through prohibition. They also talk about the master distillers who carry on Jack Daniel’s legacy for quality spirits. But in the same breath, the guides also mention that company was sold to the Brown-Forman Corporation in 1956, which is one of the largest American companies for spirits and wine. I find it incredibly interesting that this part of the story is given such little attention since it is likely that this absorption allowed Jack Daniel’s whiskey to be so internationally recognizable. In fact, the tour guides speak proudly of the reach JD spirits has across the world. But, spending a lot of time on this absorption would mean taking away from the cult of personality that surrounds Jack Daniel and the idea that this is a “family company,” which is also emphasized in the office tour.

Text on panel inside visitor center

Text on panel inside visitor center

Inside the visitor center there are a few exhibit panels and artifact cases. One exhibit panel describes one mystery surrounding Jack Daniels in which historical facts seem to undermine the legend. The exhibit writers end the text with the following: “Of course, facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.” I think that’s the take away message from the JD tour. The tour guides are sharing very valuable information with visitors about the process and product, but to a certain extent they are perpetuating myths about Jack Daniel and the history of the company. They use history when it helps them tell a good story, but at the end of the day they are weaving together a tale that they hope will encourage you to buy their product. I also noted that Art Hancock, the company’s first marketing person, began collecting the artifacts shown in the cases in 1954. Sixty years ago, Art understood the marketing potential of Jack Daniel’s story and began collecting artifacts to tell that story. So it seems that the impulse to collect and present material culture relating to Jack Daniel’s story originated with a company marketer.  Using history as a marketing tool is just as much of a tradition in Lynchburg as distilling.

I thoroughly enjoy the Jack Daniel’s distillery tour and recommend it to anyone visiting the area. I’m certainly not trying to knock it in this post, considering that the tours are free to the public. I do think that public historians have something to learn from Jack Daniels and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. For example, I wonder if they have any historians on staff and what kind of training they go through. I would love to know more about how these operations are organized, and, what, if anything, non-profits might learn from them. I also think they do a great job explaining process and product, which some historic industrial sites struggle to do.

On the other hand, I think public historians can add value to these operations, if they are not doing so already. Jack Daniel’s, for example, could easily offer a walking tour that extends into the town of Lynchburg itself to better talk about the social, economic, and political relationships between the town and the distillery. And I do think there are ways that guides can bring these larger issues into the tours, particularly when discussing the company’s absorption by a larger parent corporation. Public historians know how to use the facts to tell a good story. 

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“Beyond the Administrative History:” Report from NCPH Working Group

Last Friday, my working group on National Park Service administrative histories convened for discussion at the National Council on Public History meeting in Nashville. Administrative histories are documents that the NPS uses to understand the agency’s involvement in a particular park, office, region, or program, to help with future management decisions. We’ve been talking over the past several months contributing to a Google Doc about how the NPS might revisit its guidelines, last written in 2004, and think “beyond the administrative history.” In other words, how can we make these documents more usable? I was happy with group’s diversity and impressed by the participants’ credentials. Everyone present had extensive experience with writing, reviewing, or using these documents. There were consultants, park historians, regional historians, and scholars. Okay, I guess I still count as a graduate student, but I’m trying to move beyond that label as well. We discussed three questions and I’ll share some of our thoughts that stick out in my memory (I didn’t take notes).

  • What makes an administrative history useful?

Administrative histories tell the park’s story; every manager should know hers/his park’s story. An administrative history should show where the “land mines” are buried, where the past and potential controversies lie. These histories should help with compliance, but also tie to larger historical narratives. I also argued that an administrative history, when done right, can be a road map for civic engagement, especially when it shows how the NPS marginalized or excluded certain groups.

  • What do we do with administrative histories when they are done?

A common and legitimate complaint is that once completed, many administrative histories are doomed to languish on a shelf or in a box. We discussed (as many have over the years) of having a searchable database for this literature group with special tags. We also considered several different “add ons” that might be included in contracts or funded later through ONPS CR funds marked for “Transfer of Knowledge.” These additions can include workshops and training for personnel about the document, a place for admin history authors at the table for concurrent or future park planning initiatives, videos for the web, or other interpretive content. We didn’t get into who owns the research, but I think it is important to talk up front about the possibility of publishing in academic journals or with university or trade presses. These all require a good deal of foresight. I also encouraged the group to think beyond the traditional monograph as the final product for these studies. Can we possibly do digital projects (such as this one on the Blue Ridge Parkway), videos, or something else instead?

