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Interview with Amanda Goodheart Parks

“The best piece of advice I can give students is to take full advantage of the opportunities that exist in your area,” says Amanda Goodheart Parks.

An alumna of the UMass Amherst History Department and the Public History Certificate Program, Parks is Director of Education at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, CT.  She completed her PhD at UMass Amherst with fields in the history of women and gender, public history, nineteenth century U.S. history, and environmental history. She defended her dissertation, “No Seas Can Now Divide Us: Captains’ Wives, Sister Sailors, and the New England Whale fishery, 1840-1870,” with distinction in May 2018. Parks has worked as a public historian, museum educator, and historical interpreter for more than a decade with experience at Mystic Seaport, Strawbery Banke Museum, Historic Deerfield, and the Springfield Museums.

In an interview with Past@Present, Parks shares the trajectory of her research and career as a public historian and museum educator.

You are an alumna of the UMass Amherst History Department (’18PhD, ‘10MA) and the Public History Program (‘10PhCertificate). Your PhD dissertation, “No Seas Can Now Divide Us: Captains’ Wives, Sister Sailors, and the New England Whalefishery, 1840-1870,” studied whaling captains’ wives who defied social and industrial norms by going to sea together with their husbands aboard whaleships in the mid-nineteenth century. Why did you choose this topic for your PhD dissertation?

 I first discovered this topic during an internship at Mystic Seaport Museum. It was the summer before my senior year of college, and while I knew I wanted to write my senior honors thesis on women’s history, I had yet to find a topic I was passionate about. That all changed when I began researching the history of women in the whaling industry as part of my internship. When I learned that a small group of American women went to sea with their husbands aboard whaleships during the mid-nineteenth century, I was fascinated. Who were these women? Why did they go to sea? What were their experiences like? How did their decisions impact their husbands, families, and communities? The more I read, the more questions I had, and by the end of the summer, I had spent hours in the Mystic Seaport archives pouring over the letters and journals these women left behind. That research became the basis of my senior honors thesis, which in turn became the writing sample that got me into the UMass Public History M.A. Program.

This topic also played an important role in my decision to pursue my Ph.D. When I first came to UMass in the fall of 2008, my plan was to earn my M.A., build up my network of professional contacts, and begin my career in the museum field. However, after turning my research into a graduate level article (which later won the department’s Caldwell Prize), I realized I was not done studying these remarkable women. Fortunately, I did not have to choose between my professional career and my academic interests. Thanks to the support of my wonderful advisors Joyce Berkman, Marla Miller, Manisha Sinha, and Barry Levy, I was able to continue my research as a Ph.D. student while working full-time in the museum field.  So in a way, could say my background as a public historian led me to my dissertation topic, and my Ph.D. is a result of my personal connections to that topic.

You’ve worked as a public historian, museum educator, and historical interpreter. What skills did you build while pursuing your graduate studies to prepare for public history jobs? And how did your experience as a public historian inform your graduate work?

 One of the reasons I chose the UMass Amherst Public History program for my graduate training was its reputation of blending academic theory with hands-on practice in the field. The program did not disappoint me in this regard, as some of my most valuable experiences as a graduate student stemmed from the program’s focus on practice. My field service projects, internships, and part-time work at local museums gave me the practical skills I needed to prepare for a career in this field. Meanwhile, my work as a public historian shaped my academic research in significant ways. I wrote my dissertation with public audiences in mind, and I used material culture as well as print sources in my research. As such, my dissertation reads more like a popular history than a traditional academic work, and includes references to everything from journals and letters to clothing and gravestones.

How can students learn about different career options in the public history job market? In what ways do you think public history programs and history departments can best prepare students for careers outside academia?

 The best piece of advice I can give students is to take full advantage of the opportunities that exist in your area. In addition to internships, volunteering, and part-time or contractual work, I recommend reaching out to local public history practitioners to request informational interviews. I subscribe to the “pay it forward” belief, meaning that because I was so graciously helped by people in the field when I was a student, as an established professional, I now have an obligation to give back. I also really enjoy mentoring students – it’s the educator in me! – and I think many people in our field feel the same, so don’t be shy!

As for graduate programs, I think they need to help students develop the skills non-academic employers want to see in potential job applicants. Things like budgeting, grant writing, and supervisory experience will go a long way in landing a job upon graduation. I also think graduate programs should encourage students to start working in the field as soon as possible, even while pursuing their degree. The job market is very competitive, and the best way to stand out among a sea of newly minted graduates is to have experience on your resume and a network of references who will champion you within their professional networks. Finally, I think graduate programs need to help students master the art of networking. Crafting an elevator speech, developing a professional brand, and knowing how to work a room are all vital to not only getting a job, but growing your network within this field.

Your dissertation explored New Englanders at sea, and today you interpret New Englanders in the air; can you tell us a little about the New England Air Museum?  What are some of your favorite aspects of your work today? 

The New England Air Museum is the largest aerospace museum in our region, home to over one hundred historic aircraft ranging from century old biplanes to modern military aircraft. Founded in 1960, our mission is to preserve and interpret New England’s aerospace history while inspiring the next generation of aerospace innovators. In my role as Director of Education, I create opportunities for visitors to engage with the past, present, and future of aerospace in fun and meaningful ways. Whether it’s field trips for local students or special events like Women Take Flight or scout overnights – yes, I sleep at my museum several times a year! – my department helps the museum fulfill its educational mission. Because we are a relatively small museum, I am involved in all facets of our programming, so while I am a senior staff member, I am not stuck behind a desk everyday. I can see the impact our work has on visitors first hand, which as a public historian and museum educator, is very fulfilling. I also work with a wonderful team of staff and volunteers, many of whom have decades of experience in the aerospace industry, so I am always learning new things about our collection. It’s a fantastic museum, so I encourage you to come see our work for yourself!

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie