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Speed Mentoring and Informational Interviews

2021 March 16
by Sheila

The virtual National Council on Public History conference began last week, and I am already missing my colleagues and friends and the opportunities to meet new people.

NCPH has always made space for students and early-career professionals and scholars to present and discuss their own projects, to network, and to learn about the latest research from the field as well as from professional development opportunities.

A conference staple was a Speed Networking session, offering job seekers and new graduates a chance to meet professionals working across the historical enterprise. Dozens of experienced public historians (“non-rotators”) sat at tables waiting for students and professionals (“rotators”) to move through the room for quick 15-minute conversations related to working and job hunting.

I was eager to serve as a “non-rotator” for the Speed Networking session. When I worked at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I was one of the few PhDs who had experience working outside of the academy and I often advised graduate students seeking public history and humanities careers. Sometimes I found myself advising colleagues far senior to me who wanted to know how they could get started in DH or potentially shift their careers.  Back in 2011, I began publishing an annual guide for a few years on “navigating DH for cultural heritage professionals.”

Whether chatting with a new graduate or seasoned professional, I never offered IFTTT pathways (If this, then, that), which everyone generally found unsatisfying. Rather, I suggested communities to connect with, professional development and learning opportunities, self-reflection, while acknowledging that job hunting and career building is exhausting, deflating, and exciting.

During the NCPH Speed Networking sessions, “rotators” were eager to hear how I and my colleagues got our current jobs, or inquired as to how we got started in DH,” and “what steps should they take to get where we are today.  Others might inquire why I left the  museum field, and then later, why I left a seemingly “stable” career in academia.

I understand why someone new the job market or new to the field might ask such questions.

The ways I got started in DH in the late 1990s and early 00s, however, aren’t possible today. Similarly, my MA program offered funding (the program doesn’t exist and no one seems to fund Master’s students these days). I worked full-time while earning my PhD. Someone may enjoy hearing my story, but ultimately it will not be helpful to them. I always needed to discuss how careers are personal and completely contextual.

Answers to some of these seemingly simple questions quickly delve into personal stories of privilege, motivation, discrimination, risks taken, rejections, choices made, and doors closed throughout a life. For most of us, there are pivotal circumstances that we may choose not to disclose to a stranger that often shape our career paths the most: relationships; health; financial stability; discrimination; harassment; toxic work environments; and bad bosses.

[ Racial and gender harassment and discrimination are present all over public history. Please tell someone you trust about these experiences, and then work towards identifying options that work for you. NCPH is building resources for survivors, summarized by Gregory Samantha Rosenthal in a recent History@Work post.]

For all of these reasons, my path is not replicable, nor are the careers of my colleagues. It is important for those us in mentoring positions to be honest about these realities, because I see that some harm is done by some established professionals who insist that what they did is replicable–look at me, I did it– even when the circumstances that supported their climb no longer exist, or shouldn’t have ever existed.

[Please note what follows is not designed to be advice for applying for teaching positions in the academy. I am not an authority on that market.]

fortune cookie fortune

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go where there is no path…and leave a trail.

If you are scheduling a speed networking event, ask the “non-rotators” to share their professional websites or CVs ahead of time for the participants to review. This not only offers a chance to learn more about the mentors, but also provides examples of how these individuals represent themselves through resumes, CVs, and professional websites (plus contact information for following up). Mine hasn’t been updated in awhile:

On the day of the event, provide a list of conversation-starters (or even a small deck of cards with questions). This takes the pressure off of everyone, intro-and extroverts alike, and gives everyone a chance to ease into the more complicated discussions of job hunting and career planning.

Here are some sample starter questions (with my answers):

  • What recent exhibit, digital project, or public program that excited you?
    • In February, I participated in Douglass Day, transcribing documents from Mary Church Terrell’s papers.
  • What are you currently reading, or what is something you recently read that you enjoyed?
    • I recently started Magic City by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which is set in 1921 during the massacre of African Americans and the neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, OK.
      I’m also reading The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman, a non-fiction book about bird behavior.
  • Is there a book, exhibit, project, that everyone in your field knows that you’ve never read/seen/experienced? (ie, what is your professional “secret”)
    • I have never read Moby Dick. And no, I’m not planning to read it soon.
  • Do you have a favorite tv/streaming show? Interesting movies?
    • I watch a lot of tv shows. The best movie I’ve seen in 2021 is One Night in Miami.

