By Caitlin Cieslik-Miskimen
University of Wisconsin at Madison
Becoming a media historian was not part of my plan as an undergraduate. As a journalism major, I had my sights set on magazine writing, and pursued that dream with dogged determination until my senior year, when I decided somewhat on a whim to write an undergraduate honors thesis. The topic was celebrity gossip columns in the first half of the 20th century – a subject I had longed harbored an intense interest in. Given the freedom to spend my time reading about Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, I poured myself into the project. By the time I had finished, I knew that I needed to change course, and started the process of applying for graduate programs specializing in media history.
When I entered the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, I knew what to expect. My undergraduate mentor and graduate advisor, James L. Baughman, had encouraged me to reach out to many individuals in the field for their advice, and to get a sense of what it would take to be a successful media historian. Get ready for long hours in the library and sitting in front of a microfilm reader, they said. Make friends with archivists, they advised. Read the acknowledgment sections of books you like, they noted. Be ready to be surprised and challenged by what you find when researching, they warned. Go into your projects with open eyes, and be open to have your assumptions tested. And get ready for some curve balls.
They also warned me that media history – and the study of any historical field – can be a lonely pursuit. The long hours in the library, in front of books and in front of the microfilm reader, is isolating. Finding colleagues and collaborators that shared your love of history was key to success. During our check-ins, Prof. Baughman pushed me to maintain connections with others in the field. He was quick with contacts to reach out to based on my current interests or questions I had about the historiography of a topic. I leaned on this network for input and guidance that helped shape my research questions and projects and helped me grow as a scholar.
Several pointed me toward AJHA. The organization strongly supported graduate students and would be a great venue to present my research and ideas. Importantly, they noted, I could meet other graduate students and scholars like myself – individuals passionate about journalism and history, and ready with tips on archive collections, databases, and secondary reading. And I’d be able to find a group that could empathize with the arduous process of writing historical research and of being the lone historical wolf in a journalism and mass communication department. With this advice in hand, I steadily followed my expected path in graduate school. I wrote a thesis, finished coursework, and started prepping for my preliminary examinations.
But graduate school often comes with twists and turns that can be hard to navigate, no matter how prepared you are. It threw me a curve ball the spring before I was to begin prepping for my preliminary examinations, when Prof. Baughman passed away unexpectedly. As the dust began to settle, and I realized what I had lost in terms of an advisor and mentor, I realized how important the network of support I had been building would be. Without a media historian in the department, I would need to rely even more heavily on those outside my program.
At my first AJHA conference, I initially felt intimidated. Here was a room of scholars whose books and articles I had read, who taught media history courses at universities and colleges across the country, and had won awards for their research and teaching. And there I was, a graduate student and the lone representative from the University of Wisconsin, wondering how to go up and introduce myself. But within the first few moments I immediately felt at ease. Everyone I met was friendly and eager to chat about all topics related to media, journalism, and history. And more important for me as a graduate student, they were incredibly interested in what I was working on and ready to offer feedback.
AJHA has been incredibly valuable for me because it has helped find a network of individuals passionate about what I study. It has helped me connect with other graduate students in the field, and also provided a model of what to do as a professor. And at a time where I felt lost and untethered in my own program, it provided me with a number of new history mentors whose camaraderie has provided the support to drive me toward completing my dissertation.
Cieslik-Miskimen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, completing her dissertation examining the impact of modernity and progress on the conception of community and identity in a small city, via its print communication channels.