  • What are the future directions with administrative histories?

Looking at the agenda, my memory of this part of the conversation is less clear. However, my major point from reading the discussions on the Google Doc is that park managers need to recognize that administrative histories are a process, not a one-and-done product. There are things parks can do while they wait for an administrative history project to be funded. I think this is where graduate students can be a big help. They can examine bits and pieces of a park’s history through research papers, theses, and dissertations. However, for this to be successful for both the agency and the student, the NPS needs to provide some measure of support and treat these studies as legitimate agency literature and scholarship. I’ve noticed an attitude within the agency that if they did not spend a bunch of money on a project, it somehow doesn’t “count.” That is a disservice to the student, the park resources, and the public the agency serves. A good partnership can mean that a contractor will have less ground to cover if they can build upon accumulating literature.

Moving forward from our meeting in Nashville, the NPS will hopefully incorporate our ideas into its guidelines for administrative histories, which it is currently reviewing and revising. Group facilitators will also summarize our discussions in a History at Work post. Finally, an upcoming edition of The Public Historian will focus on NPS biographies.

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Cultural Landscapes: More than Visual Assets

In a sharing circle about cultural landscapes, an indigenous woman from a Californian tribe spoke up. When pressed about her thoughts about cultural landscapes as discussed during the George Wright Society conference, she reminded the group that westerners mostly conceive landscapes as something that is visual, while other cultures do not.

"Cole Thomas Landscape 1825" by Thomas Cole - The Athenaeum,. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Cole Thomas Landscape 1825” by Thomas ColeThe Athenaeum,. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She’s right. Think about how obsessed we are with capturing panoramic views in pictures so that we can prove that we were there and share these experiences with others. I recall from my art history classes the nineteenth-century artists who intersected Romanticism and landscape painting to convey scenes that were picturesque or sublime. Then, there was Ansel Adams who doggedly photographed some of America’s most iconic national parks in black and white. His personal concern for nature and wilderness prompted him to use his photos to further the environmental cause and advocate for these places.

"Adams The Tetons and the Snake River" by Ansel Adams - (hi-res)This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 519904.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.English | Español | Français | Italiano | Македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | Polski | Português | Русский | Slovenščina | Türkçe | Tiếng Việt | 中文(简体) | 中文(繁體) | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Adams The Tetons and the Snake River” by Ansel AdamsThis media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 519904Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Landscape photography has increasingly become more democratic as technology has evolved. I have a function on my iPhone where even I can take a panoramic photo, which I did the other week at the Golden Gate bridge.

The woman in the sharing circle told us that in her culture, landscape is something that is experienced through all the senses. It is feeling your feet in the bare earth and knowing that connection to the land.

Image from


I started thinking about other sensory experiences when I’m in a landscape. I think about summer days on the Cacapon River when I’m in the water and can feel the gently tug of the water as it moves downstream, the fish nibbling my legs, and the smooth rocks under my feet. I also know what that place looks and feels like in all the seasons, not just summer.

Kayaking on the Cacapon

Kayaking on the Cacapon

Her point and others made in the sharing circle raises the question if the term “cultural landscape” is inadequate or even too limiting. Having the word “cultural” in the title already denotes a difference between the natural environment—a bifurcation cultural landscape studies tries to unify. The word “landscape” also places an emphasis on the visual assets of a place rather than other sensory perceptions. What might be a suitable replacement for the term cultural landscape?

One possible idea I had came from a session on climate change. Climate scientists have released a report with the title, “Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the Twenty-first Century.” Could we borrow the phrase “Humanity’s Life Support System” somehow? But again, this sounds a bit too science-y and keeping the word “cultural” in “cultural landscape” remains appealing. Going back to indigenous conceptions of cultural landscape—they have none. I have heard a number of indigenous people express that this is something not in their language.

