Daniel Vivian

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Interviewee: Daniel Vivian
Interviewer: Will Mundhenke
Date: October 04, 2016
Accession #: PHP 031
Length of Recording: 65:18
Sound Recording

Daniel Vivian earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama in History with a minor in Geography in 1994. He graduated with an MA in Public History from the University of South Carolina in 1997. He currently holds a PhD in History from Johns Hopkins University. Vivian currently works as an Assistant Professor and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Louisville. Formerly, he worked as a historian at the National Register of Historic Places and has held multiple positions within the National Park Service and historic preservation organizations. His graduate assistantships included working with the South Carolina State House and gaining experience with National Register nominations. His research focused on historic preservation and U.S. history. Interview includes discussion of Vivian’s decision to attend UofSC, his work with the National Register, the reputation of UofSC in professional organizations and among younger public history programs, National Park Service positions for public historians, and traditional academic perceptions of public history. Vivian also discussed how public history can save the humanities, internships versus graduate assistantships, and the critical importance of public history.



Geography | Historic Preservation | Internships and Assistantships | Johns Hopkins University | National Park Service | National Register of Historic Places | South Carolina Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology | University of Alabama | University of Louisville



Will Mundhenke: This is Will Mundhenke.  It is October 4th, 2016.  I am interviewing Dr. Daniel J. Vivian (laughter) for USC’s Public History Program Archive.  We are conducting this interview via Skype. Dan, I want to say thank you again for participating. Regardless of the minor technical difficulties.

Daniel Vivian: Not at all.

WM: What was the focus of your graduate study while here at USC?

DV: Historic Preservation and the history of the U.S. South. Those are the two major foci. I did get quite a bit of experience in other fields. I had an archival internship. I took historic site administration course, and that exposed myself to other dimensions of public history based on Connie Schulz and Robert Weyeneth’s direction and kind of general sensibilities of the field. My main work was in areas of historic preservation, National Register work, historic documentation. My graduate assistantship for two years was the South Carolina State House documentation project, which was mainly archival research, architectural history combined with social and cultural history for context. The built environment and the social and cultural dimensions thereof, as a direction for preservation work, was the main focus.

WM: Was this influenced by the program or was this a prior fascination?

DV: Both. I had an inclination of that direction in part because of the internship I had at Shenandoah National Park, right when I was finishing my undergraduate career. In terms of personal background, I grew up in Virginia and I had grown up going to historic sites and house museums and large outdoor history museums, Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, places like that. I had an intuitive sense of built environments and how people experience and read history based on the material fabric.

Dr. Weyeneth’s National Register course, his introduction to historic preservation course was very influential. I knew a fair bit about National Park Service programs and its role and administering the Register, National Landmarks Program, the opportunity came up with the South Carolina State House project was, you know, it paid the bills but it was tremendously good experience and really interesting the whole way, so it was a bit of both in terms of how things took their course. I had just got very good advice from Connie and Bob, and other people too, but there were quite a few people in the museum track when I was there. There were not as many in the preservation track, but I certainly had the sense that there were going to be more opportunities with preservation than in museums. Not that anybody that did that route hasn’t done well, or hasn’t gone on to do great work, but I didn’t have an assistantship with McKissick or the State Museum, I didn’t have that experience, so my observation of that world was locating a lot of opportunities and in-fighting, and preservation seemed a bit more inviting.

WM: I am definitely sure that there are some that would agree with you (laughter).

DV: Right.

WM: Was there a moment during your undergraduate internship at Shenandoah that informed you, or influenced you towards public history at South Carolina?

DV: Sort of. I was a history major, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I had this internship where I got academic credit, it was through the Student Conservation Association, I went up there eager to do ranger stuff and lead hikes, which I did, but while I was there, I realized that there was historical work being done, right, they were taking care of historic buildings, they were telling the history of the park, and prior land use and human settlement. They had big archival collections, photographic and otherwise, and I was at Big Meadows Visitor Center, which is the main visitor center in the central district, so there were museum exhibits as well as historical programs, so both of my parents are PhD historians, and because of that experience, I called my mom basically and I said, “What do you know about this public history stuff?” and in the typical academic historian said, “Well, I don’t know a thing, but I have a friend, Connie Schulz, who does that stuff.”

