Episode 5 | Career Diversity and the Public Humanities Part I

In this episode, Dr. Matthew Costello, Senior Historian at the White House Historical Association, shares his post-PhD career in the Public Humanities and advice for PhD and graduate students interested in pursuing careers in public history.


Matthew Costello

Matt is the Vice President of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History, White House Historical Association. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in American history from Marquette University, and a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He previously worked on the George Washington Bibliography Project for the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia. He has received research fellowships from Marquette University, the Virginia Historical Society, the United States Capitol Historical Society, and the Fred W. Smith National Library at Mount Vernon. He has published articles in The Journal of History and Cultures, Essays in History, The Dome, and White House History. His book, The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President was published by University Press of Kansas in fall 2019 and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize. Matthew also teaches a course on White House history at American University in Washington DC.


Jason Mierek  00:04 (Intro)

This is PhD futures now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity, and graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls, a sixteen-university consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Maggie Nettesheim Hoffmann  00:31

Welcome to PhD futures now. My name is Maggie Nettesheim Hoffman, and I’m the Associate Director of Career diversity for Humanities Without Walls.

JM  00:40

Hi, this is Jason Mierek, and I am the Director of Operations for Humanities Without Walls.

MNH  00:47

Today on the podcast, we are joined by Matthew Costello, Vice President of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House history, and senior historian for the White House Historical Association, where he has worked since 2016. Matt earned his PhD at Marquette University in American history, and is the author of the Property of the Nation, George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President, which was published by the University Press of Kansas in fall of 2019. And it was named as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize. Matt also teaches a course on White House history at American University. Matt, welcome to the Humanities Without Walls consortium. And thank you for joining us today on HWW’s new podcast series.

Matt Costello  01:33

Thank you so much for having me, Maggie. It’s it’s we talk every once in a while, but you know, it’s nice to be able to see you and to catch up a little bit more ahead of time. And I’m really looking forward to our conversation today.

MNH  01:46

And I should point out, we’re really excited that you’ve been able to join us today because Matt and I are colleagues from graduate school. And as we were joking around before the podcast started a little bit like a cynical little brother. So I just had to get that in there.

MNH  02:02

So to get serious, one of the first questions we have for you is, tell us a little bit about your position at the White House Historical Association and the work that you do there.

MC  02:11

Sure. So I began at the association in November 2016. And I was hired as the senior historian. And at that time, there were three historians on staff, the chief historian, senior historian and research historian. And so as part of that team, I was creating new content and for a variety of different types of platforms. So you know, things like Facebook posts, Instagram, I didn’t even know what Instagram was. So I had to learn that, which was very interesting. But also web based articles, articles for our quarterly publication. And now I’m currently working on a book project, with the association’s publications department, on the Theodore Roosevelt White House Renovation in 1902. So I do a little bit of everything, a lot of research, a lot of writing, I do a fair amount of editing as well, because really, anything that is produced in house within the Rubenstein center, or by the house historian team, or by any of our graduate student fellows, comes across my desk. And so you know, I need to read it, I need to edit it, I need to have comments to it. And then I also review a lot of the materials across the association. You know, whether it’s our development, branch retail publications, it seems like many of these things end up on my desk. And it’s because we need to make sure that the history is aligned, and it’s accurate. And it’s presented well.

MNH  03:35

How would you define and describe public humanities?

MC  03:38

Well, from my perspective, in my job, I would find that very closely aligned with with public history, and, and a big part of my job is making this particular type of history more accessible and more readily available to the public. And so you know, whether that’s actually helping people get access to educational resources, to primary source materials for teachers and classrooms, or even if it’s something like making our content available online for free, you know, trying to involve the public as much as possible with these different foundations of knowledge, so that not only can they enhance their understanding of, you know, let’s just say, the White House, but maybe they’ll further their understanding of how the different branches of government work, or how the presidency and that executive authority works. So it’s not just simply about building. But we also started to take a broader view of the institutions. And we hope that by using the White House as a lens, we can help the public understand how these different things function in representative democracy.

MNH  04:47

One of the other things that you and I have talked a lot about in the past is this idea of, and this is often true with any type of history, I think of Dr. Tom Jablonsky, one of our mentors from Marquette who talks about Tthe role of the historian is breaking down public myth. But if we do that, that sometimes really upends public understandings of history. So one of the questions I have for you is how do you advocate for scholarly interpretations of history at an organization like the WHHA, when it could upend public myths about American history, the Presidents or other sacred civil notions about what it means to be an American?

MC  05:26

Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. Because it’s something that I run into frequently in my job, whether it’s internal or external, because people can be very defensive of these sacred places, or sacred people. And, you know, it’s not I don’t think it’s my job to, to tear down figures or to topple figures, but rather add a more comprehensive accounts of who they were, what they did. And to let the reader or the person on the website make up their mind about, you know, who this person was. And and I do that by presenting the evidence. And really, that’s, that’s sort of the crux of my approach to this type of history. How can we give as accurate portrayal of this history as possible, so that this is what the public is reading and coming into contact with. And I find that to be much more effective than say, perpetuating the myths perpetuating the stories that maybe don’t have verifiable evidence, because all you’re gonna do, especially in this day, and age with the internet, social media, I mean, these things they catch like wildfire. And once once they either get out of the bag, or they continuously get affirmed again, and again. And again, it gets even harder to to convince people, you know that though this is a myth, there isn’t really evidence to the story, it can be very difficult to untangle tradition, from that discourse.

MC  07:01

So one of the things I’ve really been pushing at the association is to provide an inclusive and comprehensive history. And so that was a big part of our push for slavery in the President’s neighborhood. Because, you know, it was something that, you know, there had been some scholarship done on it, but there really wasn’t a central place where somebody could learn about the entirety of slavery and enslaved people building, working and living in the White House. And so to have it in one central location, so that people who are interested students, teachers, scholars, can all find it, it’s readily available, it’s free. You know, that test was really important, because it’s about telling an inclusive and comprehensive history of America’s most famous home and landmark.

MNH  07:50

Yeah, I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about that project?

MC  07:53

Absolutely. So the slavery in the President’s neighborhood Research Initiative, launched just about a year ago, it was February 2020. So we were very fortunate that we were able to launch before the pandemic hit. And really the the whole crux of the initiative, was really sparked by comments, that First Lady Michelle Obama made back in 2016. And in two separate speeches, she mentioned that she wakes up in a house every morning and realizes and remembers that it was a house built by slaves. And of course, this always would send off a firestorm of fact checking. And as you can expect, you know, more liberal media outlets would say that was absolutely true. And conservatives would say, well, there were other people there. And so what we wanted to do was we wanted to present a cohesive narrative about what that looked like the construction of the White House, the presidents who were slave owners, and brought enslaved people with them to the White House. There were also presidents who were not slave owners, but they also employed, they hired out enslaved people at the White House. We found evidence of later government projects, such as the grading of President square, the coppering of the roof, that was done by enslaved people, and these would have been government contracts. So essentially, local slave owners would have hired out enslaved people to work on these, these government projects in the 1810s and 1820s. So we found out a lot, not only just about how the labor of enslaved people was used, but I mean, really, when we got into the granular of it, that slavery was so deeply immersed in not only the construction, I think everybody knows that. But beyond the construction, that, you know, the presence of enslaved people doesn’t disappear just because the White House has finished.

MC  09:48

And it’s, you know, it’s a hallmark sign of the American story, that, you know, these people who were thought of as invisible and treated as, as essentially Illegal property, they weren’t seen as people. They were the backbone to doing a lot of these things. And so we see it as especially important as an association that, you know, teaches and tells stories of White House history, that people understand that, yes, you can see that as a symbol of democracy. But you also have to understand that that house was built primarily by enslaved people, there were there were other workers that were foreign laborers. They were skilled craftsmen, both from abroad and local, but primarily the labor was the labor was provided by African Americans free and enslaved. And so you know, that’s a critical part of that story. It’s a critical part of our nation’s story. And it really encapsulates that paradox, right, that the country was founded on slavery freedom. And so you know, we want people to understand that, you know, this is why this is part of the reason why people are really struggling with things like monuments, and statues and memorials and landmarks, because there is a deeper history beyond that building, beyond that statue beyond that Memorial. And so, you know, we want people to understand it, we want people to get the most accurate portrayal of that. And so that, you know, they can learn things on our website, and, you know, it’ll help them understand or maybe it will help them comprehend a bit better, you know, what happened in 2020? Or what’s continuously unfolding with the issues of racism, police brutality, you know, these these things are still here.

JM  11:38

Matt, how do you approach you the the balance of your job with the White House Historical Association with your ongoing research, independent of that professional career?

