By Matthew Reeves
When I arrived at the headquarters of the Kansas City Chiefs Football Club it was like landing on another planet. Gone were the cinderblock walls, linoleum flooring, and flickering fluorescents of campus; in their place was a plush, tastefully designed working space shared by coaches, executives, and current players. It was nearly impossible not to be star struck by celebrity athletes, especially in a city that adores its local team. It was immediately clear to me, however, that I, like everyone else in the building, was there to work.
How did a doctoral student in history find himself working at an NFL club? Over the last several years, the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) history department—under the direction of professors John Herron and Chris Cantwell—has built a robust and innovative internship program that complements our classroom work with professional experience. Each internship site adds a novel dimension to the training in our department, but working in such a nontraditional environment helped me develop intellectual self-confidence and discover that I am more than just an expert in my content area.
At first, though, I was unsure if my historical training had prepared me for the tasks at hand. Along with a second intern, Leah Palmer, I was tasked with redesigning the tour strategy for the Arrowhead Art Collection, a large selection of modern art that rings the stadium’s club level. Beyond its aesthetic value, the art collection serves the team’s mission by celebrating regional art and providing educational opportunities for the community via guided art tours. The existing art tour focused on anecdotal information about the artists and did little to engage with the actual artwork. Consequently, the tours had a difficult time holding an adult’s attention, let alone the elementary-age school groups the team regularly brought to the stadium. Our task was clear: find a way to talk about art that would engage students and other visitors. There was only one problem: neither of us had experience interpreting art or creating content that would be suitable for both a football stadium tour and a fine art tour.
Fortunately, our department’s emphasis on skills allowed us to think beyond our content expertise. Once at Arrowhead, we started our work using that most essential skill, research. We found that the best tours at art museums engaged children through dialogue. Inspired by “visual thinking strategies,” a tour style that uses open-ended questions to get students to verbalize the process of looking, Leah and I championed a new approach to the art during the stadium tours. The guides would ask questions and let student responses drive the conversation. For example, guides would ask students what they saw in an artwork. Answers could be as concrete as a description of the subject matter or as abstract as an emotion or feeling that the work inspired. These wide-ranging discussions would follow the path that students led us on for several minutes. Guides would then provide some clues to steer the conversation toward how the work fit within the collection’s Midwestern theme.
On our first training session, we led the guides on a tour and asked them open-ended questions about the artwork. At first, the tour guides were rightfully hesitant. As anyone with children can attest, it is a risky proposition to let third graders lead discussion. But as the guides’ confidence increased, student engagement with the art flourished. Tour groups were no longer passively receiving information about the art, but participating in conversations that started with their own observations of the work and that often led to unexpected places.
While students were discovering ways to think and talk about art, I was learning new things about my own skills. The essential skills of academic work, I learned, really are the same skills corporate employers demand. Writing annotated bibliographies, for example, prepares me to draft concise and effective memos. Conference presentations give me the skills to deliver oral reports with confidence. Developing and executing a research plan is another name for project management. The skills required for organizing a professional conference are the same as event planning. My initial concern about my lack of capabilities, it turned out, was not a matter of a substantive deficit, but a failure to think about and articulate my skills in a way that made sense in the world outside the academy.
During my time as an Arrowhead Art Fellow, I found that the professional world presented challenges that humanities training prepared me to solve. My success with the Chiefs gave me a newfound faith in my own skills and abilities. The experience built up my intellectual self-confidence. It sounds a bit glib to say that historical training has prepared me for almost anything, but the transferable skills I learned in graduate school were essential during my time working at a professional football stadium. It now occurs to me that “transferable” is an unnecessary qualifier when describing a historian’s skills. Historians have skills, full stop, and after applying mine in such a nontraditional environment, I say that with confidence.
Matthew Reeves is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His academic work focuses on alternative medical practices in the late 19th-century American Midwest. His nonacademic work, he’s recently discovered, might take him anywhere. He tweets @midwestmedicine.
The AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative seeks to better prepare graduate students and early career historians for a range of career options, within and beyond the academy. This post is part of a series called “Historians in Training” featuring graduate students working in diverse settings and exploring career prospects along the way.