Once everyone is talking, then asking more specific questions about one’s career or current jobs help guide the conversation.

  • How did you realize that you wanted to work in history/humanities/cultural heritage? Did you have an ah-ha moment?
  • What sort of connections did you have starting out after college/after graduate school? If none, how did you make your earliest professional connections?
  • Do you feel comfortable sharing a risk you took during your career? What did you learn from that?
  • Have your professional and/or personal goals changed over the years?
  • If you feel comfortable sharing, what decisions have you made, or were made for you, that shape where you are now?
  • Is there something that you wished you had done or done more of when in graduate school, as an undergraduate, or early in your career?
  • How many jobs have you applied for?
  • What part of your current job do you like the most? What do you like the least?
  • Do you have a dream job?
  • What brings you joy when not working?

Here is a possible Speed Networking session with me.

  • How did you realize that you wanted to work in history/humanities/cultural heritage? Did you have an ah-ha moment?
    • During my first visit to the National Museum of American History, I saw how objects, narratives, and interactive elements were combined through exhibits to teach and to tell compelling stories. I wanted to someday be part of that.
  • What sort of connections did you have starting out after college/after graduate school? If none, how did you make professional connections?
    • Very few, and I wasn’t very good at asking for assistance or networking! I was advised to search through alumni directories from my undergraduate and MA program schools (nothing was online at the time). I looked for individuals who worked at museums. I found one person, who happened to be a museum director, and I scheduled an informational interview. That didn’t lead to a job or to make other connections, honestly, but he assured me that I made the right decision to pursue an MA in a discipline and acknowledged that it would take a long time to find a job in the field. He suggested I look for an internship to learn more about museum work to make some connections at one institution. At that time (late 1990s), there not many paid internship opportunities, and I hadn’t been able to intern anywhere because I needed to work.
  • Do you feel comfortable sharing a risk you took during your career? What did you learn from that?
    • I applied for and was hired for a “temporary” position as a museum educator at a federal museum. When I got the offer, I was two weeks away from moving in my mom (where I was living six months prior, while substitute teaching at my old high school) without a full-time job, at the conclusion of my paid museum internship in DC. The job was at the US Navy Museum (so named at the time). I knew some things about American history, but very little about the Navy and was apprehensive about working for the Department of Defense. The job was a GS-7/9, which was about the best grade one could find for breaking into the field at the time, and it did not come benefits. (I don’t think this category of federal employment exists anymore.) I earned sick and annual leave, but had no health insurance. This opportunity seemed pretty good for the short-term, because I did not have a family to support and I didn’t have health insurance at the time anyway (this was before the Affordable Care Act). If things didn’t work out, I could leave and move back home. I got very lucky. My job became permanent and I stayed for 7 years. When I left (another risk), I was the Director of Education.
  • How many jobs have you applied for?
    • Many! For some, I never got an interview or even an acknowledgement of my application.
      For others, I interviewed. I received offers I turned down, never received offers to consider, and of course, there are the few offers I accepted. Applying for jobs is useful in many ways, because this exercise helps you to practice presenting yourself, your experiences, and your capacity. You can learn how different organizations function and about the myriad of positions within cultural heritage/public humanities. Importantly, applying for jobs can help you to learn more about what you would really like to be doing in the world, to see your strengths and abilities, and to see what you do not like and do not want to support.
  • Do you have a dream job?
    • Director of a small history museum affiliated with a college or university located in a seaside town with affordable housing, where I teach a course in digital public history. (For the record, I love my current job!) There are many more details of this fantasy life I can share, but I won’t. It can be a fun exercise to imagine a dream job in a dream location, with a variety of circumstances, because it helps to clarify your aspirations and goals over your life. Who knows, you might get that job, or perhaps you already have it.