MC  11:52

Yeah, so the, you know, it’s one of those things that you don’t really, there isn’t a lot of training, you know, when you’re, when in grad school, you’re, you know, obviously, you’re consumed with other things, you’re, you’re finishing a dissertation, you’re preparing for a defense. And, and, you know, at that point, you know, your life is, it’s all about the research, it’s all about the dissertation, finish, finish finish, and then you go out, and you know, when you start full time employment, it’s a struggle, especially because we are so used to sort of moving at a slower pace, you know, that is my full time job, my full time job is to be a scholar in training. And so to move from that, to where you work for an employer, and you work 40 hours a week, and, you know, you want to be able to do more of your research, you know, depending on the position of the job, that can be extremely difficult. And, and I was fortunate enough that I landed in a, in a job where I think there’s enough overlap between my research interests, and, and, you know, sort of the typical day to day things that I need to do for the association, that, you know, I can find different things to work on that still fit within sort of the work hours.

MC  13:04

I am a father of two, so and two young ones. So it is it’s pretty difficult to, to carry on research outside of work hours. So for me, I try to at least set a goal for myself. So whether it’s I mentioned earlier, I’m working on a book for the association. You know, if it’s writing a page a day, or you’re writing half a page a day, you know, it doesn’t have to, you know, you don’t have to be one of these people, I’m gonna write 10 pages a day, like just don’t, don’t even bother, because it’s not going to happen. Let me just, I’m just gonna, I’m just gonna pull out my crystal ball. And I’m going to tell you that that’s not, it won’t happen. Right? Write, something, you know, write, a little bit every day like, and I will say that, that is probably one of the biggest benefits of my job is every day, I am writing or editing.

MC  13:57

A lot of the time, it’s not my own stuff, I’m writing and editing and doing things to other people’s work. But I also see that as important because I’m improving their work, I’m improving content that the association will put on its website. And it’s also increasing my own knowledge base about whatever they’re writing about in relation to the White House or the Presidents or whatever. So, again, like I you know, I see it as, in a way, it’s sort of like, I’m, I’m learning on the job as I’m going. But I do think it’s really important, you know, just set some very basic goals for yourself. Maybe it’s, you know, I want to have this done by this date, and give yourself a reasonable amount of time plus a little bit additional, because there is going to be stuff that comes up and you know, what you’re gonna have to prioritize because of your job. And so I think that if you could write a little bit each day, you know, it doesn’t have to be five pages, 10 pages, write a paragraph, you know, write one good paragraph. I have often thought one good paragraph goes a lot further than you wrote like two pages, and most of its drivel, and you’re, you know, like, you’re gonna have to edit a lot of that stuff where you can already hear your advisors voice in your head. And they’re saying, like, what is this? This is terrible, like, take this out.

MC  15:13

Write one good paragraph a day. And you know, I think that’s pretty manageable for anybody, you know, any one of us who is working, and also doing research and writing, and you’re just set a base set basic goals. And you know, what, there’s no, I know, like, we kind of get this ingrained into us, while we’re in grad school, that like, you know, if we don’t meet those goals, that, that we’re supposed to be ashamed, or we’re supposed to be embarrassed. You know, those rules don’t apply. When you when you’re working a job, or you have a full time position. So don’t let that mentality, deter you or discourage you, you know, if you don’t get it, that’s okay, you know, then make it up the next day, you know, write a page the next day.

MNH  15:57

Well, I think that’s kind of a really great segue to a question that we have about the type of advice you would provide to graduate students interested in developing developing the type of career path, you’ve got your you’ve gone down, or vice versa, How might you counsel faculty who’d like more information about advising their students for careers beyond the academy? Because I do think that hopefully, some of our audience will become not only graduate students, but faculty who are interested in helping to assist their graduate students.

MC  16:31

Sure. So I’ll answer the first part about, you know, advice to students.

MC  16:37

When I was in graduate school, I tried to, you know, I was doing things that I think more aligned with sort of the traditional academic experience, I was going to conferences, I was submitting things for scholarly journals. But in the back of my head, you know, I also knew that the job market didn’t look particularly good in 2015 2016. So, you know, probably what would be the wisest course was to start thinking about other potential careers where I could still either use my research or I could use some of the scholarly skills that I had developed. And one of the first ones that I ended up applying for that I ended up doing a one year contract working for them, was to contribute to the George Washington papers in the University of Virginia. And I had actually applied for an editorial position, I didn’t get it. But they offered me this one year contract. And so I took it because I was like, Oh, well, that’s great. It’s, it’s more experience, it’s doing something a little bit different. It had a digital humanities component to it as well. So you know, I thought that would all it would make me more marketable.

