History/Futures: A Conversation with Karen Thomas

The following is the transcript of an interview conducted with Dr. Karen Thomas, Staff Historian and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in January 2021 as part of the History Futures series. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Justin Lorts: I’m delighted to welcome Karen to this conversation. I’ve been at Hopkins for four years, and did not know that there was a staff historian at the Bloomberg School until Karen reached out.  I thought we would really benefit from hearing about her work and her career and the storytelling that she does for Johns Hopkins. Karen, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us about your career journey, how you found your way to your current role, and what that looks like for you? 

Karen Thomas: Well, thanks Justin for having me and welcome everybody. This is a topic that I really love to talk about.  

In 1996, I was an alligator mascot for a country radio station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and I was getting paid $10 an hour. It was right after I’d gotten a master’s in History from one of the best US History graduate programs in the US, but I had, to put it mildly, an extremely difficult time finding a job. I had sent out over 100 cover letters and job applications for jobs that I thought I was qualified for all over the country and did not get even an interview. So I often remind myself that that was the best I could do at that point in my life. 

Some people talk about moving up the ladder and slowly advancing. That never happened for me. I wasn’t on the ladder at all for a long time. I had gotten my PhD in 1999 and I had a one year old daughter, and then for the next 10 years or so, I was raising two small children, and I was also moving around to different places where my husband was finding work as an archivist (he had the great wisdom to go into digital archives in 1996 so he did really well and when he really wanted to torture me he would say “you know, you should think about going back and getting an MLS”).  

I started applying for jobs, thinking once you are a ABD it’ll probably be easier to get a job, so I became ABD in three years because I was so eager to not rack up student loans. Then I was told I needed a PhD and I wasn’t as competitive because other applicants had a PhD. Then I got a PhD and I was told well I didn’t have enough teaching experience, so I needed to get some teaching experience so I adjuncted in several places. And then I was told well you still don’t have a major publication or a book contract, so I eventually got one of those… I have never held a permanent tenure track position ever. 

And I was devastated. I thought that history was just not going to work out for me. But what I did do was I continued to go to history conferences and I presented and I networked with people and that’s something I would strongly strongly urge you to do. I did it at my own expense, which was really hard and I would show up and be ready to give a presentation and sometimes I got the Sunday morning conference slot and like one or two people would show up and one of them was my sister. 

So that was also rough, but I kept resubmitting articles and eventually got published and I kept resubmitting grants. I submitted my NIH grant five times before I got it and every time I submitted it I would request the comments from the reviewers and I would revise and submit the next year. 

When things really finally got better I was in Gainesville, Florida and I was offered one class in the fall of 2007 and I had actually done my syllabus and I was getting ready to order the books and I went to the history office and said “hey, my class doesn’t seem to be online, what’s going on?” And they said “Oh, we forgot to tell you we’ve canceled the class.” Then they took pity on me and let me teach one class the following spring. 

In 2008, I was still looking for work, but not very optimistic. I had gotten two interviews where I was the not the top choice, but the runner up at a couple of schools. At one of the schools, I did not get the job I found out because the person who did get the job had been adjuncting there for 10 years and they felt that they ought to give the job to her. I said,”yes, you should.” But that made me decide I don’t want to continue to adjunct. 

So my husband was applying for a job that he knew he would probably get in Washington, DC and he said “you really need to go ahead and start looking around in DC and Baltimore and that actually might be a really good place to look for a job.” So I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship in the Institute of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. What ended up happening is that all of the weird random jobs that I done over the past decade to keep paying my student loans sort of magically ended up being exactly what I needed to do in order to get this fellowship. 

I have no idea how many people applied for the position, but I’m guessing that there were very few history PhDs with experience in the institutional history of schools of medicine and public health. I’d written a contract history of the Department of Orthopedic surgery at the University of Minnesota, and UNC has a terrific institutional history program and I had done a lot with the southern oral history program there. So I was strong in institutional history, specifically in the history of medical and public health education, I had published a book, so it looked as though I could actually complete a project. 

