Image of Sylvia Hollis and Eric Zimmer sitting on a couch in the Obermann Library. Karen Christianson is standing next to the couch.

Historically Speaking: History PhDs Tell Stories of Working Outside the Academy

University of Iowa Department of History alumni:
Dr. Sylvea Hollis, Dr. Eric Zimmer, and Dr. Karen Christianson

On February 24th — with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Graduate College, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Department of History, and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies — Humanities for the Public Good initiative brought three tremendous alumni from the Department of History who now work beyond academe back to the University of Iowa to share how they continue their work as historians in the public. Our guests included Karen Christianson, Director of Public Engagement as the Newberry Library in Chicago; Sylvea Hollis, Mellon postdoctoral fellow for the National Park Service, and Eric Zimmer, senior historian at Vantage Point Historical Services. (For more information of what Karen, Sylvea, and Eric do in their present careers, please check out this wonderful article on the Obermann Center’s website.) Their visit back to campus culminated with a public event, titled “Historically Speaking,” in the afternoon at the Iowa City Public Library that gathered nearly 50 audience members, including graduate students, faculty, DEOs, DGSs, staff, and members of the larger community.

Eric Zimmer shares how he understands the work of historians to contribute toward the public good in his public lecture at the Iowa City Public Library.

Earlier in the day, Karen, Sylvea, and Eric met with Humanities for the Public Good advisory board members, were interviewed by Obermann Associate Director Jennifer New and HPG postdoc Ashley Cheyemi McNeil, and had lunch with History PhD students.

Karen, Sylvea, and Eric meet with some HPG Advisory Board members for coffee and conversation on the morning of Feb. 24, 2020

In preparation of their many program events, our alumni guests offered their thoughts about humanities graduate education and what it means to be a humanist at work for the public good today. The following is their written responses to a couple exploratory questions we offered prior to their arrival in Iowa City:

In the context of your work today, how do you define “public good”?

Karen Christianson: To my mind public good is not simply an economic term. Instead, it requires a cohesive outlook on our diverse society, a conviction that we are all in this together, and that striving for justice and equity for the least fortunate among us lifts all of us together.

Sylvea Hollis: My current work is with the National Park Service, via a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Gender and Sexuality. The marker I have used to track the quality of this task is asking myself: To what degree am I cultivating conversations in the agency that empowers NPS staff to think about gender and sexuality in at least three ways. These include:
-How staff treat each other
-How staff treat their visitors
-How staff decide the stories they will tell and where
It is important to me that people see the humanities as a space of exploring ways to make scholarship relevant in people’s everyday life. Placing new work in conversations with the people who may not see themselves as academics, is one of the proudest ways that I strive to do “public good.”

Eric Zimmer: “Public good” can be anything that supports and promotes the well-being of all members of a society or the society as a whole. Work that supports the public good might be described as follows: Professional contributions based on thoughtful, evidence-based research and analysis that is conducted in good faith, communicated clearly, and leveraged towards supporting institutional and community missions.

Sylvea Hollis shares how her work with the National Parks Service has helped shape her approach to public engagement.

If you were to imagine a hypothetical course that you wish you’d taken while in PhD school (within or outside your field of study), what would be the title and brief description of the course?

Karen Christianson: “Defogging Complexity”: In this course you will learn to strip out jargon and express complicated ideas so that they are comprehensible to intelligent non-specialists, without condescension or dumbing down.

Sylvea Hollis: I would teach a team course with two scholar friends—Dr. Nicole Ivy and Dr. Brittany Webb on Museums and their Communities. This course would examine the evolving role of museums in public life—including the missions, projects, and dynamic ways local communities have played a role in this shift.

Eric Zimmer: “Project Management for the Public Scholar.” This class offers an intensive, project-based introduction to the practical, cultural, managerial, collaborative, and skills-related expectations public scholars should cultivate as they prepare to hit the ground running in creative institutional or client-based careers. Based on case studies and real professional scenarios from public-facing, client-based projects and advocacy initiatives, this class prepares students to develop projects, work against tight budgets and deadlines, and adapt to meet community and client needs while producing high-quality intellectual products.