Q: After graduating from Virginia Tech’s M.A. program, what have you done professionally?
I knew that I wanted to take a few years away from graduate school while I considered moving on to a PhD program, so I tried to keep my options open. The summer after I graduated, I presented material from M.A. thesis at the annual conference organized by Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral & Social Sciences. My partner and I relocated to the Washington D.C. area, where I began looking for jobs in the museum and cultural heritage field. I worked briefly as a part-time media archivist at Sirius XM, digitizing large stacks of CD-ROMS, listening to the audio, and writing descriptive metadata. After a few months, I found my way to the Folger Shakespeare Library, where I served as the Project Coordinator for the Mellon-funded interdisciplinary research project Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures [https://beforefarmtotable.folger.edu/]. As Project Coordinator, I wore a few different hats: I organized and ran conferences, public and academic-facing speaker events, administered a number of fellowships, managed budgets, edited a academic digital newsletter, and promoted events on social media. It was great way to learn new useful skills while still being immersed in a lively scholarly environment. Towards the end of this grant-funded position, I began charting my next move, and decided to return to graduate school.
Q: What is one thing that you did at Virginia Tech that aided you in your professional or academic path?
Gaining experience in organizing events and conferences was absolutely critical. I was extremely grateful that Virginia Tech afforded me a variety of experiences across my coursework and graduate assistantships. My first year, part of my assistantship hours were dedicated to helping organize Dr. Tom Ewing’s Images and Texts in Medical History Workshop. Event organizing was new to me, but I gained the confidence to head-up organizing the program’s annual Bertoti Conference in 2017. As a TA, I also participated in the early years of Dr. Ed Gitre’s American Soldier digital archive [https://americansoldierww2.org/]. More than anything, I am grateful for the supportive relationships I formed with those in my graduate cohort at Virginia Tech. I am not exaggerating when I say that we still talk every day.
Q: What advice would you give current or future students wanting to pursue a path similar to yours?
You’ve heard it before, but networking is so important. I learned about the opening at the Folger from a former undergraduate professor with whom I remained in contact. In the words of the chair of my current department, “there is no such thing as a non-professional interaction.” Keep an open mind and look for opportunities. My research at Virginia Tech had nothing to do with Early Modern European history, but the skills I developed at Virginia Tech – teamwork, conference organizing, administering projects – were critical in how I have subsequently positioned myself.
Q: What has been a major challenge you have encountered in your career? How have you dealt with it?
Finding the first job out of graduate school took time, persistence, and luck. If I could do it again, I would have spent more time planning ahead. In the initial 6 months after graduation, I strung together part-time work to keep afloat and build a resume. Start planning and applying for jobs well before you graduate. I drew on the support and guidance of my mentors, who advised me to pass on opportunities for full-time employment that did not feel like great fits. Those were very difficult decisions to make at the time but, with hindsight, were absolutely critical in getting me where I am now.
Q: What are your plans from here?
Continuing on and finishing my PhD! Beyond that, I am keeping an open mind for what comes next in my career, whether that involves a traditional university post or something along the lines of public humanities work.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
The training, comradery, and skills I developed in Virginia Tech’s History MA program prepared my extremely well for my current PhD program. I learned so much in my graduate seminars and in the process of my thesis research and writing at Virginia Tech. I really do owe my identity as a historian and a scholar to my time in this program.
Iris Swaney is a second year history graduate student. She graduated from Virginia Tech in 2018 with her bachelor’s in history. Her research interests are focused on the history of second-wave feminism, the battered women’s movement, and oral history. During the summer of 2020, she interned at the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley in Radford, Virginia.
Explain why you said “yes” to this particular internship. Why did this particular opportunity make sense for you in light of your research interests, career goals, the skills you already have, and even your personality?
Hailing from Northern Virginia but considering Blacksburg as my home away from home, I’ve quickly gained a love for the New River Valley through my time as an undergraduate and graduate student at Tech. My appreciation for studying history came from a handful of history teachers I had in high school– they made a subject I had previously seen as boring and just dates or names into a subject that was central to understanding our existence as human beings. Those teachers taught me that history is all about stories filled with tragedy, victory, and humanity, and that by learning about the past, we can better understand our present.
My research is centered around the Women’s Resource Center, and more broadly, how feminism operated and continues to operate in the formal institutions of the New River Valley. I completely lucked out with the opportunity to intern at the WRC while also working on research about it. It all started when, during my first month in the M.A. program while taking the intro public history class, Dr. Jessica Taylor approached me with the opportunity to interview the long-time executive director of the WRC, Pat Brown, an influential and important individual both within the WRC and the larger community. At first, I was intimidated and nervous just thinking about interviewing someone, especially someone like Pat– I had never formally interviewed someone for an oral history and had no idea where to begin. But I trusted Dr. Taylor and I knew that oral history seemed exciting to me, so I said yes.