My mother had worked at the Library of Congress in the late ‘60s when Connie was still in the Washington D.C. area, so she and Connie had met, become part of that network of Connie’s professional contact, and so my mom put me in touch with Connie, and that was, Connie introduced me to some readings in Public History like professional guides in the field, and that got me interested in the South Carolina program, and I had applied to other programs, but that was the seed of why I ended up in South Carolina in part.

WM: If you applied to other programs, why did you pick South Carolina?

DV: Basically because of reputation, placement record, and after I had been accepted into a number of places and had contact with people, both Bob and Connie made clear that they were committed to supporting students in finding ways to support them with assistantships, not just financially, but for the sake of useful experience, that was going to be important for career prospects. That was the strongest stance I got of the several programs I was really thinking about, the others that I was really thinking about were at MTSU and the University of Georgia historic preservation program, both really good programs and great track records, but the interest Connie and Bob showed in me after that initial acceptance letter had come out, just gave me confidence that this was going to be a good place to work, and that they were genuinely invested in their students. I think that it had little or nothing to do with the fact that there was a personal connection with my family background, it was just the way Bob and Connie had always handles thing, and it’s one reason South Carolina has a good a record as it does.

WM: Did you have that opinion of historic preservation, favoring it, before South Carolina, or was that an interest formed in the program?

DV: My interest in preservation?

WM: Yeah.

DV: A bit of both, but it was pretty strongly influenced by Bob, what I saw in South Carolina, and some of my classes. The historical methods course that did a good architectural history analysis of sites in South Carolina. It was pretty strongly influenced by things that happened after I started in the program, so a bit of both, but I’d weight it towards the latter.

WM: Was there reason you preference public history over a museum tech. or a preservation focused program?

DV: I thought it would be more versatile, I understand the reasons that I did better now, but even then, I had this sense that it was going to be a more substantial academic experience and intellectual experience, and that was going to be valuable over the long term. Now knowing what I do, there are very good preservation programs that are not based in departments of history, but it mirrors a degree to which you see people that know a lot about preservation policy, and the technical work, but are not great writers and don’t know how to think critically at as high a level as trained historians do, right?

So obviously there is a lot in the program, this is not a general rule, but the fact that it was a history program that had a thesis requirement and was going to have strong grounding in traditional historical methodology, I mean that, I had a sense at the time that, that was going to be valuable in the long term. That is definitely my view now.

WM: It seems like you are pretty well versed in other Public History Programs, especially in being the coordinator of yours at the University of Louisville. Where do you see South Carolina situated in the larger Public History field in terms of growing degrees?

DV: That is a really good question, and although I am a public history educator that is trying to pay attention to this stuff, in part that question pertains to the part of the field that I am not very attentive to becausenmy program can’t compete with the best programs in the field, right? So, I am thinking mainly about a different niche. What I would say is, South Carolina a hugely impressive track record and a record of activity that few programs have. It puts it in a class with UCSB, University of California, Santa Barbara, Carnegie Mellon to some extent, though that program has waxed and waned over the years. It puts it in a rare category.

It is my sense that the fact that funding for graduate students has not been as good in recent years as it has been historically has hurt South Carolina. People that apply to University of Massachusetts at Amherst, University of Loyola at Chicago, I think at MTSU to some extent, they are very, very strong Public History Programs that are supporting their students better financially and also in terms of applied assistantships. The experience of that kind is making a difference. Now I don’t know all the details, and this is an impressionistic view rather that based on critical analysis, I think South Carolina still has a very strong program and obviously very, very capable. Faculty has a great record of job placement and training people for long term career success and excellent relationships with institutions in Columbia and farther afield that have been very important to giving students good experience.

My main concern is that the financial support and graduate training that comes through applied assistantships is not as strong as it used to be. That is something that sounds to me that needs to be addressed, and exceptionally important, it seems to me to have a focus there right now because one thing that I do recognize very clearly and this is part of the discussion among public history educators is that public history is becoming more competitive on the MA level. There are more programs, there is more competition for students, more institutions are realizing that the MA is the terminal degree for most people in public history, and schools are competing very aggressively for good students. The path of financial support and commitment to providing relevant experience at the MA level is very important.

