Jobs and Careers in History: Interview with Richard Gillespie – Part Two

Part one of this interview, which appeared on the blog on Monday, with Richard Gillespie examined his current position as director of education for the Mosby Heritage Area Association and some of his thoughts on history. In Part two he discusses advice for job hunters with history degrees and comments on misconceptions of history.

Q: What advice would you give to those with history degrees who are looking for jobs outside of academia?
A: I think college education is now more and more towards liberal arts: the idea is to learn to read, learn to write, learn to think—history does that. Don’t feel like you have to stay in the history field just because you majored in it. Let’s say you don’t want to become a college professor or you don’t want to go into public education, but you do like history. The number one thing I would say is as early as possible you want to start to prepare a resume to show that you’ve been involved in history. People don’t care what school you went to or what your history degree is in, but if you have a resume that shows you’ve done a bunch of stuff in history, you’re going to be hirable.

The other side of it is you don’t choose history to stay in. You may want to major in it but you don’t want to stay in it unless it is a need: you need to work with history; you want to work with the public. The question is: are you doing something that you need to be doing?

I will say this—this is really important—if you either go into academic history or public history and you don’t care about your fellow man, if you don’t think that part of the point of history is to improve mankind, I don’t know why you would bother doing it. Realistically public history is all about making the world better. It is like an art, like literature. The point is not just to make money; the point is to better the world through examination of what we have been to give us something to reflect on such that what we will be will be better.

Q: Do you know of any places to send newbies out of college who have a history degree to even begin looking for a job? If they wanted to get an internship or even while they’re still in school getting their education, where would they go?
A: My first advice is don’t think you have to work for famous places just because you go to a good school. You don’t have to work at Smithsonian. You don’t have to work for Colonial Williamsburg. Local historical societies, local historical organizations, the local museum, the national park that’s closest, the state park, if it’s a history site, that’s closest. College towns inevitably have huge histories. Are college students welcome? Yes. Will they pay you? Maybe. Maybe not, but you are trying to build a resume in a field that is highly competitive. What I would say is grab every history opportunity you can get your hands on if public history is what you want.

If you want to go into teaching, then do what so many people do and try your hand at substitute teaching, so you’re beginning to think, if I were running this class, what would I do? If you’re thinking of law school, then obviously you want to get an internship with a lawyer. I’m not talking a formal one. There’s no reason in the world why when you’re 17 or 19 you can’t go to the local attorney and say, “Hey, I’d be willing to volunteer for two days a week.”

So you want a resume-builder. That is the key.

Q: What’s the best advice you’ve received within your field?
A: I have received some excellent advice in education, which is very relevant to history teaching from my stepmother, who suggested, “every child is equal, every child.” I really did believe that. I still do believe that.

You don’t think people are very interested in history. Your job is to grab them, your job is to provoke them, your job is to start them on their journey. You’re not going to get them there, but you can start them. You can plant that seed, and you may not know whether you did, so you just keep planting—play Johnny Appleseed. I think that is what history is about. It’s not just finding out what happened. I think overwhelmingly, if I’ve gotten anything out of my love of history it is if you play history and you aren’t provoked to think, what was the point?

Q: What do you think is the most common misperception of the history field? Why don’t you think people see history as important?
A: I’m not so sure that people don’t. In your day-to-day life, you’re busy. People don’t have a lot of time to think about history. For many Loudouners, the historic sites are sort of in certain places—maybe they’re in Leesburg, or they’re just across the mountain in western Loudoun, or on the back road somewhere in eastern Loudoun. Once it’s brought to their attention, what they’ve got is that this site is theirs. I grew up and that darn Minuteman statue was mine by god! I mean, whatever I want to do with that statue, that’s mine, that’s my heritage, that’s my baby. Once it becomes their baby, once it becomes their responsibility, once the stewardship of that is brought to their attention that is their heritage. People will rise to that. History dies if people don’t take care of it, if they don’t regenerate it—regenerate by storytelling, by sharing it, by taking people to it.

There’s a second piece of this—to a degree, which history is worth saving is determined by those who know how to popularize it or advertise it or bring its importance to people’s attention. In other words, as we take certain representative people or sites and make them into icons, then they become worth saving. We begin to save things. We begin to know our history when it confronts us. It’s almost the intimacy that not everybody else knows that sells it.

So getting back to your question—I think the misconception is that people don’t care. Do they ever really have a chance to? If given an opportunity to, won’t they?

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