When was the last time you ever heard of someone getting killed by history? Generally speaking, my chosen profession as a historian at the University of South Carolina is relatively safe. I’m not dodging bullets or scaling skyscrapers. Compared to the mortality statistics of fishermen, firefighters, pilots, and steelworkers, you may think that my greatest battle wounds involve paper cuts and embarrassing stapler injuries in the archives. But even though I am not in an active combat zone, in my own way I am a quiet revolutionary.
You see, I do not yet have tenure, and with all of my writing I wage a small fight for the importance of public scholarship. As much as I appreciate historical theory, revel in scholarly debates, and look forward to the latest articles in my professional journals, my true love is developing museum exhibits. I like writing for audiences who have serendipitously stumbled upon my work and then happily learn something unexpected about history. I enjoy working at the intersection of engineering and history and showing new perspectives on both fields. I believe in reaching broad audiences and am an advocate for the humanities.
This might seem obvious, but in the Byzantine world of academia, it is tantamount to mutiny. Academic historians expect assistant professors at Research I universities like mine to write single-authored monographs that are published by university presses. They don’t fancy collaboration and are truly skeptical of “creative” nonfiction, with its focus on scenes and narrative momentum rather than citations and theory.
So when I applied to be a Think Write Publish research fellow, I knew I was taking a risk. I would be paired up with a writer to work on the kind of article I love reading, but have been warned against writing for the sake of my academic career. And to be honest, I came away from our first TWP workshop thinking the entire genre dubious.
Luckily, I had a great collaborator, Lizzie Wade, who is now the Latin American correspondent for Science magazine. Lizzie and I decided to write a narrative nonfiction piece about my six months working at the National Museum of American History, one of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums. I had a fellowship to explore and research the engineering collection, which had lacked a dedicated curator for over 10 years. Lizzie and I hoped our story could help the public understand the challenges museums face in caring for their collections.
Orphaned collections, sadly, are common, even at the Smithsonian. Most museum professionals are well aware of this problem. Commiserating tweets from Australia and Britain, as well as the National Park Service and the Library of Congress, popped up soon after publication of our piece in June. But most visitors to museums have no idea about the state of collections in storage. Was it worth the risk to write about it?
Because I don’t have tenure, every choice I make to publish (or not) is a calculated risk. I do not yet have the blanket immunity of academic freedom. Every sentence I construct is subject to judgment by my colleagues. For the first six years of my job at the University of South Carolina, everything I write is collected for my tenure file. At the end of my probationary period, the file is reviewed by external evaluators and voted on by tenured faculty in my department. They decide my academic fate. If there isn’t enough of the “right” type of scholarship (usually academic articles in peer reviewed journals or single authored books published by university presses), I could be denied tenure. And being denied tenure means my academic career would be over.
Traditional tenure committees are struggling with new opportunities for digital publishing and public engagement. “Collective Forgetting,” written in its journalistic mode, is suspicious simply because it does not adhere to normal academic, footnoted style. Even as I decided to write the article, I worried it would hurt my chances of succeeding in the career I love.
Furthermore, writing about the Smithsonian – an institution I value and respect – felt risky. I didn’t relish the idea of being a whistleblower. I didn’t want to be viewed as a critic taking easy potshots at beloved collections. I am a booster for the museum and want it to flourish, but as an insider I know it faces real challenges. How do you call attention to problems without making colleagues you respect feel you are blaming them?
I could have played it safe. I could have submitted an article on the orphaned engineering artifacts to the Journal of the History of Collections, which is published twice a year by Oxford University Press. There it would enter the conversation among museum professionals about such things as the ethical policies of deaccessioning collections at national museums. No one at the Smithsonian would take offense; the peer-reviewed article would clearly count for tenure.
But what would be the impact? Impact is a curious quality for judging writing. From a tenure perspective, academics care about “impact factor” – a measurement of the number of citations your work receives. It is used as a proxy for placing a value of relative importance of an article. All proxies are problematic, and trying to assess the value of historical research by counting how many people cite a specialized journal does not always capture the various ways your work has meaning.
In contrast, by collaborating with Lizzie and working with the Think Write Publish team, the essay’s worldwide print circulation neared 20,000 copies. It received well over 2,700 unique online views from visitors across the world, including the United States, England, Canada, Australia, Brazil, India, Denmark, Cambodia, Kenya, Columbia, Israel, South Africa, and 61 other nations. Thanks to Lizzie’s connections, Madeline Brand interviewed me on KCRW, Southern California’s flagship NPR station, this past summer. I continue to receive notes from people at museums all over the world, telling me how their institutions’ own curatorial crises are threatening the future of their collections. For me, this is beginning to look like real impact.
How will this all work out? I am not sure yet. I am lucky that my history department’s tenure guidelines instruct the committee to consider and value a professor’s public engagement in addition to her academic scholarship. Still, I am the first to actually put this policy to the test. When my department’s initial committee reviewed my file this fall, they saw “Collective Forgetting” alongside my writing for museum exhibits, online collections databases, and traditional peer-reviewed academic articles. I know the vote was contentious, but my department ultimately decided to recommend me for tenure. I also have a yes vote from the Dean’s Office. My file is now slowly churning through the University Committee on Tenure and Promotion, then it goes on to the Provost’s Office, the President’s Office, and the Board of Trustees. I will hear a final decision in late May or early June.
Similarly, my future relationship with the Smithsonian is yet to be determined. My friends and supporters remain, but they have also warned me to lay low for a while. I’m not exactly taking my victory lap around the NMAH, where much of “Collective Forgetting” takes place. Will I be branded a troublemaker and have limited research access to the collections? If a curatorial job materializes, will my application be quietly deemed unacceptable?
Those are risks I knowingly decided to take. As much as I want to receive tenure and preserve my professional relationship with the Smithsonian, I won’t sacrifice my firm commitment to the value of public engagement. I want my research to reach as broad a population as possible. I am a public historian, and I chose to be part of the Think Write Publish project because I believe in the power of compelling storytelling.
Five months after “Collective Forgetting” went live, I received an email from Art Johnson. Art is Professor Emeritus of Bioengineering at the University of Maryland, College Park and a fellow of numerous acronym-laced engineering organizations (ASABE, ASEE, AIMBE, AIHA, BMES, IBE, IEEE). He had read the article in Issues in Science and Technology Policy and was moved to action. He sent copies to people in the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineering suggesting they endow a position of agricultural technology. Response was tentatively positive, but they need to know how much it will actually cost.
This was exactly the kind of reaction I was hoping to inspire with “Collective Forgetting.” This was the power of passionate narrative. Not only did we reach people who were just looking for a good story, we connected with people who were in a position to make a real difference. I forwarded Art’s email to everyone at the NMAH—the Director of Development, the Director of the Museum, even then-Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough.
I don’t know the particulars of the NMAH’s fundraising strategies. I can’t negotiate gift agreements. I can’t accept donations on the Smithsonian’s behalf. All of that is up to them. The only thing I can do is write thoroughly researched articles, cross my fingers, take the risk, and hope it all works out.
A week later, I got an email from Clough. He was at a meeting of top corporate executives at the National Academy of Engineering and told them about the need for an endowed curatorial position at NMAH for engineering and technology. Even though he was officially resigning from the Smithsonian at the end of the 2014, he offered to help NMAH explore possible interest in this. A personal email from the Secretary of the Smithsonian endorsing the call to action in my article. In my mind, this is impact.
This email is not a part of my tenure file. It will not be considered by the university officials who are currently debating my future in the academy. It might not even salvage my relationships with Smithsonian employees whom I know were hurt or offended by the piece. But to my mind, it was worth the risk.