MC  17:46

And I think that is something that graduate programs really need to, I think, instill on day one, I mean, it, this should be something that as you come into a program, let’s lay it all out there. And these are the types of things that you should be looking for, should be doing, as opposed to I mean, I felt like I was sort of behind the curve, a little bit was more, I was towards the end of my graduate career, and I started doing this stuff. So I think it’s, it’s never a bad time to start. And the earlier you can start, the better. So you know, if it’s producing your own research projects, and creating a website, or doing your own podcast, or you know, doing like a deliverable product, something that you could show, whether you are applying for a tenure track job, or you’re going to teach at a community college, or you’re going to work in, in a graduate, you know, program, you know, assistantship and or anything like that, I mean, and give you advice to graduate students, you want to be able to show people a tangible thing that you created. And whether it’s an employer, whether it’s a student, whether it’s a faculty member, being able to show them and demonstrate that you’re able to build it created your you edit it, you’re in charge of it, I mean, that those all show skills, that, you know, like something on a CV just doesn’t make a conference presentation. It’s not really the same thing, right.

MC  19:13

And I think in the changing world as it is, the more tangible products that you can show that you can visually show the people can listen to, that you can point people towards I worked on this project, the better. And I did that, I I was able to do it with one of the parts of my research, I created a transcription project for some of the sources within my dissertation. And and that was something that then I talked with the library that houses those diaries, and I said I would be willing to do this, like I’ll work on the transcriptions basically as a volunteer. Now I know people out there like what worked for free. But what I will say though, is that I think that was key why I was then later offered a job with the Washington papers. Because I demonstrated that I had some experience with transcription, I had some experience with following their standards for transcribing, it was relationship that brought me closer to Mount Vernon, which they have a closer relationship with the Washington papers. So again, like, you know, there are ways to strategically approach it. So it’s not like you’re doing something completely random, you could end up doing something that’s very close to your dissertation research, and finding a way to partner with either another repository, a museum or historic site, to get the information out there.

MC  20:38

And and turn into the second part of the question for faculty members. I mean, my advice to you would be listen to the market. And, and I hope that you’re really taking, you’re taking these things seriously, because, you know, I feel like we’ve reached a point in higher education, where it just things are not sustainable. And that’s not only a real problem for people who are already in academia, but also the people who are sort of teetering on the edge, wondering whether or not they’re going to lose employment. And then you also have cohorts and cohorts of students who are already in graduate programs, and they’re facing that perilous market.

MC  21:22

And, and for me, I feel like we all could do a better job of training graduate students to to really carefully think about what they want to do with their degrees. And, and what would be the best path for them. And, you know, this idea that it’s sort of like a one size fits all approach. It just doesn’t, that doesn’t, I feel like that doesn’t fly anymore. You know, that’s just not how we need to train graduate students these days. And I think it’s a, you know, to be frank, I think it’s going to get worse. So, you know, I see us really is sort of, we’re at this, this precipice, and there needs to be some serious changes and some serious reforms to how graduate students are trained. Because, you know, I thought things were bad in 2015 2016. And, and here we are in 2021. And, you know, they look a lot worse. And you wonder what’s going to happen in the next five years, the next 10 years. So we need to be thinking more about the skills and the types of things we want graduate students to be working on. And the experiences they get while they’re in graduate school.

MC  22:35

So you know, it’s not just writing historiographical papers, it’s like, that’s great. That’s a great assignment. You know, they they learn all about the author’s. But like, can we find other ways to make course assignments, where they you create a deliverable product, or you create an exhibit, or you do a podcast or, again, like, I get back to this thing about how can we have graduate students produce things that not only make them more marketable in terms of skill, but then they have a tangible intellectual project that they can show somebody for whatever career path they end up taking.

MNH  23:11

And I think it just want to say to that, I think as you were describing the transcription project that you worked on, and that you admitted, you know, I didn’t get paid for it. I did that as a volunteer, volunteer type basis. And, obviously HWW we do advocate that grad students get paid for their labor. But I will also say that it was so deeply connected to your dissertation. And I think that’s what I want some of our listeners to take away that you were able to even in 2015 2016, and I still remember, Matt was having a conversation outside Sensenbrenner Hall, your wife was pregnant with your first child. And I remember us having this conversation because you were about to graduate. And you were you were navigating that space. What do I do next? Because I have a family. And I want to make sure that I’m gainfully employed, and that I’m doing something with my PhD. I’ll never forget that. You know, I think that there’s a method there in that process that really did help lead to the position you have right now with the WHHA, that is so deeply connected to your research interests and who you are as a scholar. So, so yeah, I think, you know, I think that that’s an important story to share with our audience.