WM: What has given you the impression that the applied side of our program has waxed or waned? Was that during your time or was that something you heard of as the years have passed?

DV: It is as the years have passed, and particularly based on conversations I’ve had with faculty at South Carolina, both in the public history side of things and outside because I hear that some are relationships with traditional historians there, and things I’ve heard about from close friends from my time that are graduates of the program and working professionally that pertain mainly to I guess what I understand to have been department decisions about funding and the role of the Public History Program relative to the PhD program, and the MA program both. Again, this is based on second and third hand information, but I think most of it is pretty credible and reasonably well informed, so that is where I am getting my impressions from.

WM: It wraps into the defense of the humanities in academia.

DV: I’ll just add this, now I am a huge believer in the value of having public history as a field for PhD students. I think that very, very important and valuable. That a good thing in lots of different ways. On the other hand, MA level training and the dedicated Pubic History program remains crucial, very important, that is the opportunity that most people who go into the field have. It is a terminal degree, and I am very skeptical about the several PhDs in public history that now exist. I wish them well, and I know and lie people that are teaching them and directing them, but the notion that the Public History is going to be a research field in the same way that history is, I have trouble seeing how this is going to work.

WM: Would you mind talking more about that? What is the big skepticism? Is it just the research in the PhD in Public History?

DV: The skepticism is that, look I mean, PhD level historians certainly have a role to play in public history, museums, preservation, historical interpretation, that is not an issue for me. My sense is that any level training will remain the basic professional credential for entry into public history and most related fields, and that is tradition and valuable for most people. I don’t think we are going to see a case where PhDs dominate public history because they are pushing lesser credential people out, so I think MA level training remains and will remain very important.

There are great opportunities and valuable opportunities for PhD level historians in American history, American studies, and American civ. programs in public history. I don’t understand what the purpose of dedicated PhD programs in public history is, I mean getting credentials in that regard to try and teach public history does not make a whole lot of sense. People are going to have better prospects coming from history or an exception would be museum program could be a program that looks like the PhD program in places like University of Delaware I don’t understand how more applied work at the doctoral level is going to prepare people better for careers in public history work.

Maybe I am just not seeing the possibilities right, maybe I am missing something, but it’s hard for me to understand what the purpose of those programs is. Maybe you know, smart and talented people can do all sorts of great stuff and maybe over time graduates of those programs establish a niche for themselves and show that there is something important that they are doing that’s valuable to the field and more broadly. On the other hand, at this point, the statistical evidence and the track record, look if you want to teach public history and you’ve had some experience and you want to teach in a history program. Go to the best PhD program you can, don’t go to one that is providing you with public history exposure. That’s not going to get you an academic job.

You know? It’s a nice idea and I am sure you’ll find something useful to do with that background, but it’s not the path towards that goal. In the same way, if you’re talking about particular types of public history work where it’s clear you need a PhD to do it, you want to become Chief Historian of the NPS, or you want to be a regional super or head of regional office, I don’t think a dedicated public history PhD is going to be the best route. I think going to the best traditional academic program you can and also having public history experience in one way or the other is going to be the better preparation.

WM: Definitely, the value of public history hinges on the experience more than the credentials. Right? Like applied skills, so I would agree with you there.

DV: Maybe things are different ten or fifteen years out, but that is how I see it at the moment at least.

WM: Given the applied discussion that we are on right now, where did you do your internship, and how did that inform your career trajectory? Was it different than your graduate assistantship?

DV: The graduate assistantship was by far more important and more valuable. I did my internship at SCIAA, the South Carolina Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology. It was useful and valuable; I mainly did research on early building technology in colonial South Carolina. It was useful in the sense that it put me in touch with a set of research questions and an academic literature that I knew of, but really hadn’t been applied to South Carolina very much, but it has been useful to some extent. It was useful I think to a person I worked for, whose name is escaping me right now, he was the project manager at Savannah River site, and he was managing the archeology program there, which had found some very early and important settlements in the antebellum period in the Savannah River valley. The internship was valuable, but it mainly ended up being academic research in both architectural history, social history, and the use of archaeology in addressing historical questions.