As a mentor, it is important that we offer encouragement and support to those who are starting out and those who are changing careers. I repeat to anyone who will listen that we will hold multiple jobs during our lives, and probably multiple careers. This is meant to reassure, but sometimes it is not received so well.

We can also encourage those we are advising or mentoring to develop a mission statement that describes what motivates them and what they want to accomplish in the world. My colleague Hannah Alpert-Abrams developed a worksheet for students that she currently gives to NEH interns (and she has organized a network to support job seekers). This format is easily adaptable, and encourages self-reflection through considering one’s life goals rather than specific jobs. That mission helps to guide your path and decisions over time.

Shifting perspectives in this way makes it is easier to consider how we “compose a life,” as Mary Catherine Bateson proposed (linked is an interview with her from On Being). Where we are now in life represents a combination of personal choices, systemic injustices, roadblocks, and the ways we move around, over, and through the opportunities and challenges in front of us at a given moment.

Hang in there, everyone.

I am so grateful for the professional and personal relationships that started at an NCPH conference, and look forward to seeing you all next year.


We’ll always have THATCamp

2020 February 27
by Sheila

[On the sunsetting of THATCamp originally posted on THATCamp Retrospective]

Saying farewell to THATCamp is saying goodbye to an era. That era probably ended a few years ago, but it’s ethos and enthusiasm lives on in all of us campers.

I must admit, I never expected that THATCamp would become a thing when Dave and Jeremy imagined it in 2008.

It made sense that an idea like THATCamp originated at the Center Roy built. Like many Center projects, it started with a simple idea to address a real problem. The costs were low and the payout was huge. THATCamp democratized the DH conference by breaking it into an unconference designed for folks interested in solving problems, building some things, and working collaboratively with a schedule built on-the-fly. It certainly didn’t break academic structures, but TC’s created a space for trading in titles and hierarchy for a t-shirt and a bag lunch. Experimentation was encouraged. Content experts admitted they were tech novices. Attendees were encouraged to get up mid-session to try something else. The wifi wasn’t always strong, but it was always available.

I missed the first one, because I had something planned on that weekend– a wedding or some family gathering. When I returned to work that Monday, I heard how well it all went. The first one was a success, and then, it became a real thing.

Participating in, and later running, THATCamps built my confidence and helped me to feel comfortable teaching, demonstrating, and sharing my own technical and professional knowledge. I was a graduate student and a project manager who didn’t feel like I belonged in academia. I belonged at THATCamp. TCs were fun, and exhausting. I connected with future collaborators, learned to tinker with new things, and sometimes I sat and wrote Omeka documentation or Wikipedia entries.

THATCamp became a signature event, and later a major project for RRCHNM. It was an alt-conference organized by alt-acs and graduate students. We couldn’t afford to attend the expensive DH institutes or conferences in the summer, but we could host and run an unconference. And people kept coming & organizing.

I appreciated the optimism that everyone brought… before the exhaustion settled in.

Thanks, Amanda, Jeremy, Tom, Dan, and Dave. I will always look back fondly on the movement you created and fostered. It will remind me of good times with you & the RRCHNM family, and the greater community created.

We’ll always have THATCamp!

A Chance to See DH Work from Another Side

2018 April 4
by Sheila

Doodle by Jannelle Legg

My days of grant writing have come to an end for now. I’m pleased to announce that starting in late June, I will begin as a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities and will join the amazing, hard-working team in the Office of Digital Humanities. I couldn’t feel more excited for this opportunity to work for an organization truly dedicated to public humanities.

The position will offer me a chance to continue learning and exploring digital humanities methods and projects in a broader context than I do now. I will also work closely with many of you as potential and current grantees to develop work in the multiple ways that digital humanities scholarship develops and is expressed.

This new job, however, means that I must leave RRCHNM,which will not be easy.

Since 2005, I contributed to 26 funded grant proposals yielding $13 million in funding for the Center, and I worked on 20+ digital projects from the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank to Mobile for Museums, Histories of the National Mall, and Omeka, and to the DoingDH professional development series that is increasing digital capacity of faculty and cultural heritage professionals. Over these 13 years, I have worked with many smart and dedicated professional staff, graduate students, faculty at Mason, and with collaborators across cultural heritage organizations, foundations, universities, and open-source communities. My digital public humanities work has been both challenging and meaningful, as most collaborative work is. I remain convinced that all of the work I’ve done is not mine alone and is better because of collaboration.