The interview with Pat Brown was probably the best introduction to oral history that anyone could ask for. I learned that conducting good oral history means combining a lot of things– preparing some questions, doing some research about the interviewee, and also, and maybe most importantly, creating a sense of connection and allowing the interviewee to tell the stories that are important to them. That interview sparked my interest with the WRC, how they describe themselves, and the work that they’ve been doing for the community since 1977 that turned into my thesis project.
Dr. Taylor, the staff at the WRC, and Anthony Wright de Hernandez at Special Collections and University Archives, helped me develop an internship that would offer the WRC a service and myself an opportunity to get to know their records. That turned into me processing their historical collections and creating a finding aid that will prove beneficial to both the WRC internally, as well as other researchers like myself in the future.
Although I knew very little about how to approach processing a collection, I was eager to learn and get my hands on actual materials. The ability to see the other side of a collection, where historians generally only see the “finished side” after processing, allowed me to understand much more deeply why and how finding aids are written in a certain way. Processing a collection meant putting myself into the minds of future researchers who may be looking for much different information than what I need for my thesis.
Processing a collection, especially one with 100 or more items like at the WRC, also means being persistently and meticulously organized, which is something I weirdly enjoy. There’s something about sorting, writing lists, and keeping things orderly that gives me satisfaction. Even though I didn’t know exactly what I’d be getting into before the internship started, I knew that my Marie Kondo mind would love organizing a cluttered pile of files into something useful and easy to look at.
I said yes to the internship because it was a perfect fit with my research interests and my drive to learn about the ins and outs of processing a collection. I lucked out by being able to work directly with the materials I am studying, which made the decision to say yes to this internship an easy one!
Jessica Brabble is pursuing an MA in History with a certificate in Public History. She graduated from North Carolina Wesleyan College, where she majored in history, sociology, and psychology. Her research interests include late 19th- and 20th-Century U.S. cultural and history. In particular, she is interested in studying the role of better baby contests in North Carolina’s eugenics movement. This summer, she interned with Historic Bethabara Park in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
1. Explain why you said “yes” to this particular internship. Why did this particular opportunity make sense for you in light of your research interests, career goals, the skills you already have, and even your personality? You can use this as a chance to introduce yourself.
I did my internship this summer with Historic Bethabara Park in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Bethabara was the first Moravian settlement in North Carolina in the 18th century. The park seeks to tell the history of these Moravians through restored buildings—like the original 1788 Gemeinhaus church—and exhibits. Since the Moravians were stewards of the environment, the park also features some pretty great nature trails and gardens.
Personally, I’m interested in researching late 19th and early 20th century popular culture, entertainment, disability, and race. For my thesis, I’m studying the better babies movement in North Carolina and how it helped to spread eugenic rhetoric across the state. Obviously, this is pretty different than the time period and subjects studied at Bethabara, but it ended up being a great fit for me.
Working at Historic Bethabara gave me the opportunity to learn new skills that I hope will come in handy later in my career. While there, I focused on two main projects. First, I helped make their school tours more accessible to the visually impaired, hearing impaired, and those on the autism spectrum. I created several different packs for these groups with things like touchable objects, flash cards, and “social stories” to review step-by-step exactly what will happen on tours. Accessibility is becoming increasingly important to museums and historic sites, so learning how to make already existing tours more accessible to a wider audience was very helpful. It also allowed me to utilize skills that I learned in undergrad as a psychology major.
The second project I focused on was creating virtual field trips for Bethabara. Because of COVID-19, Bethabara has been closed to the public for most of the summer. Rather then letting this stop operations, they instead adapted and began creating online content for their audience. Seeing firsthand how a historic site has been able to adapt to something as unprecedented as a pandemic has been eye-opening, and ultimately creating these virtual field trips has allowed the site to reach people who otherwise might not have known about it or been able to visit.
3. What’s it like adjusting to a new workplace? What is it like interacting with the public, or how is it different if you interacted with the public regularly before? What are some unspoken rules or etiquettes that are good to know? (I’m using this one also to talk about what I had to learn/how I adapted)
Fortunately, working with the staff at Bethabara was a breeze. Historic Bethabara’s administrative staff is made up entirely of women; this gave me the wonderful opportunity to learn from these women about how they got their positions and how they have navigated the public history world. Samantha Smith and Diana Overbey–who oversaw my internship–were so fun and easy to work with, and we got along great.
Although adjusting to the staff was easy, I did have to do quite a bit of research about 18th century North Carolina and the Moravian community in order to create content for Bethabara. Luckily, the Moravians kept very thorough records of everything they did. These records are available in four very long volumes, and I referenced them frequently, especially when working on the virtual field trip videos. Samantha sent me a copy of A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840, which is a great book for better understanding the complicated history of slavery in the Moravian community. Finally, Diana sent me their incredible tour guide handbook, which ended up being a great help when planning for virtual field trip videos. I interacted with the public mostly through these videos, which is quite different than what I pictured for the summer. Bethabara has a great audience on their social media sites, so seeing the positive feedback on the videos I made was encouraging.