In terms of what I learned, and kind of long term value, the State House project was much more important, much more valuable, much more influential. That is not to fault the internship, in part I picked the internship with SCIAA and Bob approved it, signed off on it, thought it would be good. In part, because I had that assistantship and it ran for two years and ran through the summers, I wanted to stay in Columbia because I was doing that, I was being paid pretty well, it was interesting, it had a bunch of different aspects to it because there was the archival research, I developed an exhibit with the South Carolina State Museum, there were publications that came out of it, online produced and in a book, it would be very different if I said, “I am going to do an internship and want to go to Historic Charleston or somewhere really focus on this.” The balance of how I was involved, I think it was during a Fall semester. It was good and useful, but in the long run it wasn’t a major focus of my work.

WM: So you climbed through the ranks of the National Park Service before becoming a traditional academic historian in that sense. Was South Carolina a noticeable credential as you moved throughout the National Park Service, inevitably getting to historian of the National Register? 

DV: Yeah, people knew the program and people knew its stature in the field. Not everyone, but quite a few people did. Like all the job recruiters and the job counts say, networking is what matters. The fact that I had the career path that I had, I was fortunate to get the first job right out of grad school, the one-year position in Louisiana in Natchitoches. That was a foot in the door, and I basically got that based on academic credentials, the fact that I had been pretty active and had relative experience when I applied for that positions. And the fact that not a lot of people were eager to move to rural Louisiana even for a good job (laughs) at a major institution.

Because I got that job, I then came back to South Carolina and that was relatively easy because I was a known quantity there. I wasn’t the top pick for the job I got, but I guess the position, who they initially offered the position to decided not to take it, so that was a good opportunity, and then when the opportunity came open at the National Register, I don’t know all the details but I do know that, Carol Shaw, who was then the Keeper of the National Register, by that time the guy who had been the head of the National Center for Preservation and Technology in Training had moved to the Washington office and when Carol asked him if he knew anything about this person who applied for the job, he said, “Well sure, worked with him, he was great, but the person you should really talk to is his direct supervisor, Mark Gilberg.”

I know those personal contacts made a difference. Obviously, I had a good academic record, I had been active professionally and had done a lot of National Register work, but that networking had also mattered. It certainly did not hurt that Carol knew the South Carolina program by reputation, had known some people who had graduated from it, and there were other people that, people like Jane Hill, who is a South Carolina grad who is in the Midwestern Regional Office, there are a number of people who have made it into the National Park Service partly because of the South Carolina degree. Another thing that was useful, Carol’s office was right next to Dwight DeCagely, who was then Chief Historian of the National Park Service and knew the program well because of professional networking with Bob and Connie and later Kasey Grier, so the South Carolina degree definitely help, it certainly didn’t hurt to the extent that people knew of it. It was an asset.

WM: I’ve been to Natchitoches, yeah its nowhere. (Laughter)

DV: Why were you there?!

WM: I have some close friends who call that home.

DV: Okay. (Laughter)

WM: Yeah there is nothing out there.

DV: It was great first job, and then the center was relatively new so there was growth and a sense of possibilities and they were trying to figure out what they were going to do, and how they were going to do it given that they were there. It was great, and the irony is that there were three position that were advertised as entry-level professional as one-year appointments and they were set up to be that way. I was the only one that actually stayed for a year. The other people, because it’s a good job and that it pays well, the other people that took the other positions had Louisiana connections so it was a little easier. I loved it, but I also remember on weekends, man I sat in my apartment and read a lot, I mean (laughs), there was nothing to do if you were single, and a young professional out there. It was pretty remote.

WM: It definitely is, but the Cane River is beautiful!

DV: Yes, amazing historical stuff there, yeah the Cane River is beautiful, and if you want to expose yourself to heat stroke (laughs), it might be a good place to do it. Yeah, kind of out there.

WM: Definitely, so you mentioned South Carolina reputation, as far as applied skills that the program teaches you, when you were in the National Park Service, did you find yourself learning on the job or were you pretty well trained in terms of what you actually had to do for the job?