Maybe we can leave it to something as simple as “Place Keeping.” To me, “place” is something that is distinct and pulls at you in unexpected ways. “Place” is neither natural nor cultural, rural nor urban. Place can be large or small. Furthermore, a place isn’t just visually distinctive, but often embraces other tangible and intangible assets and values. I like the term “keeping” over “preservation,” because it recognizes that these places are still dynamic and subject to change. It also acknowledges that as human beings we are only around for a short time so let’s try to protect the important qualities that make a place special so that we may pass them along to future generations. Whether or not these generations will find the same value that we have in these places is up to them.

As a scholar and a former resource manager, I question if “place keeping” is a serious enough term to convey the necessities of vigorous study or legal protection. “Cultural landscape” sounds serious and important and something we should be doing. “Place keeping” sounds ambiguous, and gray areas are not welcome in management. I’m sure that cultural landscape once sounded strange on the tongue, so maybe with time “place keeping” or a better phrase will become more familiar and accepted in both academia and in management, but won’t be off-putting to the public. I will stick with cultural landscapes for the time being, but let’s keep experimenting with new terms to see what “feels right” and try to be more mindful that landscapes are more than just visual assets.

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Post-Defense Life and George Wright

I (successfully) defended my dissertation over two weeks ago. I found the defense actually quite enjoyable, although I did sweat the entire time. Anyone who tells you not to be nervous for your defense is full of it. But the barbs were pretty toothless and I was pleasantly surprised about the nice things my committee members had to say about my work. I became Dr. Sirna after a few signatures over some Donut Country sweets that a friend left on my car that morning. I went to the gym afterwards to work out my nervous energy, and then I celebrated by drinking some shandy in my backyard, enjoying the sweet Tennessee sunshine.

Thanks EKG!

Thanks EKG!

There is no rest for the wicked, as they say. I went back to work the next morning and sat in a conference call about my next big project. I’ll probably say more about that in a few weeks. I finished up the last few copyedits of my dissertation and submitted the whole dang thing to the university, splurging on copyrights in the process. Enjoy, ProQuest.


View of Golden Gate Bridge from Fort Point

Two days after submitting, I flew to Oakland, California for the George Wright Society meeting on parks and protected lands. The first time I attended this meeting coincided with sequestration, so not very many NPS made it to Denver that year. Fortunately, many natural and cultural resource managers from the NPS and other agencies did make it to Oakland. It was great to talk to managers again after so many months of dissertation writing. Here are some of my highlights from sessions:

  • Katie Algeo, Western Kentucky University, and master’s student Collins Eke, presented their work on tracking migration patterns from Mammoth Cave National Park between 1920 and 1940. I can’t stress enough how important this work is to understanding the impact of populations living within proposed park boundaries. They were able to do this using data from the 1940 census. They found that many families remained in the area after the Kentucky National Park Commission purchased their land. Those that did move to cities tended not to go south, but north and west where jobs were available and could be accessed by the Dixie Highway. It’s interesting that people did not move to the county seat or Bowling Green, which is perhaps indicative of local politics.
  • Climate change is a big topic at GWS, and cultural resources people take part in this conversation. I was interested to learn that Robert Melnick has a grant to research and write about climate change and cultural resources, which I look forward to reading.
  • I learned about interesting work at Martin Van Buren’s Lindenwald and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park about using agricultural landscapes to engage local communities. However, this session got me thinking about how sites can do this when these places have difficult histories relating to population removal, slavery, share cropping, and migrant workers.
  • I attended a focus session on philanthropy and indigenous cultures and learned about how native peoples in California have been working to preserve sacred places for their communities, such as through the Native American Land Conservancy.
  • Lu Ann Jones held a workshop on oral history and wilderness, which I found quite fascinating since the two kind of seem like a paradox, but are perhaps very similar to one another.
Title slide from my presentation

Title slide from my presentation

My own panel was held the last day of the conference, which was on social policy and the national parks. Really, it was a fifty-year retrospective of how the agency has interacted with various social groups or was influenced by larger policy and trends. I spoke about the Job Corps program, using Catoctin Mountain Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and Mammoth Cave National Park as case studies. I concluded with some general recommendations for NPS managers, including oral history projects, resource documentation, and civic engagement. I was joined by John Sprinkle, NPS Bureau Historian, who described Francis P. Bolton’s efforts to preserve Mount Vernon’s view shed at Piscataway Park. Eleanor Mahoney, Ph.D. candidate at University of Washington and editor of Living Landscape Observer, argued that economic change is a driving factor to park creation. Chris Johnson, a historian in the NPS Pacific West office and another freshly minted Ph.D. from the University of Washington, rounded out our panel to discuss his new administrative history on Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park in Hawaii and how the agency’s relationship with the native community has developed over time and became quite contentious at certain moments. Our presentations were well received by those hearty souls who decided to stick out the conference to the very end. Their general reaction was that the NPS needs to look at its own past more, and this inward reflection is often missing in park management. We hope to discuss these topics more frequently in the future.

