Lincoln Bramwell is the Chief Historian for the United States Forest Service (USFS). In his role as a public historian he has thought deeply about the role of history in people’s everyday life and how graduate students can prepare for a career outside of the academy. This week he generously sat down with Erstwhile to answer our questions about his work.
Would you briefly describe what you do as the USFS Chief Historian? And could you mention, looking back, a few of the important decisions you made that led you down the path to taking the job?
My duties include directing all aspects of this Federal agency’s history program, including research and publication, public speaking, digital asset management, archival storage, external outreach, producing and managing oral histories, as well as policy support, expert testimony in Federal court, and developing a strategic vision for history within the land management agency’s mission.
An important decision I made was to not be afraid to take non-traditional jobs and work that gave me experience and tools that I use every day as a public historian. Working as a seasonal firefighter, as a staff member for the Western History Association, as an assistant editor at the University of New Mexico Press, and as a researcher on a National Park Service research contract all provided me with opportunities to network and gain skills that led to future opportunities.
What are the tools a historian can bring to a non-academic job?
Number one is communication skills—both in terms of written and oral communication. You’d be surprised how few people write well—it’s a skill that gives you an advantage and allows you to show your value in almost any situation. Also with public speaking, organizations are really in need of someone who can convey their message to different audiences.
Second is collaboration. When you start working on a dissertation you think it is a solo endeavor, but the further you get towards completion and publication in book form the more you realize how collaborative the effort really is. The experience of negotiating with archives and the search for primary sources, the negotiation with your committee and editors, and the final struggle to put that all into a coherent product prepares you to work collaboratively. I work more on teams than I do solo nowadays, and if this was something that made me uncomfortable I wouldn’t last long in public history. It’s also rewarding—you can accomplish more and often create a better product than if you worked alone.
The last is intellectual self-confidence, or the willingness to work use your skills outside your comfort zone. You might not have worked in TV, but you have the skills to accomplish that assignment—you just have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone and know that you are prepared. Remember Shelbey Foote in Ken Burn’s The Civil War? They just put him in front of a camera and asked him to tell stories. Guess what, that’s what historians are supremely prepared to do. You are learning skills that translate all over the place—don’t be afraid to apply them in different venues.
What can grad students do while they’re still in school to prepare themselves for a job outside the academy?
Start by being intellectually curious. Read in different disciplines and fields, talk with practitioners of other fields and start to listen for and understand the language they use. Second, start looking for jobs, internships, or writing opportunities outside the academy. Why shouldn’t you write an op-ed for High Country News? Or a letter to your local paper encouraging readers to see a historical film or play?
Or just get a job that piques your interest. I worked for years on Forest Service fire crews and trail crews because it interested me and got me thinking about issues that eventually turned into a book. And having worked in those fields opened so many doors that would have been closed if I was just doing research on the subject. Basically look outside the traditional TA-ship and look for employment that interests you and will provide you stimulation and skills relative to your intellectual development and history work.
If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about how history grad students are trained, what would you change and why?
The academy as a whole is training history grad students for one job only—teaching at the university level. And those jobs are becoming fewer and fewer each year. This is really disingenuous for the students and detrimental to the profession. Too many history PhDs are being produced to support them on the job market. This is a devastating realization for grad students that haven’t thought about the market realities. I would make the academy start students thinking more concretely about the skills they are attaining and how those can apply outside the academy. Also, I’d force students to work outside the academy, even if it’s an unpaid internship, in some other setting just so students get a glimpse of the world off-campus and see if they are good at and enjoy something else. You might be surprised where that journey takes you and what you end up doing.
As a public historian, how do you see your relationship to the academy?
My relationship (or opinion) is that there is no distinction between the academy and public history. Practitioners from both sides should be delving into each other’s worlds all the time. Why shouldn’t an academic historian advise a TV on its historic accuracy? Why shouldn’t a public historian for the State Department teach a class on the history of foreign policy? I think both sides should be informing one another and collaborating often to increase the volume and quality of scholarship on any given topic. Also I really believe that historians should be more assertive in offering their advice or help on issues that affect us today. We have so much data today; agencies, lawmakers, and the public don’t need more data—they need someone to make sense of that data. This, I think, is the true value of historians and something that both academic and public historians should be working towards every day.