DV: Both, but there is going to be a lot of on-the-job learning no matter what. There is a debate that goes on within the field between practical skills and traditional historical training. I get that to some extent, but anybody is going to do a lot of learning on the job depending on where they worked, what the position is, what the institutional culture is… I kind of think that that’s a silly debate in some ways because this is a reality of what sort of professional employment is, so I learned a lot about the National Register from Dr. Weyeneth’s class, and the work I did preparing nominations, but if you are actually working, when you start working, in a way that’s advising both other professionals and the public, and moving Register Nominations through the review process, and thinking about how they relate to other preservation programs, it’s very different. You are going to learn stuff that you just can’t in graduate school. The applied work, it was certainly valuable and important, but I learned a lot on the job, and I think that is going to be (laughs), I don’t see how its going to be otherwise. (Laughter)

WM: Going back to the actual program, in your experience, what were some of your favorite classes or influential classes?

DV: Bob’s National Register class was very influential, you may have heard Marcia Synnott when she was there, taught a historic site administration course, which got a bad rap because Marsha showed a lot of slides and talked a lot about her summer travels to historic sites, but it was very useful in the long run, and she organized, bless her soul, she organized the trip to Colonial Williamsburg with the class, which was fourteen or fifteen people, and that was very useful. Probably a little less useful for me since I had been there quite a bit when I was young and growing up in Virginia, but that was very useful.

John Bryan’s architectural history course and preservation planning course were not especially strong academically but working with him was great and very valuable to me professionally, and man, the thing that I say is and this gets to a number of things we talked about, in some ways the most valuable part of the South Carolina program was the fact that it was grounded in traditional history methodology and it taught me to write better, to be a better thinker, and a researcher. I took Dr. Carol’s seminar on the American South, I took Marsha Synnott’s research seminar.

The traditional history courses I took, both the research seminars were really useful because they made me a serious historian, when I talk about learning on the job and the difference between more technically oriented programs and a program like South Carolina, the impression I got pretty quickly once I started working the field and this remains true today, you know, if you teach people to think and write and communicate clearly, that’s going to be a lifelong skillset. If you simply train in term of how to figure out architectural survey forms and to do minimal requirements for a National Register nomination, that’s not going to be as useful because it’s not going to be as broadly applicable and as adaptable incrementally able to grow over time, so just coming back to the essence of your question, in a lot of ways the traditional history courses I took as well as Bob’s historic preservation course and historic site administration, those were all great experiences.

WM: You mentioned Bob and Connie and several other professors. Who would you say was your most influential professor?

DV: Bob for the most part, and to some extent because that remained a relationship that’s grown in that whole sense. At the time, Tom Terrell as the person I worked most closely with for my MA thesis, and as a person that directed by learning about southern history and how to frame questions in the field. He was hugely influential, and interestingly enough, in one place that I’ve sort of become aware of since, to the degree that my research interest have gravitated towards things that he was interested in and introduced me to, and that has continues to pay off over time, so yeah number one Bob and then second of all Tom Terrell. But, Connie was very influential in part just because of her presence in the program and her orientation towards public history, that informed everybody’s experience there. Kasey Grier to some extent in the time that she was there. Marsha, I learned a lot from Marsha and John Bryan because I worked so closely with him, he was influential. They were all good experiences and useful in different ways.

WM: When you were here at South Carolina, you were specifically a Masters student.

DV: Correct.

WM: You waited a few years to go back for the PhD.

DV: Correct.

WM: When you were here, did you ever feel any tension between the Masters students and the PhD students in the program?

DV: Yes. (Laughs) Yes, do you want me to elaborate?

WM: Please.

DV: There was some indication, not a lot and you know one thing to bear in mind is that the PhD program was very different then. It was less active, it was I don’t think quite as good. It wasn’t as strong, because of the number of hires that were made after my MA, and it has a much better reputation now and it provides stronger training. It is a higher caliber program, what was the case then, there were a group of traditional history MA and PhD students and some of them were very capable and smart and have gone on to have very good careers, there was the sense that Public History students were all going to get jobs and its going to be no big deal.

The doom and gloom mindset is what prevailed amongst the PhD and traditional MA students. Some of them have gone on to have very good careers and have done very well given the kind of PhD program they graduated from. That’s not a knock against the program, its speaking to the path as the field in history, for most fields of specialization, you need to go to one of about fifteen programs or you’re not going to have that great a shot. It’s the problem with history as a whole (laughs) but there was tension. I think it sounds to me as though it’s quite different from perhaps how it is currently or whatever the dynamics of the present these days, and there were quite a few MA students in the traditional track and then PhD students there who, it’s hard for me to understand why they were getting graduate degrees.

