Katie Schinabeck – from Academic to Activist

This interview is the first in a new series highlighting exceptional History and Public History students. Katie Schinabeck, a third-year Public History PhD student, discusses her life as a student and how she evolved from academic to activist.

When/Why did you become interested in History?

I’m one of those very stereotypical kids whose dad took them to Civil War sites when I was little. My dad was very well read in Civil War History and when we went to battlefields he could just point at areas on the field and tell me what had happened in a way that made history feel very present to me.  We were always going to museums and historic sites when I was younger so it was just very natural to think about history and engage with it.

Tell me a bit about your background

As an undergrad I studied history at Suffolk University in Boston. My summer job was at the Old State House which is an American Revolutionary Museum and historic site. The work I was doing there was so engaging and intriguing that I started working at other museums and talking to people and learning. I also worked at the Gibson House  -a Victorian Era House Museum- and I got the opportunity to work as the Program Manager for a walking tour company. I knew that I wanted to be doing more with my studies and education and I knew that the kinds of jobs that I wanted in museums were higher-level jobs that historians were getting and so I applied to History PhD programs and Public History PhD programs.

What made you apply to NC State and why a PhD instead of a Master’s?

I was a naïve PhD applicant in many ways. All of the museum higher ups that I had met or known all had History PhDs so I thought –I want a History PhD and I want to work in a museum. I want to make the decisions. But then when I came across NC State’s program, I realized it was Public History that I really wanted and I didn’t want a Public History Master’s degree because the field – at least in Boston – is really glutted. I was observing the way Public History MA degrees were working and thinking about what I wanted to do and it just didn’t seem like it really worked for me. There were a couple of other PhD Public History programs that I could apply to but Raleigh really appealed to me because it’s east and close to American Revolutionary sites.

Was there a faculty member here who you really wanted to work with?

Yes – Dr. Craig Friend. When I discovered this program, I immediately looked at faculty pages on the NC State History Department webpage. I knew that I wanted to work on Public History and I knew that I wanted to work on The American Revolution and his faculty bio just shot out of the page at me. I think of all the people at all the schools I applied to, he was the one person whose work most sounded something like I wanted to emulate –what he described is where I felt I academically belong.

What do you like best about the NC State History Department?

The culture – and specifically the fact that the History Department does not have a culture of cutthroat competition. There is a culture of support among my peers that I don’t think is common amongst students in other graduate programs so I feel lucky to be a recipient of that and I work hard to maintain it as part of the culture.

Is that why you were an HGSA co-President?

Yes –that was definitely part of it. I think that having that position is really important in terms of helping guide the tenor of people around you

What is your thesis topic and why did you pick this aspect of history to focus on?

I study how Loyalists from the American Revolution have been and are remembered. Many Loyalists stayed in the United States after the war but many of them left and so I am interested in how they have been remembered in the areas where they went, looking at that comparatively and trying to understand Atlantic memory. Part of what studying the Loyalists does is it reframes the American Revolution as a Civil War.

Where do you go for your research?

As it’s planned right now, I would go to Canada, maybe England, the Sierra Leone and the Bahamas. Those are the main places that Loyalists went and those are places where I have identified statues to Loyalists that I am interested in researching. In order to narrow down my topic of memory, I’ve focused on statues and monuments so I would be comparing a monument or two in each of these places.

Historians for a Better Future

Tell me about your activist work and Historians for a Better Future (HBF)

Public historians are interested in, among other things, using history to facilitate dialogue about the present to inform contemporary concerns. We formed Historians for a Better Future out of a really specific need. When the KKK threatened to march in downtown Raleigh we decided to hold a teach in. We used the history of the KKK in North Carolina to promote a dialogue about it as a concern in our present. Knowing what we know about the history of the KKK and how people have responded to and challenged it in the past, what can we do in the present to combat hate speech?

Historians for a Better Future has become more formal since that first teach in. We did an event downtown where we handed out historical information about the Confederate monument. We go out on the streets educating people and because of the contemporary atmosphere, that’s activism. Doing our jobs as public historians is activism. What’s good about Historians for a Better Future is that we don’t shy away from that. We don’t think, well this is a touchy subject and maybe we’re challenging things. We have research and history on our side. And we don’t advocate any specific outcome for what should happen to the monuments. We do educate people about options. I feel very strongly that one of the best ways to engage in a conversation with people about Confederate monuments is to educate them about the different things that could happen to them. I’ve found that people think that either the statue stays up or it gets blown up and history is erased. So as soon as I ask people, what else do you think should happen to it or did you know that people are arguing that the monument should be put somewhere else instead – it completely knocks away their entire argument because they’re arguing from this place of thinking that it has to stay here. Once you show them there are options, now we can have a conversation about what this means. You don’t need to have your heels so dug in to the one narrative. There’s room for other narratives. That’s what I feel really strongly about – not telling people that one thing should happen just making them aware that there are different options.

What’s next for HBF?

Right now we’re very focused on developing an exhibit for gerrymandering. Our current plans are to have it up and running in time for the mid-term elections.

Can you go into specifics about the exhibit?

We’re looking at the history of gerrymandering in North Carolina – how its been challenged over time and we’re looking at the contemporary situation. What are some ways that we can work against gerrymandering in today’s society?  What can individuals do? What are politicians doing? What can constituents demand of their elected officials to end this practice that really distorts our democracy – to put it in the words of NC State history professor, Dr. David Zonderman.

Did students start HBF?

Yes, although one of the faculty – Tammy Gordon –  has been especially involved and guiding, among other faculty. It was the students who decided to continue on after the Klansville Teach-In. We took the summer after that to come up with a mission statement and a name, etc. We educated ourselves on grass-roots organizing and figured out what we needed to do to continue on as a group.

