History Department Head Robert Carriker comes to UL by way of Gonzaga and Arizona State. He brings with him his expertise in Public History, a relatively new approach to a largely overlooked aspect of the discipline. He is also overseeing a large turnover in department faculty, working to incorporate their new ideas into the strong culture of collegiality and commitment to undergraduate education at UL. ultoday.com visited with him.

Robert Carriker, Department of History, University of LouisianaTell us about yourself.

I don't know how to answer that.  I love my family.  I value honesty.  And candor.

That's about it.

Where did you grow up and go to school?

I was born and raised in Spokane, in eastern Washington. I attended Gonzaga University.  Before I attended, I was the ball boy for the basketball team when John Stockton was there.

I also had a run-in with the lead singer for Air Supply at Gonzaga.  It involved a girl, and he was stalking me.  I was 20, he was in his late 40s.  It was weird.

I got my Master's and Ph.D. at Arizona State, studying under Noel Stowe.  He is one of the founders of Public History.

Explain that.

Public History is history outside of the classroom.  Traditionally, history is practiced in the classroom by academics who write scholarly articles and books. That's certainly a generalization, relatively narrow, but it gives you an idea of what we traditionally do in history.

The reality is that history is practiced far beyond the classroom.  It's practiced in historical parks, in museums, in corporations, in market history, in archives, in historic preservation.  It is also recorded at the community level, with historical societies and organizations.  It is also in government, in law, in the US Congress.  It's in any organization of any size and magnitude that records a history or utilizes a history.

Look at Tabasco:  they're a perfect example of employing history to their benefit. They utilize their history to know where they've been, to enhance their marketing, to protect their corporate identity and their trademarks, and to strengthen their sense of internal community.

So there was this realization that all of these places are practicing history, but they frequently use amateurs rather than professional historians.  Some historians thought that if history is important enough to be practiced in these different venues, then it would benefit these groups to employ people who were trained in history; and that in order to be effective, history in the public requires a different skill set from traditional history training.

Such as?

One skill is working in groups. That sounds simple, but there's a difference in being trained to work in an archive and generate a paper, and to work with a group of people to bring an historical program together, of any type.

Oral history also falls under public history; that requires different skills.  If you're working in a museum, you work with artifacts, and those could be your primary sources.  You have to use those artifacts to tell your story, and that's a different skill.

Not all of these apply in every case, but you have to be able to work in different media.

Why are you here?

That's an interesting question, although it almost begs a different question:  Why did I stay?

I'm here because I was offered a job.  Why did I decide to stay?   Because I love this community.  Lafayette allows me to live in a community that values family, and allows for the valuation of family.  I'm not spending an hour and a half commuting,  trying to pay off a $300K mortgage on my home.  I don't have to devote my waking hours to getting by.

Why UL?

Because I guess it's the same thing I like about the larger community, that it's a very appealing academic community.  I find UL to be filled with people who are tremendously supportive.

The collegiality within the History Department stands out to anyone who has any familiarity with academic departments in most institutions, whether they're small liberal arts colleges, very large institutions, the Ivy League, or community colleges.  What happens at some places, is that people are more interested in criticizing their colleagues.

I can look to [former History Department Head and Professor Emeritus] Vaughan Baker. She's the epitome of what I'm talking about. She absolutely went out of her way to be supportive, not just of me, but of at least four younger faculty members that I know of. She was helpful to us, and she set that tone.  I've heard that Amos Simpson [Baker's husband, also former History Department Head and Professor Emeritus] was very much the same way. He was always around, very supportive, and always very kind with compliments, and occasional criticisms.

We absolutely have a collegial atmosphere.  That brings about a place where you want to go to work, and an environment where a person can flourish.

Tell us about the Department.

That's not as easy to answer as you might think.

The big initiative right now is transitioning the department with a whole host of new hires. Our department has changed dramatically in the past six years. If you were a student five, six years ago and came back today, you would not recognize the faculty. Upwards of 9 of our 18 people have changed in the last few years.

With new people coming in, we've spent a lot of time transitioning, bringing them along, and learning from them.  It's an interesting process.  We introduce people to the departmental culture that exists here, but also recognize that just because that has been our culture, doesn't mean that it needs to remain that way.

People come from across the country with excellent degrees, they're scholars, and they have very good ideas.  It is challenging to merge those ideas into what we are doing, and create a meaningful entity for both groups, the new and the old.

We have a graduate program in Public History that is excellent and which is important to us as a department, to the University, and to the community at large.  But we also have a sincere interest in our undergraduate programs, so we are constantly striving to make both programs better, and to serve both of those constituencies.

And I think we do an excellent job of it.  I think we do that by being careful of the new people we bring in, and by maintaining our collegial and positive working atmosphere.

That allows those people to flourish, both as scholars and as teachers.