There was just a sense that there were no jobs, they weren’t going to a big name program, they were there for a long time working on dissertations and that wasn’t the experience of everybody. I can name the exceptions that stick out to me, people who went through and had a direction and a clear professional path, but the traditional MA students and some of the PhD students, I mean, yeah it was not clear what they were trying to do professionally.

WM: Would you say South Carolina’s history department’s biggest strength is the MA in Public History?

DV: I am not sure that I have sufficient perspective. I certainly have the sense that the PhD program has grown in strength, quality of training, and reputation. Based on what I know, and my knowledge of both traditional academic and history and public history, you cannot legitimately argue that the MA program is not a huge asset, and a major program in the field, and important in terms of it being one of the seminal programs in graduate training in public history.

I have been writing a little bit about the development of the modern public history movement. I teach my students this stuff because they need to know the history of the field and how to write about the history of the American historical profession. South Carolina was there at the beginning, and it has done very well, and it is important in that regard. Not all of the first generation programs in public history has remained strong and had the kind of direction and influence that South Carolina has, so regardless of how you rank South Carolina’s history graduate programs over all, and how they developed over time, you cannot legitimately argue that the MA program in Public History has not been an innovative program and a source of professional training and an asset to a huge number of students at this point. It has had a national reputation for a long time. It has been really important over time and certainly very, very influential in lots of different ways.

WM: What role do you see public history playing in the larger field of history?

DV: Currently and in the future?

WM: Yeah.

DV: It’s becoming more important in all sorts of ways that I think are very beneficial overall. My guess is that you know this pretty well, but for a time in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there is a long history as to why the historical profession in PhD programs turn their backs on public history. The historical profession as a whole in the United States has been not very good a replicating itself, it has not been very good at demonstrating its relevance to non-academic audiences. It has not been very good at training people for diverse careers in history and beyond history. There are all sorts of conflicts and politics surrounding these trends, but in ways that I think are overall hugely influential, and public history is becoming a much bigger part of the historical profession, its vibrant and active, and optimistic and energetic and welcoming in ways that most, nearly all traditional academic fields simply aren’t.

Traditional academics are recognizing it as important, but they often misunderstand it or make all sorts of assumptions that are assumptions rather than grounded in any kind of actual information (laughs), and this is the frustration of many of us, but traditional academics and people who are prominent in the major professional organizations are recognizing public history is one way the field can save itself, by connecting with public audiences and translating historical scholarship to the public and connecting academics with this whole world that they ignored for a long time. Museums, historic sites, preservation work and so forth.

In a lot of ways, I find this to be a really exciting time to be working as a historian because the struggle for legitimacy that public historians and public history educators had to face for so long in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, that is still going on to some extent but it has largely passed. It is hard to argues from any kind of informed perspective that public history isn’t a serious and academic field in its own right. That Public History programs are doing some sort of junk training (laughs). That isn’t a serious position, some of my colleagues pull that still (laughs), but fortunately they are in the minority and at least some have learned otherwise.

I think this is a hugely vital time to be working because public history is not only training people for public history and the kind of work that good programs have long been training people for, and it’s part of a shift within the profession that has needed to happen and is essential if past historians were going to make history relevant in civic life now and in the future. It’s about the defense of the humanities and liberal arts, it’s about the relevance of historical training, it’s about making sure trained historians, regardless of whether we are talking about the BA, the MA, or PhD level, that they have opportunities in traditional history work, or look if you have a PhD in history and you don’t get an academic job, the notion that you are not qualified to do anything else, that is embarrassing! The nation that you have done all this work, you have great critical thinking research skills, analytic abilities and you can’t market yourself for other types of labor?

That is pathetic and it is a failure not on the individual but on the profession as a whole. It you look at the AHAs current history relevance campaign, I think they call it the career relevance campaign, that is long overdue and it is much needed. No, it’s not not directly related to public history, but it’s part of a confluence of trends whereby public history is taking on a greater role in the profession, much to the benefit of the profession overall.

WM: So those that still misunderstand public history in traditional history departments and universities across the United States, do you think that’s a failing on the public history field in advertising itself, or age-old blinders that are still on?

