Graduate school at the University of Iowa was everything Eric Zimmer hoped it would be, and more.
Zimmer, who earned his Ph.D. in history in spring 2016, was pushed by his faculty members and other UI personnel to sharpen his thinking and writing in a particular field of knowledge, all while being equipped to try to master new fields.
All these skills have been vital in Zimmer’s current position as senior historian at Vantage Point Historical Services, Inc., an award-winning historical consulting firm located in Rapid City, S.D.
Q: Describe your research in non-expert language?
A: It's easiest to say that my work falls under a broad umbrella of "public history." While I was at UI, I did a dissertation exploring the history of the Meskwaki Nation -- an American Indian community whose land base has a fascinating story and happens to be situated about an hour-and-a-half from Iowa City. The dissertation looked at the ways in which the tribe's ownership of its land has helped tribal members fight against oppressive state and federal policies, empowering their claims to tribal self-determination over the last 150 years.
I'm still working on Meskwaki and other forms of "traditional" scholarship as it relates to American Indian history. But I'm also involved in a lot of other work now that I'm out of school and employed at Vantage Point Historical Services, Inc., which I joined right after graduating. These days, I'm preparing to teach a class at a local college and revising my dissertation for publication in my spare time. My full-time job is pretty diverse — I'm currently writing a biography of a prominent Jewish politician on the Northern Plains, developing a museum exhibit for a new visitor's center that will be installed in Deadwood in the spring, and developing a digital exhibit for a New England-based medical program set to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its founding in 2018. I've also dabbled in a little archaeological work and given a couple of guest lectures here in the Black Hills since I moved back.
Q: What impact has your work had on the field/world? What impact do you hope to have on your field/world?
A: It's easier to answer the latter question than the former. I hope that my work contributes to community discussions about the importance of the linkages between past and present, informing everyone in ways that make them better citizens and members of local and broader communities. I like to think that some of the projects I've worked on — and am working on — have moved the needle in those ways, or will in the end.
Q: What resources have influenced or supported your academic goals?
A: I chalk my success at the University of Iowa to a couple of entities. First, if members of the Meskwaki Nation — namely their Historic Preservation Office — hadn't been so welcoming and knowledgeable, my scholarship never would have gotten off the ground. If it weren't for supportive faculty like Jacki Rand, Erica Prussing, Phil Round, Ty Priest, and Jim Giblin in the History Department and American Indian and Native Studies Program, I also would have fizzled. Without Teresa Mangum and Jennifer New and everyone at the Obermann Center, I never would have found an intellectual home at UI, and certainly wouldn't have been as encouraged to continue work outside the academy.
Q: Do you have any role models, mentors, or inspirational people who have encouraged you to pursue your work?
A: There are just too many to list. In addition to the folks mentioned above, I have several close friends in South Dakota — Eric Abrahamson, Sam Hurst, Craig Howe, the late Rosie Little Thunder, Josh Houy, and others, who became friends and mentors while I was in college. They pushed me into the academic world and then welcomed me home when I resolved to come back to the Black Hills and see how I could be useful. In fact, Abrahamson is my employer and colleague at Vantage Point, and I work with several of the others on volunteer and community initiatives from time to time.
Q: How has your graduate experience shaped your career goals?
A: I'm not pushing to become "the expert" on one small field of study, but someone who can digest new histories and efficiently harness them to meet our clients' needs. Graduate school helped me figure out the parameters of what it means to be a "professional historian," while allowing me push the boundaries of that title beyond the classic trajectory of "Bachelor's, Master's, Ph.D., Assistant Professor," and so forth, and into a realm where I've got gainful employment and one foot in each the academic and non-academic worlds. It's quite fulfilling, and owed — not entirely, but certainly significantly — to my graduate experience at UI.
Q: If you could go back to a time at the beginning of your graduate career, what advice would you give yourself?
A: The most important lesson that coalesced in my mind during my five years at Iowa was this: DYS. Do. Your. Stuff. Graduate school is full of a lot of great things — lectures, symposia, departmental service, projects of all kinds, opportunities for campus and community volunteer work, etc. They all enrich your life and your thinking, and many are vital to keeping a robust campus alive and kicking. At a certain point, however, all of those things can become a distraction. Some folks, I think, blur the line between what is peripheral and what is expected. At the graduate level, you're there to do a defined set of things: complete your degree requirements, teach, establish your goals and work towards finding the right place in the job market (academic or non) and, most importantly, finish your dissertation. Those things are paramount. Look ahead, plan your career, and DYS to get out the door and onto the next phase.