4. What experiences or advice can you share about keeping up good work or adjusting when it gets discouraging and hard?
It’s cliché, but communication is key. Your supervisors—both at your internship site and at VT—are there to make sure you get the most out of your internship experience. It can be hard to admit when you need help, especially when you’re trying to make a good impression, but it’s always better to ask questions than to end up frustrated with your internship. You should also share your successes with others. When you accomplish something at your internship and feel proud of it, post it on social media or shoot an email to one of your favorite professors. There are always going to be people in your corner that want to celebrate you, and it feels good to have recognition for what you’ve done!
Noah Crawford is a second year history graduate student. He graduated from Christopher Newport University with bachelor’s degrees in history and American studies. His research interests include the American Civil War and early American history.Specifically, he is interested in refugee studies as it relates to the Civil War.This summer, he had the opportunity to intern at Appomattox Court House National Historic Site in Appomattox, Virginia.
Explain why you said “yes” to this particular internship. Why did this particular opportunity make sense for you in light of your research interests, career goals, the skills you already have, and even your personality?
An internship at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park was the perfect opportunity for me to develop my ability to interpret sites with both military history and social history significance. My primary area of interest during my undergraduate years was the military history of the American Civil War. I pored over historic maps, soldiers’ diaries, and the dry, matter-of-fact writing that typifies officers’ post-battle reports. As interesting—and important—as such sources are for understanding history, I realized that focusing exclusively on military events of the war years inadvertently omitted vast swaths of people and how they experienced the early 1860s. The Civil War affected everyone in the country to some extent, and this becomes especially evident when I began reading accounts of people who were displaced by the military campaigns I had read about for years. The destruction of lives did not occur only on the battlefield, but at nearly every point through which armies passed during an active campaign as noncombatants’ livestock and crops were taken and their homes damaged or demolished. My masters thesis seeks to deconstruct the perennial habit of Civil War historians to relegate noncombatants to the realm of social history rather than as an integral part of the war’s military history. Likewise, it intends to illustrate the heavy influence that these noncombatants exerted on the military situations around them and how social history and military history can supplement each other in vibrant and meaningful ways. Few sites better embody a relationship between social history and military history than Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Although one of the most important events in the military history of the Civil War occurred on the site, the history of Appomattox Court House and its inhabitants did not begin or end in April of 1865. The village of Appomattox Court House and its 19th century residents receives excellent interpretation and utilizes civilian experiences extensively to present a more holistic understanding of what life was like in Civil War America. Although initially offered the opportunity to reside in a house owned by the Park Service for the duration of the internship, concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated that the internship be changed to a virtual one. Although I was initially disappointed, the virtual internship experience yielded a project that developed and honed valuable skills in historical interpretation which I previously lacked. My primary task was to create educational videos about various sites around the park, which meant I had to learn how to use video recording equipment and video editing software. My secondary task was to compile basic information on individual soldiers who fought at Appomattox Court House. The information about each soldier will be given to individual guests at future living history events at the park to help guests better connect with and understand the experiences of soldiers during the war. Thus my internship blended my familiarity with military records with multimedia opportunities I previously had not tried.
2. Present and analyze a primary source or object you’ve found that visitors or the public should know about. How did you find it, why did it resonate with you, why is it important beyond the site? This is basically a chance for you to explain why the work you’re doing is important.