DV: It’s the latter. Its blinders, and it’s the fact that most people that get academic jobs in history are coming from, elitism matters. You’ve got to go to a very prestigious program, you’ve go to work with particular people. It’s because the path towards getting into academic jobs in history is so narrow, and is so based on prestige factors and very, very traditional academic work, so yeah. It’s not mainly a failure of public historians, it has to do with the way academic historians are trained, it has to do with the lack of diversification in training, or teaching careers in history. It’s a weakness of the field overall, we should believe in this diversification stuff.

If you value diversity of experience and knowledge, there is all sorts of reasons to not simply look at people that are coming out of the small number of PhD programs, and having seen the way job searches work and so forth, I understand why that happens. Hopefully that changing and one thing that has impressed me in some of the departmental debates and job searches that have taken place in the years that I’ve been a practicing academic historian, younger scholars, even from traditional and very academically focused PhD programs, for whatever reason, they seem to have a stronger appreciation for public history and especially the value in connecting to public audiences. Whether they lose sight of those priorities once they become tenured, and were shaped by the cultures in which we work, and academic, historical culture is not promoting of diverse experience and interest right? (Laughs)

Whether those younger history educators at the PhD level hold their apparent perceptivity that I have seen over time, that remains an open question in my mind, but I do think there is to some extent a generational change that is promising and hopeful because again, historians are not going to do very well, and the profession is not doing very well by only speaking to other historians. We’ve got to connect, and the notion that you can’t do that until you are at least an associate professor or a big name in the field and then you can write for popular audiences is just a bogus self-limiting view that is awful. One thing, and obviously I am on my high horse at this point, but one thing that is hugely valuable here, and it is true in other departments as well, but let’s stop having these distinctions between public history and academic history.

If you are a serious historian, you ought to know what serious historians do in a lot of different settings, and if you are an MA history student who is wondering about the career possibilities are in history, you should know about public history and traditional academic paths. If you don’t, you are limiting your ability to understand what the value of traditional historical scholarship is, relative to other forms of historical work. It is limiting. One thing that has been really good here is that the degree to which introducing students who are on traditional academic paths to public history work at the MA level, that is making stronger graduates of our MA program, which we have public history fields at the major and minor level, but we do not have a dedicated public history MA, but the students who are graduating now, are better off for having gotten some exposure to public history as part of their MA level training.

WM: I agree with all of that.

DV: (Laughs) Speaking to the choir!

WM: So, when you landed your job at the University of Louisville, which we all know traditional history jobs are hard to get, was your experience in public history and your degree from South Carolina a lucrative factor in getting hired?

DV: Well, lucrative is a very relative term given the circumstances we are talking about. I will tell you, I mean, not really, but a little bit. Here is what I mean by that. This department is a very traditional department, and public history was the new and radical thing and they were basically being asked to do. There were some people in the department that was supportive of it, but the dean that we had at the time was the main driver in establishing a public history program. I was not the top pick in part because the department has a record of strongly favoring people who had the PhD in hand and I went on the job market about a year early at the direction of my mentors at Hopkins, and it was a trial run, it turned out to be very fortuitous because the job market collapsed the next year. I was on the market before the ‘08 recession hit, and things got really grim thereafter.

The department went through their top three picks, they were all pretty typical of that time. They were all traditional academics with a little public history experience, but they hadn’t worked in the field or had substantial training. At the end of the day, when the department decided against those people, I think one of them turned them down and not offered to the other two. I was fourth in line and people did recognize that I had a dedicated MA from a very reputable and well-established program, and also had also been trained enough in a prestige history program. That MA from South Carolina helped to some extent, but it would not have gotten me in the door. If my PhD training was in a less prestigious program, I think I probably would have been considered, but probably would have been much lower ranked if that makes sense.

WM: Did they hire you to specifically create this certificate or minor in public history?

DV: Sort of, so yeah, this is a pattern that has shown up in a lot of departments. The department mindset is, “We will hire this person to develop this certificate program and the dean is on board, so we should establish a dedicated MA in three or four years, but public history doesn’t really look that serious to us so we are going to make this person get their promotion and tenure based on traditional credential.” So basically, they created about four different jobs and this is the norm, so yeah, sensibly, the way the position was set up. This is appealing to me in the greater scheme of things has been good, but it also speaks to the way that there are unrealistic and ridiculous expectations. The position was set up to teach public history courses and grow a public history program. It had been established for a year when I was hired, and also to teach in your traditional area of academic specialization, so you know, that’s been good right? Because my career has been about doing both public history and traditional historical scholarship. I feel strongly about both.

