March 04, 2009
By Jessica Pritchard
In part two of this interview, Matt Wasniewski, historian in the U.S. House of Representatives, discusses his thoughts on the public’s view of history, advice for history students, and more.
In part one he explained how he got into the history field and his current job, what his regular duties include, and more about his background.
What kind of misperceptions do you think people have towards those with a history degree? You know, Why study history?
Again, as an undergraduate, I had roommates who were history majors. One of them went on to teach history in high school. The other one runs a very successful insurance business. Any liberal arts education with a focus on critical thinking and writing will help you in almost any business endeavor or career endeavor you choose to follow or go after. I know when we have positions open, the writing aspect and being able to analyze things quickly [gives those] folks who can demonstrate that a huge leg up. I think history helps people do that—that’s what it’s all about. You read. You draw conclusions and inferences from what you read. Then you have to produce a paper. It sharpens your skills as a writer, hopefully.
I think in terms of a liberal arts grounding, history helps in many ways. Here on the Hill, for instance. If you’re a communications director or a press secretary, having a little more depth of knowledge about certain issues and their historical antecedents and being able to put that into some kind of context would help you tremendously. I think history is the perfect undergraduate degree for folks who want a solid liberal arts grounding because most jobs you go into are going to be entry-level jobs if you’re 21 or 22 when you get out [of undergrad]. Whether it’s working for a bank or working for a real estate agent, you’re going to get trained in the special procedures, but if you come to the game with the ability to communicate clearly and express yourself in writing and verbally, you’re heads and tails above other folks who can’t do that.
What advice would you give to students coming out of college with a history degree?
You have to be really proactive, and it starts well before you graduate. You’re fortunate if you know that early on. Some of these things just kind of come your way or you move into this field, but if you know that you want to get involved with history from the start, getting an internship, volunteering somewhere is really critical. When you’re young, obviously, you’re not going to have the experience that is going to impress employers. What they’re going to be looking for, in addition to writing and analytical skills, is kind of a demonstrated interest in history, so that might be becoming a docent or a tour guide at your local museum or the local Civil War battlefield.
I would also stress the writing component. Get a sense of, especially if you’re going off into graduate school, the area you want to study. You may not know [what] your thesis or dissertation topic is going to be, but you should be really familiar with the literature and know where some of the weak points are or what you can add to the discussion.
Also be cognizant of having access to archives and the real building blocks of what you’re going to need to write [for] that dissertation or thesis. And position yourself accordingly. If you can prove and demonstrate that you have a publication record of some kind—maybe it’s an article or a term-paper that you’ve turned into a paper for a local journal or a university journal or a local newspaper or a newsletter and kind of build a track record in that manner—you’re going to impress folks of your love, your knowledge, your enthusiasm for doing history. Here in the D.C. area, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an internship possibility! Again, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a major kind of institution. You can do it at the local level with your local historical society. I’ve always found in dealing with roots like that, sometimes you kind of have to steel yourself and get that gumption to kind of walk in the door and make a cold call or pick up a phone and make a cold call, but people are generally very receptive to having help, volunteer help, especially at the local level.
What would be the best way to get your foot in the door? Where are good places to look for public history jobs?
There is a great society to get involved in: the Society for History in the Federal Government. They do have job postings on their web site, but I think probably the most useful thing is that if you come to a couple of their functions, the people who do federal history is a fairly small group. You go to the events that the society has and you get to network. You learn about positions that are coming open, about expectations when these offices go to hire, and [about] the lay of the land. You get a real honest accounting of what it’s like to do public history in a museum setting or to work at National Archives or to work on the Hill or to work at the State Department—it’s a great networking opportunity. I would encourage people who are undergraduates right now, if you’re interested in this line, even if you don’t think you’re going to be doing federal public history, it’s a great way to kind of get your foot in the door with public history that you might want to take with you to some other part of the country. It’s a great experience, networking like that.
What’s the best advice you’ve received that has helped you in your career?
