Saturday, April 4, 2009
"I'm a secretary, but I probably make more money than most of you." The woman who said this, who left the room before I could get to talk to her, encapsulated a central point of the working group she had attended, "Public History as Work." Organized by Cathy Stanton and Amy Tyson, this group's purpose was to analyze public history as work and public historians as laborers contending with insecure working conditions that may be more like adjunct professors, contract workers, or fast food workers, than traditional white collar professions that require similar amounts of education. Yet the woman quoted above offered her observation as someone working towards becoming a public historian, even though this may be an example of downward mobility for her, at least in terms of economics. What our lively discussion demonstrated in part was the ways in which work and class in this postindustrial economy cannot be understood without thinking in cultural terms. Are public historians compensated in prestige? Does our cultural capital lead to social capital that may result in a more secure life than, say, a secretary? And, an issue that was raised again and again, what kinds of authority do public historians have among academic historians, the public and historical institutions in the knowledge economy?