During this time, I developed many close friendships with my colleagues. We’ve been through a lot together (including losing Roy) over the years: marriages, kids, mortgages, epic vacations, family deaths, illnesses, dissertation defenses, and white elephant exchanges. Some of my best recent memories occur during lunch at the Center’s main dev table with the amazing Public Projects team,+ our honorary teammate, Faolan Cheslack-Postava, and Research Projects Director Sean Takats, analyzing ingredients and packaging of Trader Joe’s snacks, discussing the rules of obscure Olympic sports, or playing trivia. All the while, we worked hard together moving towards shared goals; tackled big projects and problems; planned and discussed projects; respected one another’s expertise; listened to one another’s voices; and worked towards consensus on major decisions.

Some colleagues at other universities have marveled that I was able to craft a career and scholarly identity while working as a contingent faculty member whose salary was paid by grants. Somehow I fit in a lot, in addition to digital projects, including presenting and writing a few things (someday, my long-awaited digital and print publication will be published), and having some fun along the way. This worked for a long while, but I’m ready for a change.

When you’ve been at RRCHNM as long as I have, you see many folks come and go, and change will necessarily come to RRCHNM. By the end of the summer, all four of RRCHNM’s women leaders mentioned in Sharon Leon’s 2016-17 essay will have left the Center, as well as some staff and graduate students who will be moving on. During my time here, I feel lucky to have worked closely with many accomplished RRCHNM alum, including Sharon Leon, Tom Scheinfeldt, Dan Cohen, Lisa Rhody, Trevor Owens, Jeremy Boggs, and many others.

Much of the Center’s work has relied on the ideas and expertise of the Center’s staff at given moments in time. New exciting Center projects will emerge and reflect the ideas and specialties of the existing and incoming faculty. Long-term software projects, such as Omeka and Zotero, will remain strong due to their incredible project teams, and because of efforts taken by project directors past and present who established mechanisms to ensure for their long-term sustainability.

I came to Mason in 2002 as a part-time PhD student to work with Roy, and never imagined staying until 2018 to work for a Center named for him, without him there. I probably stayed longer than I would have were he still alive.

Now is the right time for me to move on to the NEH-ODH where I can support and foster digital humanities work at the national level. I’ll see you soon, when I will be exploring DH from another side and finding out the secret to those legendary ODH muffins.

Find me at MCN2017

2017 November 6
by Sheila

Tomorrow, I head to Pittsburgh for the Museum Computer Network’s 50th annual conference. The program celebrates #mcn50 with the theme of “Looking Back, Thinking Forward, Taking Action.”

If you are going to #MCN2017, do not miss the opening keynotes in conversation featuring Aleia Brown, Adrianne Russell, and Jamil Smith on Wednesday morning to start off the conference.

If you’d like to say hello, find me at one of my panels or around the conference:

  • Radicalizing Objects in History Museums Wednesday, November 08, 2:30 PM – 3:00 PM
    Twenty-five years ago, artist Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society, recontextualized and rattled the history museum field with this radical use of objects. I would like to brainstorm and build, in an unconference session, how history museums can invite and allow for critique of their institutions, and the society that created them, through their objects. Is the type of collaboration that opened the doors to MDHS to an artist possible today? In addition to a physical exhibition, it is possible to imagine this type of curation involving object-driven institutional and social critique through digital means? In this session we could even build a prototype of how something could work on the web. The bigger issues relate to bringing a history museum on board because it invites critique and addressing difficult histories, not only of the communities represented, but of the institutions themselves.
    Here is my working document for this unconference session. Come brainstorm ideas, things to build, ways to reinterpret and re-contextualize objects in history collections, or contribute from afar:
  • Confronting Theories of Museum Greatness, Wednesday, November 8, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM

    What does it mean for a museum to be great? What does it mean for a museum to be in decline? Who gets to decide which is which, and what is the media’s role in that decision? When one narrative of so-called greatness is given prominence over others, what other narratives are pushed into the background and why?

