A View Inside the CWI with Professor Jill Titus

Jill Titus

Professor Jill Ogline Titus, Associate Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss her perspectives. We had a wonderful chat in the CWI’s conference room, a room with the narrowest long conference table I have ever seen. We talked about what brought her to the CWI, what the Associate Director does, and about what advice she would give to students of the war at various levels.

AM: Thanks very much for agreeing to do this, Jill. I do appreciate it.

JT: Yes.

AM: So, just to kind of start with a little bit about your background, you got your undergrad, your Ph.D., and your master’s where?

JT: I did my undergrad in history at Taylor University in Indiana, and then my MA and Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. When I started my undergraduate degree I was very interested in colonial America, and by the time I finished my Ph.D. I specialized in 20th Century African-American History. So my interests shifted and then changed a good bit over my time in school.

AM: Interesting. So how did it shift?

JT: Well, I think like many people, I took a wonderful class on African-American history as an undergraduate, and then I followed up. That following summer I interned here in Gettysburg at the Eisenhower National Historic Site, and I had to do a special program of my own choosing, so I decided to do it on Eisenhower and the Little Rock Crisis because we had talked about it in this class and I was so fascinated with it, and by the time I finished that summer I was almost completely converted to modern US history.

AM: Okay, cool. So, you’re the Associate Director of the Civil War Institute.

JT: Yep!

AM: What does the Associate Director of the Civil War Institute do?

JT: A little bit of everything. That’s part of why I enjoy the job so much. I get to oversee many of our public history partnerships, and that takes different forms depending on what we’re doing at the moment. In 2013 I was able to play a leading role in organizing the “Future of Civil War History” conference. Last year I was really involved in guest editing an issue of Civil War History that drew on some of those conference themes. Right now, in the fall I’m going to be working with a group of CWI fellows, some of our undergraduate students, to do a, we’re partnering with Gettysburg National Military Park to develop and design an interpretive wayside for the South Carolina monument out on West Confederate Avenue which has a really interesting civil rights history.

AM: Uh-huh!

JT: So I do that. I co-direct the college’s minor in public history which we just got off the ground last fall. We have about twenty to twenty-five students in the program right now. We give them a broad-ranging introduction to issues of cultural memory, preservation, interpretation, we draw courses from a variety of different subject areas and disciplines. I teach two courses a year in the history department. I oversee our Pohanka Internship Program. We partner with a wide range of National Park Service sites and private museums to offer Gettysburg students paid summer internships. We have twenty-four students out in the field right now, which is a record for us. I work on our website. I do most of our website updates, and I work very closely with the summer conference scholarship program and do a bit of coordinating and planning efforts for the conference as a whole, and then I do a bit of my own research and writing, so it’s a very broad-ranging job, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.

AM: Wow! So how did you get involved in the CWI in the first place?

JT: Well, I first heard of the CWI when I was interning at the Eisenhower Farm because the park was a little short on intern housing that year so they housed us in Gettysburg College housing, the apartments just up the street from here, and I got to know some Gettysburg students that summer and they talked about the CWI. Unfortunately I didn’t know that CWI existed when I was in high school. I would have loved to have applied for the high school scholarship program. That would have been right up my alley, but unfortunately I wasn’t aware of it. But once I finished my Ph.D. I took a position at the C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, which is on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is a co-curricular center devoted to experiential education and student programs. It’s quite a bit like CWI. It plays a similar role to CWI on that campus, but it’s focused on 18th Century history–18th Century history, the Revolution, the Chesapeake Bay–and I’ve always loved Gettysburg, I always said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fascinating if the CWI would ever hire an associate director, maybe I could go there, I’d be a whole hundred years closer to my own subject area, [laughing] in the twentieth century,” and then I met Pete [Carmichael, the CWI Director] not long after he started here and then a few years after that he did decide to restructure the office and bring on an associate director, and so that’s how I got here.

AM: And when did you get here?

JT: Summer of 2012. I started, I think, about a week-and-a-half before the conference. So I was still learning the lay of the land when the conference opened. I couldn’t direct anybody to the bathroom let alone give them any sort of intelligent answers about the conference itself, but I’m glad that I was able to sort of plunge in with both feet and get a sense of the conference immediately instead of being here for a full year before experiencing that major component of what CWI does.

AM: Okay, so since you’re not primarily a Civil War historian, in what way, if any, does your work with the CWI, um, impact your work as a twentieth century African-American historian?

JT: It really does, and I think in several ways. A lot of what I do here is public history focused, and that’s a big component of how I define myself professionally. Getting to work with this wayside project, oversee the [public history] minor curriculum, plan the Future of Civil War History conference, these are all things that keep me very plugged into the Civil War world, I mean to the public history world. I made a lot of good contacts with practicing public historians through the Pohanka program. Um, I’m able to teach here, I teach a relatively wide range of courses. I teach a course on the modern black freedom struggle–my own area; I teach a modern US survey course; I teach public history. Teaching and advising is also kind of central to how I see myself professionally. And, I’ve been able to develop my own little niche, I think, here on the battlefield, the Cold War civil rights context of the Centennial Anniversary. I’m very interested in the 1963 anniversary and the monuments that go along with it, and what they tell us about the way the historical memory was deployed at this very tumultuous time in American History and the different ways people interpreted the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg and how they connected that to a wide range of different courses of action in the present, so I sometimes do tours and programs about this, and I’ve started to write about it a little bit. I’ve just submitted a piece on this to History News, which is the newsletter for the American Association for State and Local History. This is a topic I never would have stumbled upon if I wasn’t here in Gettysburg thinking about how my own areas of interest could intersect with the history of the battle and spending time out on the field, but it really brings together a whole lot of other things that are very fascinating to me: historical memory, monuments, civil rights history, twentieth century US, so this has been a neat opportunity to develop a new focus that wasn’t something that I anticipated coming to the Civil War Institute, but has certainly been a lot of fun.

AM: Oh, excellent, excellent. So, um, I guess the legacy of the Civil War, um, fits in very well with that, too.

JT: Mm hmm. Absolutely, and I am interested in nineteenth century US history, one of my secondary fields in grad school was transnational slavery and emancipation, so I’m not a military historian, but I’m very interested in nineteenth century African-American history, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, that transition, so I very much enjoyed this year’s summer conference [laughing].

AM: Oh, I’m sure! So, do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out learning about the Civil War?

JT: Yeah! I think read and explore broadly. There is so much good work out there, and no matter what specific interests people might bring to the table there’s a conversation unfolding somewhere about that that they can tap into. Not to pitch the CWI summer conference, but I think it’s an excellent way for people who are starting to explore that kind of interest to plug into conversations that are unfolding in the field and to meet other people who are interested. I would say go to lectures and programs about the war. Look for what might be offered through local universities, historic sites, museums. Go to Civil War sites. Go to battlefields, and when you go, spend as much time as possible there. Go on ranger programs. Come to Gettysburg. Spend some time at the NPS Visitors Center and the Seminary Ridge Museum. I think together they really provide just a fantastic introduction to the Battle of Gettysburg, but also to the larger issues of the war. And, I think, read. I know the Civil War Trust has a good introductory bibliography on their website. There are all kinds of “Top Ten Books” on the Civil War lists out there. Of course those are very subjective things, but there are some very good ones, and when you look at multiple versions of that list and you start to see, oh, the same two or three books keep popping up, you know, those are the books that are fantastic to start with.

AM: Mm hmm, great! Um, how about some advice for someone who’s at more of an intermediate level, you know, they know the basics, they’ve studied many of the battles, they’ve read biographies of some key figures, so they know, “Alright, I’ve got to read books,” they’ve been to a few museums, what about them?

JT: I think at that point one of the most interesting things to do is to start thinking about which particular aspects of the war era are of most interest to that person and then really delving into those particular questions. When you read a book that really grips you, look for other works by that same author. Look for related titles. Try as much as possible, I think, at that level to start really approaching the war holistically, to thinking about the social and the political context. Start delving into slavery. You can’t understand emancipation without a solid understanding of the way that slavery shaped American society and American economics and American politics. Look, go beyond 1865. Delve into Reconstruction. Look at the legacy. Look at the ramifications of the war. Try to understand the war from a variety of different angles–common soldiers, generals, political leaders, women, journalists, immigrants. Try to get at the conflict from a variety of different vantage points. I think also somebody who’s sort of at that level with their interests and explorations I think also could really benefit from delving into both primary sources and secondary sources, certainly be reading the new literature in the field, but also start digging into the primary sources, collections of letters, archival collections. You know now, thirty years ago if you wanted to read an archival collection you to go to an archive. Now there’s just a wealth of material available online. It’s kind of a treasure trove, and I think starting to really engage with those primary sources and starting to engage with the landscape in a more detailed way, not just visiting battlefields and Civil War sites but really going out and observing the terrain for yourself, taking along maps, looking closely at the way this terrain shaped this campaign. Come to CWI! [laughs] At any level somebody could benefit from coming to CWI and taking part in those conversations.

AM: Okay, and so then we get to the more advanced person, they’ve delved into the politics, they know about slavery, they have a deep understanding of the battles, the leaders, they studied what brought on the war, they studied Reconstruction. Any advice for them?

JT: Well, I think these people are well beyond where I am. [laughs] So I’m not sure how targeted my advice would be, but I think that at that level really trying to challenge yourself to continue finding aspects of the war that are new to you, that you don’t know much about, and explore them. Take your study of primary sources to the next level. Really grapple with the connections between past and present. Think about the ways the Civil War has shaped the country that we live in today. Subscribe to professional journals like Civil War History or Journal of the Civil War Era. Look at what’s coming out. Look at the new questions in the field, the new debates. Read the articles. Look at the book reviews. Figure out what it is that you want to get and read. Study historiography. Look at the old stuff. Look at the way that interpretations have changed over the years. Try to pinpoint when are these interpretations shifting? Why are they shifting at that particular point? How has push-back and conflict between different schools of thought and different historians shaped the scholarship that we are reading today? And then, I think, do your own research and share your knowledge with others. Start a blog, like you’ve done. Volunteer at a historical society or a museum. Host a reading group. Contribute to a crowd sourcing project. There are all kinds of fascinating crowd sourcing projects out there working with Civil War documents that they’re looking for people to transcribe, to interpret, you know, to add their own commentary. I was just looking at the Visualizing Emancipation website the other day in prep for a talk I was giving about digital history, and I was reminded that as polished and fantastic and interesting as that website is, this is a site that tracks the process of emancipation as it played out geographically during the war, and you can follow all sorts of timelines and you can look geographically at the relationship between the movement of the Union army and what they call emancipation events. As polished and as professional as this is, they’re always looking for people to enter new emancipation events, things that they’ve turned up in their own research that can add to and can continue to shape this way of thinking about emancipation in a very visual sense, and I think people who are at that point in their study of the Civil War have so much to contribute to those kinds of projects. Mentor somebody who’s new, you know, an enthusiast who’s new to the field. There’s nothing more rewarding than sharing something that you love with somebody else.

AM: Great! Wow, thanks very much. This is a lot of good stuff here. I’m going to be working my fingers to the bone transcribing everything.

JT: Well you’re most welcome! And does that cover what you wanted to talk about?

AM: It sure does! I appreciate it.

JT: Good! If I were Pete I could give you all sorts of specific books and specific things that people should engage with. That’s not really where my level of knowledge is, but …

AM: Well, I think you come to it from a good perspective, though, because let’s say someone you were giving advice to someone in African-American history. I’m sure that a lot of the advice you gave here for the advanced student would be the same as what you would give to that person.

JT: It would! Yep. It would. Mm hmm. There would be some additional specifics, but the thrust of it, I think, would be very much the same.

AM: So, yeah, I thought it was a really good answer.

JT: Good!

AM: I appreciate your time, Jill. Thanks very much.

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2 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    This turned out to be an informative interview for me. Some really excellent advice about looking at the war from several angles, rather than a single, linear narrative. I had not considered this (I would not consider myself “intermediate”, but I am always looking ahead) The reminder to take on Reconstruction is always a good one, as this reader tends to avoid the brussel sprouts of any endeavor. Mostly, it is amazing that they have this exellent program — CWI summer conference — that caters to adults! I really thought that pursuing the study of the CW as an adult was going to be a solo trip through uncharted wilderness (which it DID start out that way) I have now been bolstered by the awareness of great programs that stimulate further CW study interests for adults. I just ordered Dr. Marszlek’s book on Sherman, so to be ready for next year’s panel discussion (must formulate a decent query off the beaten path)

    Thank you for taking the time with Prof Jill Titusl.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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