A Passion for Research: Meet History and Art History Major Jamie Clifford
By Gina Myers
January 18, 2022
Jamie Clifford is very good at articulating why history is a great major—in part because it is something he had to explain to his parents when he decided to switch to history from biological sciences.
“Drexel is really strong in the history of science, and I found that learning about the history of science was more interesting to me than doing science,” he says.
As Clifford considered switching majors, he was surprised to discover how many opportunities are available to history majors.
“Some people use their history major as a stepping-stone to things like law school or medical school. I know some people who are really involved in activism and use their historical reasoning skills to make arguments about social issues, and I know people who want to work for nonprofits and community-based initiatives,” he says.
“And then on top of that, of course, there’s the more traditional route of graduate school and being a professor or working in a museum. History majors can do basically anything that involves research skills.”
Clifford has been honing those research skills through his classes, a research fellowship, co-op and extracurricular pursuits.
Community & Flexibility
It was early in Clifford’s time at Drexel that he attended a social event with the history department and immediately knew he had found his people. He was especially appreciative of the small class sizes and ability to connect with the professors in the department.
“I've taken classes with basically all the professors in the department. I know everyone who has been in my cohort. I feel like I've been able to reach out and find mentors and friends with similar interests, and I love the sense of community that we have,” he says.
The history major also offers great flexibility. “There are some required courses, but for the most part, there’s a lot of room to explore,” explains Clifford.
“If you’re coming to Drexel and considering a history major, I would recommend taking a variety of classes your first two years to get a sense of what you like. And don’t be afraid to talk to professors. One of the most valuable things that I did was meeting people who could help direct me toward things that might be of my interest.”
One of the faculty members who has been central to Clifford’s development as a historian is Amy Slaton, PhD, department head and professor of history.
“What I really love about Professor Slaton is that her work is political. She combines labor history, gender studies and history of science, engineering and technology. She’s encouraged me to find ways to use my work as activism to challenge a lot of preconceptions we have about society and about science,” says Clifford.
Clifford has taken advantage of taking independent study courses, which have allowed him to create his own custom courses in partnership with a faculty advisor. These courses have allowed Clifford to focus on topics that he is really interested in while getting to work one-on-one with a mentor.
The flexibility of the program has also allowed for Clifford to take up a second major in art history. The overlap of interest in history and art history is evident, especially in classes like Global Material Culture, which looks at how objects that one might not consider art tell stories about global history.
“It’s been a new way of thinking about art history and about objects for me. And that's kind of something that's helped me bridge this divide between the history of science and the history of art,” he says. “Suddenly you can look at a stethoscope as a scientific and as an artistic object. It opens up all these possibilities.”
Clifford also notes the added bonus of being a history student in Philadelphia—a city rich in history and museums.
“Obviously there’s a lot of political history in Philly, but there’s also scientific history,” he notes. “We have these scientific institutions like the American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences, who have a lot of fascinating things in their collections.”
Research & Experience
Clifford sees himself taking a traditional route as a history major—he wants to go to grad school and eventually work as a curator in a museum. He has already garnered museum experience through his co-op at the Robert and Penny Historic Costume Collection at Drexel. Here he contributed work to the current show Venus & Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age, which displays women’s fashions from the 1920s through garments from influential designers, accessories, illustrations and photographs.
“I did a lot of research finding dates for objects and finding context to write labels and help put together the collection,” Clifford explains.
“My favorite part of the co-op was working hands-on with all the objects. I think sometimes history can seem really abstract, but then you physically put your hands on a dress—you have a sense of what it was like to wear it and interact with it.”
Clifford was first introduced to archival research during a research fellowship Teaching Professor of History Lloyd Ackert, PhD. Ackert was interested in Ruth Patrick, a biologist whose pioneering research became the fundamental principle on which all environmental science and management is based, according to the Academy of Natural Sciences.
“He was like, ‘Anything you can find out about Ruth Patrick is interesting to me, so make your own project,’” says Clifford.
“I hadn’t worked physically in archives before, so it was exciting to get to dive in. And the opportunity to do a large-scale research project and work one-on-one with a professor to workshop my ideas was really exciting.”
Clifford is carrying this passion for research into his senior thesis project, which is focused on Arctic expeditions during the Victorian Era in the United States.
“I’m examining books that explorers wrote, the public lectures they gave, and the books, illustrations and portraits that they showed on tour in an attempt to understand why people were so fascinated by these expeditions and with the Arctic, and to consider what messages about race, gender and what it means to be American these explorers were communicating in their narratives.”
As Clifford’s final year at Drexel approaches, he is looking forward to staying in Philadelphia to gain more work experience in museums before applying to graduate schools.
In the meantime, Clifford is also enjoying life outside of the classroom through his extracurricular activities. He serves on the College of Arts and Sciences Student Advisory Board, where he gets to talk to prospective and incoming students about his experience at Drexel. Additionally, he writes for The Triangle, Drexel’s student newspaper, and serves on the editorial board of Maya, a student literary magazine that publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art.
Clifford loves working for The Triangle and Maya because he gets to meet students from a variety of majors and also because the work involved is very different from the work he is doing in his major.
Most notably, Clifford jokes, “I don’t have to footnote everything.”