The way the position was set up, it was about a job and a half minimum. That got compounded by the fact that the graduate certificate and the way the department decided to add public history as a viable major/minor field for the MA program the year after I was hired, the public history tract turned out to be much more popular than anybody expected. Guess who’s the beneficiary of that, well me, I got a lot more work than people expected me to have and a lot more advising. I just did the numbers and forty percent, we graduated thirty-five MAs since 2010 when we added the option of doing your major/minor field in public history. Forty percent of those MAs have done it in public history.

We graduated nine certificate students, and everyone pursuing work in public history has found a position with the exception of two people, both of whom had personal circumstances that limited their job search and basically their willingness to go to different geographical location. Some of my colleagues will say, rightly so, that basically public history has saved our MA program, and energized it in all sorts of ways. So, I mean that has been my experience such as it is.

WM: So, you have this expansive career, and…

DV: (Laughs) 

WM: What? It’s true! 

DV: Somewhat foolish and you know, good and bad in all sorts of different ways, but yeah expansive. (Laughter) 

WM: Yeah! Its diverse, you worked in the public sector, you went from the MA to traditional work back to the traditional PhD route, even your parents as PhDs has given you a unique experience. What advice would you give to a graduating graduate student with an MA in public history? 

DV: Who wants to do public history work or is considering all sorts of different options? 

WM: Either or, open question!

DV: I think the advice I would give is, trust gut instinct and go with what seems to be the best possibilities you have at the time. Like many historians, I am overly analytical and especially since the field so privileges credentials and particular types of stuff. In retrospect, I was more attentive to those types of things than what is probably important. Good people make opportunities for themselves, and they get opportunities. There was certainly a graduate student culture when I was at South Carolina that was, not negative, but certainly pessimistic. Wages are low, there are many jobs in the field, “Gosh I hope I get a job somewhere and I hope it’s a good job” and everybody has done well, everybody has had opportunities and they’ve grown in positions and they advanced in their respective tracks, so if you get good training, you apply yourself at the MA level and you get a good range of experience in training, things will be fine.

If you got opportunities in public history, and you like what you’re doing, stay there. Things will grow and develop. I spent way too much time agonizing over should I stay with the Park Service or go back for a PhD? At the end of the day, they were both really good options, and I am comfortable with the choices that I made, but in retrospect, I certainly spent more time fretting about either, or kind of possibilities instead of enjoying fully the work I was doing. One of the great things about public history and I recognized this at the time when I was at South Carolina and certainly in the years when after I graduated, when I was still in Columbia working at the SHPO, contacted Bob, Connie, and some of the then MA students, one of the great things about public history is that people actually have the ability to follow their intellectual interests and their kind of professional interests in their regular job duties.

You have a lot of ways that can shape what you do on the job and your works actually interesting and exciting. Not many people have those kinds of circumstances in their work. I think that if you are finishing the MA and you are deciding what kind of historian you are going to be, follow your instincts, follow the opportunities that are presented to you that seem most inviting and seem most beneficial, and things will work themselves out. Public history is continuing to professionalize and expand, it is becoming much more important to the public but also to the profession as a whole.

This is a great time to be working as a public historian, and there is all sorts of possibilities beyond what seems to be the sort of obvious range. One thing that I think is very true, is that when I was getting my MA training, there were these tracks right, you could do museums, preservation, archives, but there was five or six different subfields within public history, and I think that is becoming much, much more fluid and there are more interesting, unusual, and difficult to categorize positions in the field now than ever before. That is a sign of health and growth, and flexibility that is very attractive and very good. 

WM: Alright, well thank you so much Dan, this has been a great interview.

DV: Great talking to you! 

WM: Absolutely.

DV: Let me know what happens with your situation, I would be interested to know. 

WM: I definitely will, and I will keep in touch! 

DV: Please do! 

WM: Alright, thank you very much and have a good day! 

DV: You too! 

WM: Bye!

End of Interview