But the other thing that helped me get the job was that shortly after the alligator period of my life I had taken a temp job in the college of education at LSU in the dean’s office and it was the late 90s, and they were just starting, so I was the first development and communications person in the College of Education there. I helped faculty write grants and I did newsletters and press releases. It was terrific hands on training because the reason Hopkins was hiring a post-doc was to have someone to write a history of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, because it was going to have it centennial in a couple more years. So I told the Dean, I can write a really good history, but I can also help you use this as a tool for fundraising and engaging alumni. And I think that’s probably at least part of what got me the job. 

So if you take away little else from this talk, I would say it’s very, very important to learn how to promote yourself, how to do really good public relations and communications, whether it’s for your own career or for someone else, because you will pretty much always be able to find a job with those skills. 

JL: Absolutely. It always strikes me that those things that you do to get by, to earn money, those little side projects that you might never ever put on your CV, when you start looking for jobs  beyond tenure track those are the things that help you get the job. It’s the little things that you do along the way which can help build up your skill set.  

For those who might be familiar with what an institutional historian does but not familiar with what a role as an historian at an institution looks, can you tell us what a typical day looks like and what your role entails? 

KT: One of the many reasons I love my job is that it’s so different from one day to the next. On one day I may get to attend a seminar or a talk by some of the sharpest and most well- known public health figures in the world. In 2018 I got to meet Dr. Facui because we did a centennial of the great pandemic event, and it was a combination of history and science, we talked a bit about the history of pandemic, but also about how woefully unprepared we were if a another massive pandemic like that came along. That was in 2018. 

I work with development officers who are raising money. The School of Public Health is really diverse – we have everything from biostatistics and epidemiology to health and behavioral sciences. We are also unusual for school of public health, because we have two lab science departments. So I, as a historian of the school, have this unique, very broad and deep view of the school and I understand how the parts are connected together and how they’ve developed over time. So if someone is considering giving a gift to say the Center for American Indian Health, which is one of our centers, I will look and see if I have ever interviewed anybody from the Center for American Indian Health, or if I have written about it, or if I know any of the alumni that have come through that Center. I’ll just gather different kinds of information, or find an old photo of someone that this donor potential donor might know. It’s sort of an archivist librarian / consultant role where I’m helping people who are working with donors to help them engage with institutional knowledge. 

I also write for the school magazine. In the past year since the COVID pandemic, we have created the COVID tracker that is referred to frequently on the news, but we’ve also created a lot of COVID related content and I’ve written a number of articles for that from a history perspective. 

 I mentioned a minute ago that I was sad when I would show up at the conference that I had paid well over $1,000 to attend and there are only two people there. Well an article that I wrote for our COVID website in July of last year has so far gotten 36,000 hits. Writing short form articles and blog posts and social media posts and things like that has made me such a better writer and it really strengthens my academic writing as well. Both the institutional histories that I wrote were peer reviewed and when I took the post-doc job I said I really do not want to write a coffee table book, I want to write a real academic history of the school and they said” yes, let’s do that.” 

JL: One of the things that struck me was a line from your LinkedIn profile “using institutional history to drive strategic storytelling.” Whether PhD students in History realize it or not, the skills they are building fit really well within a development office because so much about development is storytelling and telling that story for an audience that is already inclined to give. 

For those who might be thinking “Oh, maybe development offices are places I should look” what does that storytelling look like and how can a student’s historical training be applied to strategic storytelling. 

KT: There really is enormous opportunity as academic development and communications has just exploded over the past 10 to 15 years.  There are so many more jobs in that field now, whereas, we all know a lot about the tenure track market. As universities realize that they really can’t continue to rely completely on either state legislatures or the federal government or other sources of income that have become less reliable, they’re really realizing the importance of private funding – that includes foundations and corporations, as well as individual donors. 

A number of the more famous writers of the 20th century, William Faulkner and several others, not only wrote very serious literature, but they also wrote for Hollywood and they also wrote for advertising. I see doing development and communications as kind of like that. You’re still using evidence to support a hypothesis or an idea but you’re obviously really targeting it. And sometimes you’re writing for an audience of one – I write a lot of our reports and letters to Michael Bloomberg, which is the school’s namesake. 