    This panel will dive into these questions and more, using recent media coverage of museums as a framework for understanding how public perception of these narratives drives internal decision-making. The panel will also examine the role museum workers have in deciding which narratives to lift up, and in crafting more balanced theories of museum greatness and/or decline. In exploring the tension in museums between conservatism and progressivism, the authoritarian and the democratic, and innovation and excellence, the panel will endeavour to understand how (or whether) narratives of museum “greatness” change our work as well as the future course of our sector.


    Koven Smith
    Lanae Spruce
    Nikhil Trivedi
    Claire Blechman
    Kate Livingston
    Sheila Brennan

  • Engaging Curators! Inclusivity and Collaboration Across Institutions, Thursday, November 9, 8:45-9:45am

    Art curators are not necessarily brought into discussions shaping visitor engagement and digital strategies in art organizations today. This was not always the case, as art curators were part of MCN when it was founded in 1967. During its pilot phases, MCN’s coalition to create a network of museum collections involved curators, registrars, administrators, and technologists. This roundtable discussion will address the ways art curators are involved in institutional digital strategies fifty years later.

    The group will discuss the benefits and challenges as art museums implement– or begin to reframe–institutional strategies that integrate digital components across departments. To address the needs for professional development, others will reference the Networked Curator workshop, produced through a partnership between the Association of Art Museum Curators Foundation and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, that is providing digital advancement for art curators. Together with the audience, the roundtable will discuss strategies and projects initiating interdepartmental collaboration and inclusion to ensure that art museum digital initiatives and engagement strategies connect and serve their communities.


    Sheila Brennan
    Judith Pineiro
    Christina Nielsen
    Koven Smith
    Jose Diaz
    Sarah Hall

See you in Pittsburgh!

Publication in Parameters

2017 June 20
by Sheila

Parameters, the online scholarly forum published by the Social Science Research Council, is currently running a series on federal data use for research, and seeking submissions. 

I wrote a short piece that tells the story of RRCHNM’s Papers of the War Department and the reasons for needing to digitally reconstruct the archive of papers that were lost to a fire in 1800.

Data loss and recovery in the age of paper

My Digital Publishing Update: Nothing

2017 June 4
by Sheila

Since 2012, I have been working with University of Michigan Press’s Digital Culture Books imprint to produce what I had imagined as a hybrid digital publication: Stamping American Memory. My accepted proposal for the HASTAC-Michigan digital publication prize called for launching a revised version of my dissertation for WordPress + CommentPress, open peer review only, and, with the help of WP plugins, would offer print-on-demand option for readers wanting to pick and choose sections for generating an ePub or PDF. I insisted that any peer review be based on the online version, because I wrote and framed the project for the medium. I never intended for there to be a traditional book, instead, this was going to be a digital monograph. I believe that one reason for my selection was based on the probability that I would complete what I proposed– scholarly and technically.

Five years and three editors later, my open access digital monograph exists. It has been peer reviewed openly and blindly, (2014 version and 2016 final revisions), and people are reading it (eg, it’s been cited in a Smithsonian Magazine article ). Objective achieved! The publication, however, still lacks the official imprint of Michigan Press and a DOI. The latter is easy, the former, not so much.

Throughout this long process, I have received little guidance from Michigan Press. I also feel as if no one has read or explored what I produced at any stage. As a result, the production staff is now trying to determine how to deal with my relatively straightforward digital monograph, and how it can be produced in accordance with existing workflows and procedures. I remain surprised since Michigan was one of the first presses willing to experiment with and support digital-first writing projects (blog-to-book and open peer review).

Since I started this publication with the Press, I saw the beginning and end of Histories of the National Mall (2012-15), where I co-directed an amazing content and technical team, and we implemented workflows and style guides for researching, writing, revising, and copy editing 500 historical items and 45 online exhibits. Then, I led the writing of a guide that described our process, which we published in WordPress, made available as a PDF, and deposited that PDF in Mason’s digital repository.

