Anne Mitchell Whisnant
Associate Professor of the Practice in the Social Science Research Institute

Director, Graduate Liberal Studies Program

As the director of Graduate Liberal Studies at Duke, Anne Mitchell Whisnant oversees all aspects of the program, participating in both administration and academics. She joined GLS as director on August 15, 2019. From 2017-19, she worked full time as a professional historical consultant in her firm Primary Source History Services, conducting several historical research projects for the National Park Service. For the 2016-17 year she was Whichard Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at East Carolina University, and before that, for ten years (2006-16), she was Deputy Secretary of the Faculty and Director of Research, Communications, and Programs for UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office of Faculty Governance. Her first Duke tenure was 2002-06, when she coordinated humanities programs at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute. 

Dr. Whisnant is a historian whose teaching, research, speaking, consulting, and writing focus on public history, campus histories, digital and geospatial history, and the history of the U.S. National Parks. She has taught public history at UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, East Carolina University, and George Mason University. In 2006 she published Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History, the first fully grounded history of the parkway's development, with the University of North Carolina Press. She subsequently served as scholarly adviser for Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway, an online history collection developed collaboratively with the Park Service and the UNC Libraries.  More of her Blue Ridge Parkway work may be seen here. As a consultant, Dr. Whisnant has been the co-principal historian on several other National Park Service projects. From 2008-12, she chaired a task force commissioned by the Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service to study historical practice within the Park Service. The resulting report, Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, won the 2013 Excellence in Consulting (Group) Award from the National Council on Public History (NCPH).

Dr. Whisnant's most recent project, co-written with consulting partner and husband David E. Whisnant, is Black Lives and Whitened Stories: From the Lowcountry to the Mountains. This Historic Resource Study for the National Park Service's Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site (Flat Rock, NC) has also been recognized with the NCPH's Excellence in Consulting (Group) Award for 2022.

Current Research Interests

I have followed a somewhat non-traditional professional evolution that has combined full-time university administrative employment with consulting, research, publication, and teaching as a historian. When I completed my Ph.D. in 20th century U.S. history at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997, I had an infant son and a spouse who was tenured at UNC, so I elected not to undertake a faculty job search. For five years, I remained at home with my sons and taught part-time. From 2002-2016, I was employed full-time in professional university administrative roles, first as project manager for a Mellon Foundation humanities grant at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute, and then as Deputy Secretary of the Faculty in the Office of Faculty Governance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While at UNC (2006-16), I held adjunct faculty appointments in History and American Studies and regularly taught Introduction to Public History, a graduate-undergraduate level course that I developed. I also supervised a major grant-funded digital humanities project in collaboration with the UNC Libraries.

In 2016, I decided to leave administration to do history full-time, accepting a one-year faculty appointment as Whichard Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at East Carolina University. After my year at ECU, I spent two years working full-time as a contracting public historian, conducting two projects for the National Park Service. This activity built upon NPS consulting work I had begun while employed at UNC. During that 2017-19 period, I continued to hold my adjunct faculty appointments at Chapel Hill and to teach Public History there. In 2018, I was also invited to teach digital history at George Mason University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

What differentiates me from many PhDs who follow a so-called “alt-ac” (“alternative academic”) professional path is that I have continued to do high-level scholarly work. There are two major threads in my intellectual development that have emerged organically and synergistically from my work as a historian, my own employment history, and the diverse mix of activities in which I have been involved in both sectors:  

The first thread leads from my dissertation project on the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway (National Park Service scenic highway in North Carolina and Virginia) through my 2006 UNC Press book, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History to other historical work about and for the National Park Service to the broader historical subfield of public history. Public history is an interdisciplinary field that explores various forms and practices of public engagement with history, including cultural resources management and historic preservation. Much of my teaching, professional organizational work, research, consulting, writing, and publication since 2002 have fallen under the general public history umbrella. In this space, I have developed a special interest in using digital history methods to develop public-facing work. Additionally, my consulting work since 2017 has allowed me to expand my knowledge and expertise into 19th century U.S. history, Black history, and the history of American race relations. During my years of employment in higher educational settings where controversies over campus historical features have flared, finally, I have developed a subject area interest in campus history as public history -- which looks at how universities can, do, and should engage, interpret, and reckon with their own institutional histories (including, importantly, entanglements with slavery and white supremacy).

The second major thread of my intellectual interest emerges from my own non-traditional professional path and my employment in the faculty governance side of the university. As I navigated my own professional journey from Ph.D. to employment as non-faculty Ph.D.-holding staff in two universities, I learned about the evolving structures of “faculty” work in higher education (e.g., the adjunctification of the faculty, the emergence of models of fixed-term, professors of the practice, and other forms of non-tenure-track faculty employment) that are reshaping career possibilities for new PhDs. From 2002 on, I became a leading voice in the alt-ac movement, which has mounted a multi-pronged and incisive analysis of humanities graduate education and the hierarchical structures and policies in academe that continue to frustrate the aspirations of many of the very PhDs whose graduate programs have urged them to consider alternative career paths. My interests in this area might be said to fall broadly under what has come to be called critical university studies, through which the university itself is subjected to systematic analysis. My interest in this area is, in turn, strongly related to the “campus history as public history” thread mentioned above.

As of 2022, in partnership with historian Dr. Cheryl Dong, I am at work on a new project, "Exploring Black History on the Blue Ridge Parkway." This work, underwritten by Duke's Office of the Provost, the Duke Endowment , and the Social Science Research Institute, builds on the expertise described above to take my longtime engagement with Blue Ridge Parkway history in a new direction. The project envisions both a scholarly article and a public-facing digital exhibit, and is being informed by ongoing conversations with nonprofit Parkway partners and the National Park Service.   

Current Appointments & Affiliations

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