School’s Out: A Postdoc’s Life
(Year I)

March, 2011 · By Justin Bengry

Wow, is it really the end of the (Canadian) semester? Well, almost. Classes end next week, my students’ final is a week later, I’m at a conference by the end of the month, a stop at home, and then Europe one more week after that. Whew…not a moment too soon!

Everyone here is feeling the strain, and straining for the relief that the end of term promises. The winter has been unseasonably cold and long in Saskatoon. Many of us are looking forward to research trips abroad. And of course, grading responsibilities and other duties tend to hit hardest at the end of the term.

Reflecting on the year behind me though, I’ve gained so much at the University of Saskatchewan. I’m surrounded by generously supportive colleagues who have never wavered in helping me adjust to the unfamiliar life of a junior scholar. I can’t speak highly enough of our Chair, support staff, History Department faculty and grad students, and my fellow postdocs, all of whom have welcomed me and answered innumerable questions and requests with poise and kindness. My postdoc supervisor, a kind and gentle elder scholar, has become a mentor and friend. And with their collective help I’ve gained professional experience, credibility, increased my publishing output, and laid the foundations for a potential future in academia. I owe them more than I can express, and this blog post is in part a thank-you.

But this year has also been a challenge, and I definitely feel I’ve needed the entire year to settle in to Saskatoon. When I arrived I looked forward to having the best of both worlds as a postdoc: I could interact with the faculty while still relating to the graduate students. In reality, it wasn’t so simple, and the postdoc doesn’t immediately fit in either group. That’s the part you have to learn on the ground. A postdoc is (at least at first) a solitary experience. It takes a painfully long time to build up relationships and connections in a new department when you’re neither student nor professor. I’ve felt completely welcomed in my department from the first day, but it really is only in the last month or two that I have really felt a part of the department.

Teaching plays a big role in building relationships and sustaining that feeling of being part of something. My own work and research is largely independent, but teaching is a collaborative exercise. I’ve welcomed the advice of current profs, discussed teaching strategies with grad students, and simply been in the department more as an instructor. Without teaching this term, I might be further along in my research and revisions, but I’d also be more dislocated and detached from any intellectual or other community at the university.

A postdoc, however, really is the most incredible opportunity, particularly these days as competition for professional positions in academia becomes ever more fierce. But future employment aside, a postdoc is also an amazing opportunity to evaluate your own goals and values. How does academia look from the inside when you’re no longer a student? How does it feel to be at the front of the class with no safety net or anyone to defer to?

The smartest things the organizers of my current postdoc did was to make it two years long. If it were ending now, I’d feel as if the rug were being pulled out from under me just as I was gaining balance. I’m incredibly fortunate, having built these connections and friendships, professional skills and intellectual output, still to have a second year to continue forward. So, here’s to A Postdoc’s Life, Year II!

(To be continued…)

This blog was originally published on History Compass Exchanges on
31 March 2011.


After the Academy: Changing the Culture of Humanities PhD Programs

March, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

As many of us struggle to define our professional identities after graduate school, it is clear that we could do more to aid this goal before we finish our degrees. But we cannot do it alone. Several comments from my last “After the Academy” post brought up important issues in this regard. We need departmental support for options beyond the academy. We also need to foster a culture that values these options. How should we train and support graduate students to take the fullest advantage of non-academic and non-tenure track opportunities while remaining committed to a rigorous program of study that prepares them for university careers as well?

Fellow History Compass blogger Jana Remy had one suggestion. She wished to see as much enthusiasm for announcing non-tenure track appointments on her department’s mailing list as tenure track jobs. This is really a simple practice to change, but it could powerfully impact the culture of a department. Announcing hirings of graduates in government, business, journalism, and public history positions (among the many, many other possibilities out there) treats those positions and career paths as genuine choices, possibilities, and even successes. When departments, faculty, and graduate students fail to celebrate these successes, those silences say something. We need to transform the culture of our departments to recognize and celebrate opportunity, rather than shielding us from options.

Even fields within history, however, do not always get there due. Commenter Lizzie added that greater respect for public history could open doors as well. My alma mater, UC Santa Barbara, is home to the oldest public history program in the country and the journal The Public Historian. It offers one the leading programs in public history available, but beyond students enrolled in the public history program little attention is given to career opportunities in this direction. As Lizzie suggests, promotion of public history programs and internships could go a long way.

I see an opportunity here to add “skills” requirements and certifications to history PhDs. The UNC Chapel Hill Department of History has already begun a similar project, replacing multiple language requirements with training in a research skill or theoretical perspective for students whose research does not require multiple language proficiencies. A university like UCSB, with strengths in public and oral history, could go even further, offering certificates in public history or oral history training to students who have completed sufficient coursework and/or fieldwork. If I can complete a Doctoral Emphasis in Feminist Studies (and I did), I should have the option of similar accreditation for public history or oral history from a department with those strengths. This could provide a model for other departments with other strengths to offer graduate students skills in a manner easily recognized outside the academy.

Wider access to public history skills could forge networks and links to be mined upon graduation. Oral history certificates could offer credibility for journalism, government, and social justice work. Internships in any of these would offer that elusive “real world” experience in addition to the academic credentials we already have.  A culture within history departments that publicizes, values, and celebrates these options would make it easier for us all to access them and take advantage of greater career opportunities. Are there other “skills” we could seek or policies we could promote in our departments to support and encourage a range of graduate career options?

Also see:

National Council on Public History

Doing Public History: A UK site that explores use and concerns of public history from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Public History IndeX: A UC Santa Barbara blog that examines issues concerning practitioners of public history.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
11 March 2010.


Out in the Academy: Researching Queer Histories

February, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

February is LGBT History Month here in the UK, which focuses attention on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans issues in the present, and also the experiences of queer Britons in the past. This yearly program to promote diversity and LGBT histories reminds us just how rich queer history actually is. But it is still taken as a truism by many that the lives of gay men and lesbians remain absent in the archive, that their stories are “hidden from history.” While it is true that the stories of many gay men and lesbians cannot be found in the traditional archive, we are nonetheless discovering their footprints across the historical record.

Traditional archives have, in fact, been at the forefront of this work in the UK. The National Archives has actively participated in identifying LGBT sources across its collection. Together with the London Metropolitan Archives it is also creating guides to better access these histories in other collections. A number of specialist archives also record the histories of political action, legal reform, and campaigningwomen’s and lesbian histories; as well as newspaper and media coverage of homosexuality in the twentieth century. But, even beyond these, researchers of queer history have at their disposal so much more.

As Jean Smith recently reminded us in another Compass posting, we need to look outside the traditional archive for fuller and richer histories of the past. Scholars of queer history in Britain are fortunate to have access to an enormous range of oral history collectionsnational survey testimony, and other repositories of gay and lesbian history. And in my own research, I have discovered film archives, theater collections, local archives, and personal collections teeming with possibilities after a little digging.

I write this post because I was almost dissuaded from undertaking dissertation research in queer history. This was not because of homophobia or reduced funding on account of my subject. I began graduate school believing, like many, that queer histories were largely marginal, inaccessible, and poorly recorded in the archive.  But after arriving in the UK, exploring the archives, and jettisoning the entire PhD project I had initially proposed and the prospectus my committee had authorized (after many sleepless nights), I was able to embark upon the project I was passionate about and which became my dissertation. I had thought that an LGBT history project was not viable as a dissertation. I was wrong. And I hope that programs like LGBT History Month will remind other junior scholars of the range of research possibilities that are available to us, and also of the innumerable histories remaining in the archive but still untold.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
11 February 2010.