As an individual, I contributed to Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2016 Edition that began with the submission of a proposal in January 2015 and ended with an online and print publication by May 2016. Minnesota Press, together with co-editors Matt Gold and Lauren Klein, managed each stage of the publication carefully with 60 different authors, working in two different digital platforms (WordPress + Comment Press for review and their new Manifold platform), and then in Word docs for the final copy editing and approval for the physical volume.

Below are a few key ways that my digital project has been stuck from its early stages.

Platforms and Domains (ongoing): In 2012, Editor #1 told me that I would be responsible for my digital project: for selecting the platform and format; for getting and maintaining a web domain; for any web design or technical work required to do the work of this project; for sustaining the project once completed. Since I run digital projects, and have developed workflows for a variety of projects, none of these steps were a big deal for me. I really wanted to demonstrate that a junior scholar could mount their own digital project, have it peer reviewed in the open, and receive approval from a university press.

I consulted with the few authors of online open access publications at that time (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Jack Dougherty, Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt) regarding platforms and workflows. I leaned toward using WordPress and CommentPress developed by the Institute for Future of the Book because of the success of other open peer reviewed texts. I wanted the functionality of CommentPress to facilitate discussion. In Stamping American Memory, I examine particular moments of public dialog between the federal government and its citizens during the early twentieth century through commemorative stamp selection and production. When I learned from a colleague in 2013 that UMP was testing out a new workflow in WordPress to copy edit and publish, I was convinced I had made the right decision.   I also never planned for Stamping American Memory to become a traditional print publication.

In 2015, Editor #3 told me that the digital version might live in the press’s new content management system, and that UMP would be printing a book as well.

My project remains stuck as the digital and the editorial teams decide whether this will be mounted in original UMP platform, used in the Digital Culture Books series you’re probably familiar with, or the new Fulcrum platform, which to-date has only published online collections that serve as addenda for print books.

Peer Review (2014-2015): In September 2014, I notified Editor #2 that my project was ready for peer review and sent a link to my entire project. I asked some questions about the open review process and asked if the Press could help me with that phase. I was told no. I asked about how the blind peer review process would work, and emphasized that it needed to occur within the WordPress site. (Read more about this process from my blog post in January 2015).

In May 2015, Editor #2 emailed me to ask how things were progressing. I informed him that the open peer review process was mostly over (he never looked, didn’t read any of the comments). I mentioned I was waiting for reader reports from the blind peer review. It turned out that he hadn’t actually solicited reviews. His words were, “I didn’t have a manuscript to ask reviewers to work with. A vestige, I suppose, of print workflows, my engagement of reviewers is always triggered by the arrival (even virtually) of the ‘complete manuscript.’ ” He had a complete “manuscript” available through a URL, which he would have discovered had he looked at my digital project.

Editor #2 did solicit three reviewers (2 collaborated on 1 review), and sent along the reports with no commentary or synthesis. He asked me how I wanted to address the reviews –both recommended publishing the project without hesitation, but conflicted in a few assessments. When I responded with my plan for what and how to address the reports, he did not respond or confirm that my plan for moving forward with revisions would be brought before the board.

Final Revisions & Formats (2015-17): By November 2015, Editor #3 contacted me to say she would be taking over my project, bringing it to the board for approval as both a digital and print publication. This was the first I had heard of a print version.

In August and September 2016, I delivered an export of the final online content as XML and the print manuscript files, formatted according to the UMP specifications.

The team is just now addressing my project, and trying to determine how to handle publishing two sets of images (my online version contains nearly 90 images, and the print contains 39), and how to copy edit two versions of a “manuscript.”

It appears that nothing has been mounted in a UMP content management system and my actual manuscript hasn’t been touched.

These are labor and people issues, which I totally understand, but these are issues I assumed the Press had already worked through in the Digital Culture Book series.

What comes next? I really do not know.

It is extremely difficult as someone who is part of a web publishing software project and has published different types of content-driven digital projects to sit on the sidelines for her own publication.

Had I been asked two years ago if my project could have served as a prototype or guinea pig for the digital publishing initiative UMP is leading I would have been glad to help shape the development and design for authors producing narrative-driven digital publications.

For now, I am stuck in the middle, and all I want is for this project to be called done.