What I’m Reading: An Interview With Public Historian Amanda HigginsHistorians/History
Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.
Amanda Higgins is a public history administrator, working outside the academy. She often describes herself as academic-adjacent. Her work is closely aligned with academic pursuits and she loves talking with students, especially graduate students who are thinking about careers outside the academy. A scholar of 20th-century Kentucky and American history, Amanda’s understanding of the not-so-distant past helps her to connect to and build lasting relationships with people across the commonwealth. She also oversees such outreach activities as oral history efforts, the Kentucky Historical Markers program, Kentucky History Awards and the Local History Trust Fund. She holds a Ph.D. in American history. She can be reached on Twitter at @Doc_Higgs.
What books are you reading now?
Beyond the texts that I pull to support ongoing projects related to my public history work, I’m reading: Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History; Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974; and Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.
Reading these books alongside each other is like taking a graduate seminar in contemporary history. I do miss the lively discussion, but the books speak so nicely to each other.
What is your favorite history book?
I struggle with the idea of a favorite, because I am always bouncing between projects, eras, and interpretations. One day I’ll be working on historical marker text about indigenous Kentucky and the next my own research rooted in the twentieth century. The best history books, in my mind at least, weave complex interpretations with compelling narrative.
Books like Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes, Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, and Donna Murch, Living for the City helped me frame my dissertation project and were models for the best parts of my work.
In Kentucky history, my friend Patrick A. Lewis creates arguments with clauses and structure that I deeply admire. I wish I was even half the writer of my advisor, Tracy A. Campbell, who makes the most mundane details compelling. So, that doesn’t answer the question, but it does name check some of the folks I recommend that others should read!
Why did you choose history as your career?
I am nosy by nature and ask many, many questions. I grew up in a home full of books and was encouraged to read anything I wanted at a young age. I loved stories about people, especially people who weren’t like me. I started college as a journalism major, but did not enjoy my introductory class. I gravitated toward my history courses because I enjoyed reading, identifying and engaging with arguments, and digging for information. I thought I’d turn the history major into a law degree, but in the fall semester of my senior year I took a US Legal History course and a Constitutional Law course. I hated the law parts of the classes and loved the policy and implications of the laws—how the laws affected peoples, unintended consequences of rulings, precedent and challenges—and skipped the LSAT. I took the GRE, went to graduate school, and became a historian because I had more questions and wanted to do history.
What qualities do you need to be a historian?
Endless curiosity and a dogged determination to find answers.
Who was your favorite history teacher?
I’ve been very fortunate throughout my life to be surrounded by incredible educators. My seventh grade social studies teacher was the first teacher who showed me that history was more than names and dates. She tied history to relevant, contemporary topics and encouraged us to be independent and critical thinkers.
What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?
In the penultimate year of my doctoral program I was the primary instructor in a course called “the World at War.” The course subject isn’t my favorite or my specialty, but I had a promising student who decided she wanted to be a historian that semester. She was majoring in business or some “sensible” career path that pleased her parents, but she didn’t like those courses. History made her mind race, helped her to understand her world, and ignited a passion in her. We talked through the arguments for and against majoring in history, how she could “sell” the change to her parents, and what her future may look like. She became a history major, graduated with honors, earned a Master’s in public history and is doing a fantastic job as the second in command at a small museum.
In helping her think about what her future could be, I also articulated what I wanted for myself. She helped me much more than I helped her, by asking questions about my career goals and skills. Her continued success brings me so much joy!
What are your hopes for history as a discipline?
That we get over ourselves and invite folks into the process of history. The best historians are removing the layer between the finished thing and the work to get to that finished project. History is powerful and it matters deeply for a healthy and engaged citizenship, but as historians, we’re not always good at or comfortable with showing our work. To steal a line from my advisor, we hide behind—or even in—our footnotes. We should stop doing that.
Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?
I don’t own rare books, but I get to work amongst them every day at the Kentucky Historical Society.
My home is full of mid-century bourbon decanters that my partner and I salvaged from my grandfather’s bar after he passed. Jim Beam used to (maybe still does?) put out a collectible decanter every year. They are such fun little pieces of Americana. Living and working in Kentucky means you’re never far from bourbon and I do enjoy historical ephemera from the industry.
What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?
The most rewarding parts of my job are the colleagues and friends who I get to collaborate with on my many projects. Seeing friends and collaborators succeed, helping connect a good idea with the right person to make sure that idea becomes a project, and championing the good history work I get to be a part of everyday sustains me through self-doubt or bad moments.
The frustrating parts are not anything unique or noteworthy. I like my job. I’m proud of the choices I made to get where I am and willing to take most of the frustrations that come with working in an institution to do work worth doing.
How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?
My career is quite young. I’ve only been at this professionally for about five years now. Still, I am so impressed by the research fellows who come through the Kentucky Historical Society’s program. Their projects are inventive and inspiring. The way many of the fellows are using court records to build digital projects, or ARC-GIS mapping to illustrate the networks of enslaved labor, or material culture to understand the lived experiences of working class families is incredible.
The other thing I’m really excited about is the way folks are thinking about projects that span multiple formats. The people I interact with on a daily basis aren’t thinking that the monograph is the only outlet for publication or that the monograph is the last the project will see. They’re (we’re) proposing multifaceted projects—monographs, and scholarly essays, but also public programming, exhibitions, digital tools and games, and experiential learning classes. By democratizing the end product, we’re making the most cutting edge, relevant, and impactful history more available, especially to folks who aren’t as likely to pick up or engage with a scholarly monograph.
What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?
“For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”—James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” in Ebony Aug. 1965 (pg. 47).
I haven’t come up with one myself, at least not anything worth repeating and definitely not alongside James Baldwin!
What are you doing next?
I’m currently managing a three-year IMLS-funded diversity and inclusion initiative at KHS, working on the planning stages of a new exhibition, a new research project I’m not ready to put into the world yet, and collaborating with a number of public history projects throughout Kentucky.
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