In attempting to be concise, historical scholarship often relies on quantification of human experiences—that is, the lives and stories of many people are generalized to form a single “body” for narrative purposes. Military historians, especially, rely on this technique. “The 20th Maine Infantry Regiment,” a military history might read, “fielded 386 soldiers when it rushed onto the battlefield at Gettysburg.” For the rest of the narrative, these 386 individuals are defined collectively as the 20th Maine Regiment. Oftentimes, the regiment is given almost anthropomorphic qualities: it might “hurl itself” forward or “stagger backwards.” Obviously, such a manner of writing about a group of soldiers serves simply to provide the author to speak broadly of how several hundred soldiers experienced the battle. But in assigning human qualities to a group rather than the individuals in that group, the humanity and individuality of those 386 soldiers can become superseded or obscured. Rather than being seen as individuals experiencing all varieties of thoughts and emotions, soldiers are seen as numbers on a page or lines on a map. Working on the aforementioned “soldier card project” provided me with the most cliché of all clichés–in trying to educate others, I educated myself. The park hopes that providing a more personal view of the soldiers who fought at Appomattox—where they were born, what they looked like, their occupation, their lives after the war—will encourage guests to understand the soldiers more meaningfully, which, in turn, will help them better understand the era in which those soldiers lived. As I combed through the park’s extensive records on the soldiers who fought at Appomattox, the battle and subsequent surrender became more comprehensible events. The 155th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment was no longer a blue line on a map southwest of the village; it was Private William Montgomery, 19years old, a laborer in his hometown of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, brown-eyed, brown-haired, 5 feet 6 inches tall and 115 pounds. Of all the primary sources, the most striking were (of course) the photographs of the soldiers. Government records often lend little insight into how a soldier felt or experienced life in the army; these photographs allow you to better understand what they were thinking and feeling, as clearly as if you observed their demeanor while crossing paths on a sidewalk. You can see it in their faces: “green” soldiers in their new uniform, full of pride and excitement; tight-lipped wounded soldiers exuding sadness, pain, defiance, or fear. The case of Hiram W. Williams, 198th Pennsylvania Infantry, drew my particular attention. The 24-year old former printer was wounded in both feet just minutes before the ceasefire went into effect on April 9, 1865. He lost his left foot to amputation and was not discharged until October; the war had officially been over for 6 months when Williams finally arrived back home. His experience with the effects of war did not end at Appomattox in April of 1865 or with his discharge from the hospital in October. Williams tried to work as a wheelwright in Chester, Pennsylvania, in the following years, but his wounds plagued him and became inflamed. In 1909—44 years after he was wounded—he underwent surgery on his wounded legs to reduce the swelling, but the wounds he received on the war’s final day caused him discomfort until his death in 1925 at the age of 84. The story of Hiram Williams has never been published in a historical monograph; he is remembered not by name, but as one of 700 soldiers who fell killed or wounded in the final hours of the war at Appomattox. But Williams’ story did not end at Appomattox. Two decades after his wounding, he married and started a family. Despite his terrible injury, he constructed hundreds of wheels that served hundreds of people in the decades after the war. What primary sources such as those in Williams’ file remind us is that the war comprised four very important years of these soldiers’ lives, but it was not their only years. When we use these primary sources, we begin to see the lives of soldiers outside the years 1861 to 1865, which offers us, in some small way, to better understand the 19th century more broadly.
4.) What experiences or advice can you share about keeping up good work or adjusting when it gets discouraging and hard?
Undoubtedly, the most important thing to remember when work on an internship gets difficult is to understand the work you do is valuable. You don’t have to be making a revolutionary breakthrough in constructing a new methodological approach to history to be contributing to the field. Public history internships are fantastic for getting young historians into meaningful projects that can have far-reaching impacts. It sometimes takes a lot of time and effort, but something as simple as compiling information for a spreadsheet or helping with a small task is a part in making the organization at large carry out its mission. Secondly, communication is key. It sounds obvious, but it is especially important as an intern to be clear and deliberate in communication with peers and superiors, since you do not have a lot of time to build chemistry and figure out how you work together. Being sincere and honest, especially with mistakes or errors on your part, is a big piece of communication in this setting. Finally, if you feel yourself getting discouraged, try to find some joy in unexpected places. By the very nature of the topic, dealing with Civil War documents can become demoralizing. As such, I made sure not to overlook documents that are on the “lighter side.” The aforementioned William Montgomery, for example, wrote a number of letters to his mother in which he cracked jokes; skimming through such letters was always a breath of fresh air. Finding a spot outdoors at or near the internship site is also beneficial. Appomattox is a solid 30 minutes from the nearest urban area, and a simple walk around the quiet park can be refreshing. Overall, remembering the value of your work, communicating with your coworkers, and finding things that buoy your spirits are three important things that I have found kept me on track during my public history internship.
Jonathan MacDonald is a 2017 graduate of the MA History program at Virginia Tech. He is the current Project Coordinator for the Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Before ‘Farm to Table’ is an interdisciplinary research initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation and housed within the Folger Institute, the library’s center for research and scholarship.
Dr. Abbey (Barden) Carrico is a 2006 graduate of the MA program in History and Area Studies at Virginia Tech
After VT, she earned a Ph.D. in French Literature at Emory University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of French at Virginia Military Institute where she teaches French language and culture, writing, conversation and literature courses. At VMI, Dr. Carrico has co-developed an entirely new French curriculum that emphasizes communicative competence in students across all levels. A nineteenth-century specialist and ecocritic, Dr. Carrico researches literary representations of water in the works of Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, and George Sand.
Since finishing his master’s degree in 2005, Chris Beemer has been an educator. He has taught Roman and Medieval history at a private middle school in Annandale, Virginia, for one year and then taught World History and IB Economics at Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, for eleven years. Recently Chris earned his Education Specialist in Administration and Supervision at the University of Virginia and have been an Assistant Principal at Woodbridge Senior High School for one year.