Guest Post: Eric Gonzaba, “Centering the Side Project” [#AHA276]


This is the first in a series of three posts from the participants in the session “Say It Like You Mean It: Graduate Education and Creative Expression in Thinking, Making, and Doing History” held at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association. The intent of our session was to take a deep and discerning look at the ways in which History Ph.D. programs prepare their students for a radically-changed job landscape. As you’ll see in these posts, we take a critical stance towards the status quo, and argue that graduate programs in particular, and the historical profession in general, need to fundamentally re-think the ways in which they train the next generation of professional historians.

Eric Gonzaba is  a PhD candidate in American history at George Mason University. His research interests revolve around the cultural politics of race and gender in late 20th century America, particularly 1970s/1980s African American and queer nightlife. Eric is the creator of Wearing Gay History, an award-winning online digital archive and museum which explores the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities through t-shirts. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Rainbow History Project, which collects and preserves LGBT history in metropolitan Washington DC. He also is a regular contributor to OutHistory, a site and blog dedicated to uncovering the queer past.
Eric is currently working on his dissertation, “Because the Night: Nightlife and Remaking the Gay Male World, 1970-2000,” which examines resistance to racial discrimination at gay nightlife in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @Egonzaba

My fellow panelists Kevin Gannon and Cody Foster did an incredible job outlining various concerns I share regarding the current state of graduate education. I had the opportunity to speak to one aspect of my graduate experience that has shaped how I go about thinking and doing history in the future, a “side” project that turned out to be foundational to my work as a doctoral student.

I started my PhD coursework in Fall 2014. As any graduate student does at the beginning of their tenure, I sat down with my PhD coordinator who gave me a checklist of all the necessary requirements I’ll need to complete before I get to add three letters to the end of my name and become the butt of jokes by medical professionals about how we’re not real doctors. I was to take a certain number of courses, complete minor fields, take my orals (and gain 15 lbs. during the months long prep for the three hour session), and prepare a dissertation prospectus. I was prepared for the six to eight track that many people before me had similarly endured. My goal was simple: get everything done as quick as possible, and do nothing to distract yourself from the getting the heck out of school.

I’m lucky enough to have pursued my PhD at George Mason’s Department of History and Art History, with faculty who really encourage and promote public and digital history literacy. Upon one’s entry into the program, all graduate students are required to take a certain number of digital history courses—a field I knew absolutely nothing about and frankly had little interest in engaging. Yet, the readings and discussions of this course led me to begin thinking about new and exciting ways to engage with history. Come final projects time, I became frustrated with the inability to find a way to use a digital tool that related to my dissertation work (Again, at this time, I was determined that if your work couldn’t directly help in the writing of your future 300+ page dissertation, it was a waste of time).

I gave up any hope in trying to overlap the dissertation and the final project, and in fact found myself liberated. Now I could research anything I pleased. I fell back on a small project I began in my undergraduate days, where I created a physical exhibit on the history of LGBT Hoosiers (residents of the great state of Indiana) using historical t-shirts I found at a small LGBT archive in Indianapolis, called the Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives. Despite its success, by the end of the exhibit, I had to pack up the t-shirts and signage and stow away this history, never to be seen again.

So, I decided to travel back to Indiana and photograph the entire Chris Gonzalez collection, over 300 different t-shirts spanning four decades of LGBTQ history, to create a digital archive accessible to all over the internet.  Using Omeka, a free content management system developed at the Roy Rosenweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason, I digitized the collection and created numerous online museum exhibits, telling dynamic stories of the life and experiences of those who once donned these inexpensive fabrics.  While digitizing, I kept my work under wraps (no announcements on social media, for example) yet also completely in public, with each shirt live (even if unpublicized) on the site the minute the metadata was complete. The site found an audience even before its launch, from digital archivists freely surfing the web. These visitors offered feedback and advice, much of it that saved me hours and hours of work down the road. By keeping my project public even when incomplete, I was able to make changes to the site that significantly improved it.

I presented the final project to my class, which offered great feedback. The course concluded, and I thought I would just put this project to bed, another project or paper on the hard drive that no one would ever see or read again. The subtle narcissist in me thought it might fun to share with my friends and family, so I posted the project link to my social media accounts, expecting to get the obligatory smiley emoticon comment from grandparents and relatives who spend waaayyy too much time on Facebook.

Much to my surprise, the site got loads of attention from all types of people, like LGBT community members, activists, and a wide range of historians—scholars of queer communities, rural America, material culture, digital archiving and many more.  I’m so humbled to see the site featured on sites like OutHistory, the Advocate, Slate, Lawyers Guns and Money.

 This side project was so vital to my early development as a professional history on several fronts. First, while the project had little to do with my actual dissertation research, Wearing Gay History let me travel to LGBT archives across the country (and indeed the globe) and make relationships with archivists and community members, who would be vital in my current dissertation work. Yes, it’s cliché to profess the value of “networking”, but I can’t stress enough the enormous impact it had to build strong relationships with what those who can help advance future project.  For example, my communication with scholars has led to lots of collaboration with the OutHistory team, helping author numerous blog posts and reviews. Furthermore, the site gave me my first academic award, from the National Council on Public History, a recognition not likely under a traditional graduate education.

So awards and networking are both great things, but perhaps more important, Wearing Gay History has helped me better do the work that historians should always be striving to do: making our research accessible and useful to the general public. Just this year, the University of North Carolina University Archives and Records Management Services began the UNC T-shirt Archive, inspired, they said, by the Wearing Gay History project. The UNC T-shirt Archive explores UNC student culture from the past five decades using the material culture of clothing. Additionally, students at a San Diego high school used the Wearing Gay History site to explore LGBT history, using the site as part of their state’s curriculum to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender contributions to American culture.

All this is to say, despite having little to do with my dissertation, the Wearing Gay History was vital for successfully completing my doctorate. Ignore anyone who suggests that work that doesn’t fit into the PhD requirements is a waste. If PhD programs are meant to ready students for the dynamic and sometimes excruciating job market, “side” projects can, in fact, be the vital for students in achieving this goal.