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

Monday, February 24th, 2020 —With 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, the 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. In anticipation of their visit, our three alumni offered their thoughts about how they define the “public good” and a hypothetical course description for a grad seminar that introduces students to humanistic research and engagement. For more information on what Karen, Sylvea, and Eric do in their present careers, check out this article on the Obermann Center’s website.

Coffee and conversation with members of the HPG Advisory Board

In the first half of 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.

Public lecture event at the ICPL

Their visit back to campus culminated with a public event, “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.

You can revisit this event by scrolling through the photos, slides, and audio recordings below.

Featured Alumni

Left to right: Dr. Sylvea Hollis, Dr. Eric Zimmer, and Dr. Karen Christianson

Eric Zimmer, Historian, Vantage Point Historical Services

Eric Steven Zimmer, Ph.D., works on a variety of digital, exhibit-based, and narrative history projects at Vantage Point Historical Services, Inc. in his hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota. His work has appeared in regional and national scholarly journals and media outlets, garnering several awards, including the Rachel Carson Prize for Best Dissertation from the American Society for Environmental History. Zimmer also serves as the lead research fellow at the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is a project historian for the Rapid City Indian Lands Project, and sits on the board of directors for the Journey Museum & Learning Center in Rapid City. He lives in the Black Hills with his lovely wife, Samantha, and their dog, Nigel.

Listen to Eric’s talk, “Valuing History,” and follow along through his slides:

Sylvea Hollis, National Park Service Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship 

Sylvea Hollis is a social historian of the nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. with particular research interests in race, gender, sexuality, and social welfare. She earned a Ph.D. in U.S. History, with concentration in African American History and a graduate certificate in Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies from the University of Iowa. Sylvea also has over fifteen years’ experience working on publicly-engaged projects with universities, archives, museums, and professional associations—including the American Alliance of Museums, National Museum of American History, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the St. Eustatius Historical Foundation (Dutch Caribbean). She has a M.A. in History Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY-Oneonta and a B.S. in History from the University of Montevallo. Sylvea currently is the NPS Mellon Postdoc in Gender and Sexuality Equality.

Listen to Sylvea’s talk, “Path from Degree to Career,” and follow along through her slides:

Karen Christianson, Director, Department of Public Engagement, Newberry Library

Karen Christianson is Director of Public Engagement at the Newberry, an independent research library in Chicago, where she is privileged to introduce an intellectually curious general public to the joys of grappling with the humanities. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Iowa and has taught at DePaul University and Chicago State University.

Listen to Karen’s talk: