The Mason History PhD: 'We Were Alt-Ac Before Alt-Ac Was Cool'

The Mason History PhD: 'We Were Alt-Ac Before Alt-Ac Was Cool'
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The job market for humanities PhDs has been tough for decades, and it’s not getting any better. In part for that reason, a landmark 2011 American Historical Association report urged its members to think more broadly about employment options for History PhDs—not all of whom could or should become academics—and to adapt their curricula accordingly. Established in 2001 to be a "PhD with a Difference," Mason’s program was far ahead of the curve in making digital history (DH) and other training for non-faculty positions central to its identity. Now, our PhDs are getting fantastic “alternative academic,” or “alt-ac,” jobs—not just back-up jobs that they found because they couldn’t find faculty positions, but exciting jobs for which they specifically trained. Moreover, some are also getting excellent academic jobs, as a result of both their expertise in digital history and the superior quality of their traditional scholarship.

Recent Mason PhDs include a documentary editor, a museum professional, and at least three digital humanities specialists (employed in libraries or academic centers), as well as five assistant professors with tenure-track appointments. All agree that their DH training gave them a huge advantage in a relentlessly competitive job market. Lindsey Bestebreutje, a 2017 graduate and curatorial assistant at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), cites skills she acquired in the department’s DH courses as crucial to landing her first public history job with the National Parks Service in 2010 and equally essential in securing her current position at NMAAHC. Amanda Regan, a 2019 graduate who is a Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow at Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History, agrees that the “unique training” Mason students receive has served her well, adding that prospective employers “immediately know the [Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media] and projects like Zotero and Omeka” and recognize Mason as “the leader in DH.”

Even more striking is how Mason alumni who sought conventional tenure-track faculty posts have succeeded in obtaining them and the extent to which they attribute their success to their DH training. Kurt Knoerl, a 2012 PhD who is now an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University, was one of our first graduates to be hired expressly to teach digital history courses. Jacqueline Beatty, a historian of early America who did not come to Mason expecting to become a digital historian, nonetheless credits Mason’s stellar reputation in that field for helping her to secure a one-year public/digital history appointment at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which, in turn, led to her getting a tenure-track position at York College of Pennsylvania. In both cases, Beatty notes, the hiring committees were “persuaded that I could do the job based on my education in the program at Mason.”

In 2019, three newly minted Mason PhDs were hired in tenure-track assistant professorships. This was a banner year for the department—indeed, it would be for any History PhD program. U.S. universities graduate more than 1,000 History PhDs annually.  New graduates compete with other unemployed or underemployed PhDs for roughly 300 tenure-track History jobs in any given year. In 2019, the mean number of applicants for those positions was 122, though applicant pools were much larger in popular fields, such as U.S. history.

The experiences of Erin Bush, Joshua Catalano, and Eric Gonzaba—all 2019 graduates who secured tenure-track positions—demonstrate the advantages of DH experience in such a bleak academic job market. Clemson University hired Catalano for a one-year lectureship even before he completed his dissertation. He believes that his use of digital skills, in both his teaching and research, and the fact he was able to play a substantial role in the development of DH curricula, gave him “a clear edge” when the department conducted its search for a permanent DH faculty position. Bush, who began as an assistant professor at the University of North Georgia in August, also was hired specifically for a DH job, for which two of three finalists came from Mason’s program. Gonzaba, who is now an assistant professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, was hired as a “specialist in the study of race and/or sexuality and gender,” though he’s convinced that his award-winning digital project, Wearing Gay History, was a huge draw to prospective employers, allowing him “to actually show . . . my digital chops” in a relevant scholarly project that “had almost nothing to do with” his dissertation.

DH continues to figure prominently in the work of these Mason alumni. Bush, Catalano, and Gonzaba, for instance, all incorporate DH into their teaching, and Beatty is overseeing a new Public History major at York, where she is also teaching a DH course. Bestebreutje is completing a project on James Baldwin’s final years, the first exclusively digital on-line exhibition at NMAAHC. Regan says that DH “factors into almost everything” she does in her post-doc position, which include tasks as diverse as developing text mining projects and mentoring female high school students considering careers in computer science. Regan and Gonzaba are also collaborating on a new online project, Mapping the Gay Guides, which draws on LGBT guidebooks to explore ignored queer spaces in mid-twentieth-century America.

At the same time, these recent PhDs are also producing traditional scholarship, publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals and revising their dissertations to be published as historical monographs. Some of this work has an explicit digital component, but much of it does not. Regan’s book about the fitness movement and female body image has no digital content. Bush, who attributes her findings on incarcerated girls in early twentieth-century Virginia to her analysis of a data set she created from archived materials, also imagines her book as a traditional historical monograph.

All Mason PhD students take two required DH courses. Many take more. Some students arrive on campus with extensive digital skills, while others acquire via our program. Bestebreutje, the NMAAHC curatorial assistant, praises the unusually collaborative spirit of the Mason students, especially when it comes to DH and recalls the informal group skills sessions and one-on-one help over coffee that more experienced students gave to “newbies” like her. “They were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge,” she observes, “and I could not have gotten through without that.”

The staff of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media includes History PhD students working as DH fellows or graduate assistants. In this photo from 2017, Joshua Catalano is in the second row, third from the right; Amanda Regan is in the back row, far left.