I had one advisor who said, Be sure you want to do this because it’s a long process! Especially going for your graduate degree, whether it’s a master’s or certainly for a PhD. It can be kind of a lonely, individualistic enterprise. Just be sure you want to do it, and if you’re sure and you want to do it, then you’re going to have the self-motivation, which it takes to succeed. You definitely have to be a self-starter because once you move beyond [the] undergraduate, no one is going to hold your hand to do these projects and write up major papers. It’s an undertaking. But there are also a lot of resources out there, and if you’re creative about how you want to do it and have a clear idea of what you want to do, then you’ll succeed. Graduate school doesn’t normally go to the quickest; it goes to people who can really endure and keep moving on step-to-step and moving in a progression [with] a clear goal in mind.
I’d also say to think expansively and creatively about how you want to achieve your objective. I came into it with something of a narrow focus. I thought, I want to teach. I like the writing aspect of it [history] and thought, Well I could do that in the university setting. The job market in terms of political history and diplomatic history, which were my areas of interest, have always been tight, and I think it gradually came to me that there were other opportunities outside of that. They could be every bit as fulfilling. They’re different, but you can channel your energies towards doing history. The experience, especially moving beyond undergraduate and going into graduate school, it may not be a linear experience in which you’re looking at a straight line to your goal. You have a lot of opportunities. It takes a little bit of creativity.
What’s one of the most interesting stories you’ve encountered here? If you can limit it to just one!
Oh, sure, I can limit it to one! It would have to be when we began our oral history program. [With] a lot of our oral histories, it’s word of mouth. Well, we got word that there was a gentleman out in Rockville, Maryland, who had read the roll call vote on December 8, 1941. His name is Irv Swanson. So we contacted Mr. Swanson and went out to interview him. He had some tremendous stories.
He did take the roll call that day. He was the reading clerk—the minority reading clerk at a time when there was a Republican reading clerk, which was in the minority, and a majority reading clerk, a Democratic reading clerk. He took the roll call, but he had this very clear memory of what was going on in the Chamber: Roosevelt having come in, given his brief address and leaving; and then the House going into debate and very quickly the vote for war. He remembered Jeannette Rankin sitting towards the front of the chamber and Everett Dirksen, who was then a young member from Illinois. [He remembered Dirksen] coming up (he knew Rankin fairly well), put[ting] his arm around her, and pleading with her to vote present rather than no. And ultimately she voted against the war. He had these anecdotes, and then he talked about the Declaration of War several days later against Germany and Italy.
Well, Roosevelt didn’t come down and deliver the message, so as reading clerk, Mr. Swanson read the presidential message to the House. Then the House proceeded to a roll call vote: the Declaration of War against Germany and Italy. He took the roll call vote, and at the very end, as they’re going out of session, Speaker Sam Rayburn leans over and says, Irv, you’ve done such a good job today, I want you to have this, and he gave him the gavel. And Irv Swanson, who was then 28 or 29 (we interviewed him when he was in his early 90s), he said, Mr. Speaker, I’d be honored, but only if you sign and date the gavel for me. So Rayburn signed and dated the gavel, December 11, 1941.
He finishes the story and says, And by the way I’ve got that in the attic if you’d like to see it. Well sure! We’d love to see that! So at the end of the interview, this spry 92-year-old man scrambles up into the attic, comes back down [with] a shoebox. He has it wrapped in newspaper and plastic and takes it off: there’s the Declaration of War gavel. So long story short, he donated the gavel at the conclusion of the oral history interviews to the House collection, to our curator. That gavel has worked its way into the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
It kind of gets back to that idea that there’s this real kind of synergy in our department. We had no idea when we started doing oral histories that a lot of the people who we interviewed in the end had all this stuff. So the oral history program has been a great vehicle for acquiring a lot of the artifacts that are out there. In an institution this large [these artifacts] just get dispersed, especially since there was no history function and no curatorial function until very recently.