Is it just NC State Students or do you have members who aren’t students –and do they have to be History Students?

Most of our members are from the NC State History program. We have some alumni now too. We also have outside members – someone who is a community organizer recently came onboard and we have an undergraduate history major from Guilford College. So there’s opportunities for people who are not NC State students.

Do you think you’ll keep working with HBF once you graduate?

I guess it depends on where I’m at. I would love to continue with HBF if I’m still in the area.

Do you see yourself joining some other group?

I was thinking about that yesterday. HBF is this completely volunteer organization and we are really good public historians. When we do our events, we do front end evaluation on them, and we do an evaluation at the end of the event. We are really good at project planning and I love that I can do this thing to supplement all of the other stuff that I do. I love that I have this avenue where I’m getting all of this experience being a really good public historian and I’m not just sitting in a room saying we should do this thing. We get things done and I just can’t see myself living a life where I don’t get to work with people to do things that I really care about and use my skills to do good things.

What piece of advice do you have for an incoming PhD student?

As a PhD student, not everything is going to go as planned. You’re not always going to know what’s happening but at the end of the day, you chose to be in this program and you chose to take the privilege that was given to you to think for 4-5 years of your life. Remember to cherish this time that you are getting paid to think. This experience is really what you make of it. So if you come in here and your goal is just to get a job at the end then that’s it. If your goal is to come here and expand your brain and fill it as much as you can and get as much out of it as you can, that’s going to be a much more pleasant experience than suffering 4-5 years to get that dream job.

What could NC State or the History Dept do better for its students?

I would feel more supported if I could literally be more supported. The cost of living in Raleigh is going up and our stipends aren’t. That’s a very real thing because there are going to be really qualified applicants who don’t come to this school because they can’t afford it. I wonder if anybody who makes decisions about our funding (beyond the History Department because they would give us more money if they could) thinks about how difficult it is to live off of what we make and then on top of that we have to pay $2500 in student fees each year. STEM students (who often are funded from other sources) tend to have more funding and if it’s being acknowledged on one side of this school that these people need to make a certain amount of money to live, then that should be applied to us as well. This is why my advice to incoming students is to really relish the time you have here because otherwise you just get stuck worrying about finances.

Since you’ve been a student at NC State, which of your myriad accomplishments are you most proud of?

I really think that the Klansville Teach In is what I’m most proud of so that circles back to the HBF thing. There’s a lot of things that I feel really proud of and a sense of accomplishment over but Klansville was the event where I really came into my own as a public historian. There were more than 20 people involved, but I was the point person and main organizer. It was the end of the semester and we had maybe 2 weeks to plan it, and on top of that I got sick. So to be able to pull it off with all I was up against…..I felt I had reached a further threshold of things that I can manage and handle, but I also realized that I could actually could be a public historian. I never really could have seen myself doing this before I came to grad school. It just felt really good.

And had you thought prior to that event, that public history/activism could work together?

I had some exposure to it with Tammy Gordon’s class and some of the readings – but I had never seen myself as an activist –even after the KKK event although others saw me that way. But Public History has indoctrinated me into this maybe naïve idea that I can make a difference in the world. I’m trying to embrace my role as an activist now although sometimes it still feels a little bit weird.

Do you feel like history is still white washed? Or are we getting better about looking at the past especially our past more honestly?

I think there is definitely an attempt by public historians to look at history more honestly. Montpelier, which was James Madison’s home, has a really great exhibit on slavery. But there’s still a lot of places where that conversations not happening. So yeah, I think Public Historians and Historians are doing a really good job of researching and presenting information and calling out people who whitewash. But at the same time, public historians are not the only people who are using history in public. There’s a whole world where whitewashing still happens – like smaller institutions that don’t have historians on staff and I don’t know how much of a demand there is from the public to change their narrative either.

Some schools are dropping Humanities from their programs – what do you think about that?

I think that it’s part of a campaign to undermine the Humanities and I think that campaign is derived from a lack of willingness to engage with outside ideas and critical thought. 

But there are people who probably think they can’t do anything with a Humanities degree and they’re coming out of college with all this debt that now they have to pay off.

So there are a couple of problems – one of them is the problem of debt. There needs to be huge reforms in the way college is financed. Seventeen-year olds shouldn’t be asked to make $100000 or $200,000 decisions. The bigger issue to me is anti-intellectualism. I didn’t go to college thinking about it as a place to go so I can get a job. I really embraced and relished my undergrad degree. I took everything  I could out of that intellectually and I was able to do that because I was taking History and Philosophy.  I’m going to be a great employee because I can step into situations and think critically about them. If you were to ask any of my employers, they would tell you that I was a really big asset to them because I came in with an ability to assess what was going on around me and make intelligent decisions. So we really need to change how we think about college and what education is.

What do you plan to do when you graduate?

I’ll be looking at both positions at universities as a Public Historian and also at colonial America or Colonial Revolution museums as a Historian or Director of Public History, Director of Interpretation. etc. I’d like to stay on the East Coast but I’ll go where the jobs take me. Really what it comes down to is I recognize that what I’m doing  – getting a PhD in Public History – is an enormous privilege and I have no expectation of being owed a job in Public History and I mean that very seriously. If someone’s willing to pay me to do a job where I get to directly use my skills, that is great and I will take that job and I’m preparing to be able to do that either in academia or museum. But that’s the extent of it. We know what job markets are like. I obviously wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t feel like I wouldn’t get one of those jobs. But I’m also really grounded in understanding that I can apply my skills to other kinds of jobs if that happens. At the end of the day, I have the remarkable privilege of earning a degree in Public History and I have to enjoy that for what it is.


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