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Why Do a Ph.D. in Public History?

The answer to this question would probably be better as a retrospective 1, 5, 10, or 20 years after finishing this degree instead of a few months prior to graduation, but this is a question that I have often considered over the past five years. This morning, I read a tweet from someone who was looking at grad school and wondering what the point was of a Ph.D. if you aren’t interested in becoming a professor. Excellent question, @ATPublicHistory. My thoughts on this have been all over the place, but I want to share some of my thought process and the list of pros and cons I’ve contemplated over the years.

I first want to clarify that there are three types of doctoral degree programs in which public history Ph.D.’s fall. First, there is the traditional academic history program with candidates who have no interest in teaching or want a public history job as a Plan B. Or have candidates who worked in public history before going the academic route. Second, there are traditional academic history programs that offer a field in public history (West Virginia University, Arizona State University, and University of South Carolina rank among the more well-known institutions). This means that candidates will likely train to be academic historians with a better grounding in public history theory and methodology than the first program mentioned. Candidates may also have opportunities to do internships or assistantship work in public history. These programs likely have a robust public history MA program. MTSU falls into the third category, which offers a Ph.D. in public history. MTSU is kind of an academic unicorn in this regard. The only other program that offers this degree is NC State, which is a very recent development and I can’t speak to what that program is like.

At MTSU, working in the field is a given for most Ph.D. candidates. There is no need for uncomfortable conversations with your professor about how you will not be seeking an academic position. The program also has success placing students in academic public history positions. Candidates’ studies are grounded in public history theory and methodology and have access to a great group of faculty in various public history subfields. Furthermore, candidates can get exposure doing all types of public history work at three on-campus centers that offer graduate assistantships. The program is designed to be a four-year program, which is shorter than the average academic history doctoral program. Candidates also spend a year in the field for their doctoral residency, which is a great opportunity to gain more experience and expand your network.

The major drawback to our program is that we don’t have as much time to spend on our dissertations and can’t really seek outside grants.

Before I get into my thought process for why I wanted a Ph.D. in public history, I need to give a disclaimer. The decision to seek a Ph.D. is highly individual. I can’t give broad advice to anyone on this subject because you have to do a lot of self-examination to know if such a degree is right or wrong for you. The only piece of broad advice I will give is this: Do not get a Ph.D. for the sake of calling yourself a doctor. Get over yourself. The process of earning such a degree is empowering, but it is more so humbling. It becomes all too apparent how little you really know.


Master’s graduation at West Virginia University

Back in the spring of 2011, I was approaching graduation from my master’s program in public history. All through my master’s degree I worked very hard to get a permanent position with the National Park Service, but it didn’t happen and I felt lost. I had not spent a lot of time exploring other public history jobs because I was so focused on the NPS. Furthermore, the job market was utterly dismal that year. I decided to apply to MTSU’s program because it really was a perfect fit for me (based upon faculty, courses, graduate assistantship opportunities, funding, location, and alumni placement). I still kept applying to jobs and only came out with two interviews that entire summer after graduation. Thoroughly discouraged by the job market, I decided to firm up my commitment to the Ph.D. program. In retrospect, I probably could have found a public history job, but it would have taken me 6-12 months. In my family, “not working” just isn’t a thing, so the thought of being unemployed for that long seemed like a total non-starter (as I am sure is the case for most people). I needed to be doing something to stay in the public history field and a Ph.D. in public history remained appealing to me.