With development writing, you have to be able to write well enough to not only prove your point, but to make someone want to give money. To me, with public health that is just easy and I don’t see how anybody could not want to give to public health, especially right now. But I have run into a lot skepticism, to put it mildly, about institutional history generally, and development writing particularly, that it’s somehow selling out.  I have found that the people that I get to work with and the people I get to write about are so interesting. I will never run out of people or things to write about in the job that I’m in. I’m 51 now and I intend to stay in this job for the rest of my career. If you are working at an institution that you really truly love and are committed to the mission of I there’s fewer better places that you can be. 

JL: I appreciate that you were really insistent that the history that you wrote was peer reviewed and that it would be a serious piece of academic scholarship. But I’m also thinking about how oftentimes the institutions that we write about – even if we agree with their mission – have histories that are complicated, including Hopkins. How are you able to be honest about that history, and engage that history as from a professional historians mindset but also be able to incorporate that history – without whitewashing it –  as you’re writing communication for donors or the public? 

KT: So I can I can speak to that on a number of levels. When I was working for the College of Education at LSU, I was trying to find granting agencies that looked like a good fit for us to apply for money. And there was a grant available and grantors almost always want to see collaboration, they don’t necessarily want to give money to just one entity, they want to see people working together and they want more bang for their buck, so to speak, and so collaboration was a requirement for several of these grants. 

So I’m sitting here at LSU at Baton Rouge, which is very close by to Southern University, an HBCU in Baton Rouge, and I said “hey, why don’t we collaborate with the College of Education at Southern?” And that idea didn’t I mean I think people were willing to try, but there was definitely a lot of tension and history between those two universities but we were able to involve Southern on a grant involving the Baton Rouge public school system. Trying to get people to think in a different way than they have before about involving communities of color and institutions that are primarily serving students of color is a that’s a great way to use your commitment – in my case, to African American history and the history of race relations. 

When I got to Hopkins I realized that the background that I had in race and medicine was going to come in, really, really handy. For instance, after the murder of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore Police Department our students went out and delivered medications to the neighborhood’s affected by the riots, because the all the drug stores had closed and there was no way for them to get their medications. Because we’re committed to reducing health disparities, because we had long standing existing relationships in the community from doing epidemiological survey research, the School of Public Health was well positioned to up its activities in working with the community to address some of the issues with Freddie Gray. 

Most recently, and I’m sure you know what I’m about to say, we at Hopkins have had what turned out to be a myth about the namesake of our institution, Johns Hopkins, who we have always portrayed as a Quaker abolitionists who had renounced slavery and had given his money to found this university and a hospital that admitted patients on a without regard to income or race. 

Well, turns out Johns Hopkins was a slave holder and that news made the New York Times and the Washington Post. So when things like that happen, University leaders try to really reckon with that and sometimes if the leadership is on the defensive, they will try to basically spin the news and downplay it and hope it goes away as soon as possible. But I was ready for that, and I was able to provide background. I had written a number of articles and I’d written extensively in the school history on the school’s relationship with segregation and noted that while it had admitted students from overseas from around the world from the very beginning it had not admitted African American applicants until 1945.  

So we used that prior history that I had written and I really credit the school’s leadership for using this as an opportunity to examine how slavery in the 19th century and segregation in the 20th century had shaped the evolution of the university and the school.  

JL: Graduate students often feel the pressure to write in other registers, whether theoretical or analytical. How do you develop the skills as a strategic storyteller? 

KT: So there is fiction writing that is very much character driven and if you’ve ever read one of the New York Times bestselling biographies of somebody you’ll notice they’re not an analysis of the person necessarily, they are telling the story of their lives and- if they’ve done a good job – it reads very much like a novel except the facts, we hope, at least, are true. But in social history, you’re amassing enormous amounts of data and information and trying to make arguments about the history of infrastructure during the Cold War, for example. So you find statistics on how many federal highways there were before Eisenhower started the interstate highway system and you’re comparing highway miles in poor states with wealthy states or something like that. That’s a little harder to write a narrative history about. 

So what I try to do in my academic writing is to combine a more narrative form – which is easier to read and more accessible, especially to non-specialists –  with some of the social history analysis that I was trained to do in graduate school. 

When I submitted my book on the history of the school of public health, the reviewers were evenly divided:  half of them said “oh you haven’t gotten enough analysis you don’t have enough footnotes.” And the other half said,” this is really slow. You’ve got to cut some of this stuff out and just stick with the main people you’re writing about and I’d like to see more a character sketches of people.” So you’re not going to please everybody. 