MC  24:22

Yeah. And, you know, I always hated it. I hated it so much, when we would bring in people, and they would tell us, like, it’s like, oh, great, this person’s gonna tell me the secret to success. And then that person would come in and they would be like, well, I got lucky. And I’m like, Oh, come on. Like, I thought it was gonna learn something like I was gonna learn the secret formula. And, you know, what I’ve learned between past and now is that there really isn’t a secret formula. You know, it’s it really depends on who you are, what you’re doing, your family situation where you’re living, where are you willing to move to the types of positions, I mean, again, like this, this one size fits all approach. It just doesn’t, it doesn’t work. Like it’s not going to create long term results for students and scholars.

MNH  25:14

Or replicating what our faculty have done before us, I think as Deepthi can tell you in one of our prior podcast episodes, the idea that our professors that we can easily do or replicate what their career paths have been, it’s just not the case, right? That in fact tenured faculty represent the top 1% of the university structure. And so what about the other 99%? And, and so I think it’s something that we have to, to we have to stop the conversations about replication, or I got lucky, then no, no, there is strategy involved, and maybe some of its unconscious. But unfortunately, there is no one precise method, or tip. Or if you follow this precisely, you’re going to get this job, we can’t suggest that. But there are ways that you can help prepare yourself. And I hope that comes across in the podcast.

JM  26:07

Here’s a suggestion I would make for any graduate student who’s currently listening if you’re part of the HWW Consortium, and that would be to talk with faculty about the current HWW grand research challenge. And to really, because graduate students are integral to those projects. And as well, I would say, I don’t have any official role in selecting what gets funded. But I am kind of the oral historian for the consortium. And I can tell you that the most successful projects has been those that have been, as you say, Matt, have produced some kind of tangible deliverable, whether it has been a documentary film, or it has been a CD of new music, along with some kind of a book written by a musicologist. I think that a lot of our most successful projects have been those that have actually produced I would say public facing deliverables.

JM  27:16

I never liked the word deliverable until I got this job. And but the idea that it’s something there other than you got together and had a conference and had a bunch of good meals, and gave a bunch of good talks, but that the other folks outside of the discipline, can learn from the research in the form of a video on YouTube or on a documentary channel that streaming, all of these various types of media is a skill building. Yeah. So I think this change may have to be driven by the graduate students.

MC  27:55

Yeah, and I think a key part of what Jason is saying, is that okay, you have you have three faculty members, who are who are reading this dissertation, probably one or two of them as an expert in that specific topic or field. Like, how do you make your research more applicable? Or more interesting? to the general public? Right? If you could, you could probably give your elevator pitch. If you’re standing amongst faculty members. It’s like now pretend there’s no faculty members there. We have Jane and Bill and Gary, and it’s like, none of these people know anything about medieval Europe. So what how do you how do you tell them about the significance of your project? And for some people, they really struggle to translate that to like, the sooner you can work on that, the sooner you can start thinking through how do I make this project relevant for everyday people, ordinary people who who don’t have a background in medieval Latin or whatever? How do I make this resonate with them? If you can hone that skill, where you take something that’s very complicated, very complex, and you can distill it into something that is digestible, and easy to understand. I mean, like that is one of the key skills, I think, to doing especially public history, but public humanities. And and I think, for anybody who’s listening, you know, think about that. Think about that, as you’re working on your dissertation.

MNH  29:37

I think on that note, it kind of brings us back to one of those. The the question we started really, which is how do we make the humanities relevant to the public or how do we even define humanities? Matt, thanks so much for joining us and for being a wonderful friend. I want to give a special acknowledgement and thanks to my HWW colleague and co host Jason Mierek, for participating in today’s recording. As always, if you’re a graduate student looking for resources to help start your own professional development planning, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Deepthi Murali  30:18 (Outro)

PhD futures now podcast is now available on Apple, Spotify, and anywhere else that you listen to your podcasts. For full audio transcript for this episode, and other episodes, please visit our website at www.phdfuturesnow.org. In our next episode, we continue this conversation with Dr. Kantara Souffrant, Curator of Community Dialogue at Milwaukee Art Museum. Till then please stay safe.