I tell this story because I maybe didn’t have the best reasons for enrolling in a Ph.D. program (i.e. fear of unemployment). However, I did have a number of real reasons to go for it. From my work in the NPS, I knew I enjoyed higher caliber projects that challenged my intellect and creativity as a historian and cultural resource manager. I love big challenges and thinking outside the box. I also saw myself as being a future leader in the field and working across disciplines. Furthermore, I had a research project in mind, which has kept me happily occupied over the past four years and has allowed me to make a contribution to the field.

You do not need a doctorate to do these things, but I think it certainly helps. Although I don’t know the eventual payoff for my degree yet, I can already tell that I have become a better public historian for it. I have demonstrated ability to plan and implement multifaceted projects with multiple stakeholders and I can synthesize complex information for public audiences and clients. I could do these things before, but now on a much bigger scale. I also feel like I have come into my own as a public historian, rather than just a graduate student or an intern. I also avoided the mistake I made as a master’s student by being hyper focused on a particular career path and instead have worked hard the past four years to keep my options open so I can be ready for whatever the job market has to offer.

I entered the Ph.D. program with a good sense of optimism, but I had a mental list of pros and cons about doing a Ph.D. I have added to this list over the years and thought I might as well share. If you don’t believe me I suggest perusing the Professor Is In, Chronicle Vitae, Chronicle for Higher Ed, or Inside Higher Ed. These blogs mostly talk about the academic job crisis but they raise very real concerns with anyone in a Ph.D. program, whether your intention is teaching or not. I also recommend reading up on altac or postac literature and check out Versatile Ph.D. online forum. Most of these posts are about leaving academia, but I often find their job advice helpful because they are tailored to those with doctoral degrees.


  • At least four more years living near the poverty line. Living on a stipend sucks, kids. There is no getting around it. In fact, it has gotten increasingly difficult to live on a stipend every year. This is the one thing I wish I could have told myself before I decided to go for the Ph.D.
  • Four years of lost wages plus more student loans. I’ve read that the first five years are the most important in your career, because that’s when you make the quickest advancement. Here I am, 28 years old, and I haven’t started adding to my retirement fund yet. I was very conservative with the amount of loans I took out, but it is still a very stressful situation when you’re not guaranteed a high paying job.
  • Upon graduation you run the risk of becoming simultaneously overqualified and under-qualified. Because you spent the past four years of your life in school, employers might think you have too little experience for mid-level positions but have too much education for entry-level positions. Certain biases still exist among people who think academics can’t meet deadlines, communicate with the public, and so forth.
  • A doctoral program can wreak havoc on your personal life. Graduate school is hard on everyone, but it can seem especially acute in your mid-20s. I admit that it has been hard for me to see friends my age start awesome jobs, get married, buy houses, and have kids, while I’m still in school living on a stipend. It is difficult to start and maintain relationships when you don’t know what you will be doing from year to year. For a woman, graduate school may also mean delaying having children. Although, I must point out that I know a number of colleagues that have successfully married and had children while working on their degrees.
  • No guarantees. Having a Ph.D. in itself does not mean you will receive a huge payout. In fact, I think those of us with doctorates in public history should expect to start near the bottom like everyone else because of the skills gap I mentioned before. However, MTSU’s placement has heartened me considerably and given me a reasonable outlook on job possibilities.


  • Despite lost wages, I think once you have found a position you will be able to make up for lost time by advancing up the career ladder quickly.
  • No ceiling. Not having a Ph.D. will never be a problem.
  • Credibility. Despite my initial disclaimer, having a “Ph.D.” by your name does identify you as a subject matter expert and perhaps a leader in some circles.
  • Increased capacity to take on large, complex projects. Taking qualifying exams, planning and implementing a doctoral residency, and writing a 385-page dissertation have all prepared me well for these types of challenges.

This list makes it clear that the negative reasons for going for a Ph.D. in public history are more short-term issues, while the positive aspects I hope will pay out over the long term. I think that’s what makes the prospect of the Ph.D. so difficult to grapple. It is very much a gamble and requires you to have a long-term vision for yourself. Best of luck to anyone thinking through this issue.

If you are thinking about grad school to pursue a public history degree, also suggest checking out NCPH’s Public History Navigator, but I did help write that guide so I’m biased.

*Correction: I previously stated that Loyola University Chicago offers a field in public history, but actually they offer a joint degree in US History and Public History. My apologies! Updated: April 11, 2015.

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