But as far as strategic storytelling – if you’re working in a nonprofit and you’re trying to change people’s minds about a particular issue such as family planning or abortion or similar topics, if you’re trying to write persuasively amassing facts can do some good but really you’re going to get the best results and convince the most people if you’re telling them a story. And so figuring out what are the stories that I can tell that people will relate to, or will perhaps see part of themselves in. That can begin turning their minds in the way that you would like them to turn. For example, the anti vax movement uses testimonies from people, and especially mothers with children who they believe had been harmed by a vaccine. Many people that don’t vaccinate their children believe that vaccines cause autism, which all the facts and data say otherwise, but these compelling stories on these videos that go around the Internet, they are hard to beat. 

So strategic storytelling can be used for what I consider problematic purposes, but also as a type of persuasive argument that combined with the kind of training that you’re getting in graduate school – sifting through vast amounts of data and ideas and selecting which are the ones that support your argument – can be very effective. 

JL: How common the role of institutional historian is within higher education and how collaborative is your work? 

KT: I can’t imagine how it could be more collaborative. I work with department chairs, faculty at the university level, development and communications offices, outside nonprofits and philanthropies that are involved in our work, people in student services and admissions people, etc. I go on photo shoots.  I help make videos. I help find faculty when we get a media request for some expert to talk about something. 

I was in the right place at the right time in 2013 when Elijah Cummings – who was the ranking Member on the House oversight committee on government reform – was looking for someone to testify in a hearing on healthcare.gov when Obamacare was first being rolled out. We couldn’t find anybody, because a lot of academics had kind of given up on trying to testify in in hearings like that because they often served as a show by the Republicans, who wanted to get across the point that healthcare.gov was a huge failure, which proved that government was a big failure in general.  So I gave testimony to the contrary and talked about the successes of some of the federal health programs prior to Obamacare. But that opportunity opened up because, as I said, I was in the right place at the right time and nobody else wanted to do it. 

As far as the kind of opportunities that are available, I would really urge students to look into history positions in the federal government. There’s a whole society for historians of the federal government (http://www.shfg.org/) and there are history offices in the NIH the public health service, the Congress, the Senate, the State Department all these entities. 

I would say there are not very many university historian roles. But in places like Florida State University and the University of North Carolina there are active oral history programs that do a lot of institutional history. But at the school or divisional level, that much less common. As far as I know, I’m the only dedicated staff historian of a school of public health, and I’m not aware of others in the school of medicine either.  

Another thing I can suggest – and I realize this might be a long shot – but I have the job that I have because I wrote a proposal to the Dean and I asked for it. I wrote a persuasive proposal that convinced the Dean of the need for a hybrid role as a development writer and a historian. Interestingly that role has become more and more straight history and less development writing over the years. 

JL: Were there Instances you had to persuade non historians that historical storytelling matters for the development of institutions, and if so, how did you persuade them? 

KT: Wow, great question. I don’t know how many people have seen the series Mad Men but there’s this tension between the people who are the account executives who are going out and trying to get different advertisers to sign on to the agency, and the creative department that’s really framing the message that enables advertisers to want to sign on. So I’ve made the case to my supervisors that by relying on good storytelling and good research on donors we could really help drive very successful fundraising and that’s what we’ve ended up doing and I’m really thankful for that. 

JL: We have time for one last practical question. When you are interviewing for positions in your office, what are the qualities that you are looking for? 

KT: We are looking for people who have experience writing in a variety of formats, whether it’s for social media or articles for magazines or grant proposals. So being able to write in a lot of different ways is important. 

It is also really helpful if you have video and graphics experience, although that’s not absolutely essential. We actually have a lot of journalists that work in our office. We also have a number of people who are trained at the Peabody Institute, which is the music school of Hopkins, and as performers they’re extremely effective gift officers. There are people from a range of background on the development team: we had someone who had a master’s in social work, someone who used to be the political science editor for Johns Hopkins University Press, so there is no set formula. But being able to write really convincingly in a lot of different ways, and being able to write well and quickly (something I never learned in graduate school) is important. 

JL: Thank you so much, everyone, please join me in thanking Karen for coming and telling us more about her work. 

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