On Monday July 18, the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) 2.0 cohort began our 3-week Chicago exploration of the value of PhDs in the humanities. As we reimagined the possibilities of work in the humanities, we experienced the power of storytelling, the significance of uncomfortable learning, and the value of clarity and simplicity.
Following a brief introduction of key players of the journey, our initial exploration began with a phenomenal career advising session with Mearah Quinn-Brauner, graduate student career advisor at Northwestern University. We learned important first steps including gathering data about career fields, critically evaluating our skills and aspirations, and building relationships. The session prompted our own introspective reflections as we ranked our personal career values.
After a delicious lunch, we concluded the day with a series of activities and discussions facilitated by Megan Stielstra, an essayist and contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. A profound storyteller herself, Megan helped weave a tapestry of our lives. Along its vibrant contours were stories about who we are, where we are from, and how we define our homes and our peoples. These oral vibrations laid out our connections, as they laminated our differences, forming the spaces for meaningful living within the creases of the continuum of human life.
Several light bulbs went off following these activities, yet two glowed intensely: we have the choice to decide how and where we want to work. Considerations of what we want and don’t want in a professional setting based on our values, skills, and interests are not only possible, but also critical to living wholesome lives and having fulfilling careers. I tend to forget this reality as I am trained to believe that the relentless sacrifices, mental degradation, and physical deterioration that accompany this ‘privileged’ displacement and ‘effortless’ professional success in academia will be ultimately rewarded with the luxury of tenure.
The other light bulb continues to radiate: our stories matter. As noted by a member of my cohort, the power of storytelling lies in its ability to “function as meeting places, as sites of solidarity and connections.” Amidst the moments fraught with national anxiety, I enthusiastically embrace the liberatory opportunities offered by active listening and deliberate dialogues directed towards a concrete reimagination of how we live.
The first session was beyond transformational. I found myself emerging from the quicksand of isolation that has largely defined my summer. As a rising 3rd year PhD student preparing for comprehensive exams, I spend the majority of my time burying my head in a book or article, my eyes glued to intellectual roundtables, and my ears wedded to the unfolding politics and latest research findings. Craving the crisp Jamaican breeze and Ann Arbor sunsets, I plunged deeper into the isolationist enterprise of grad school within the four walls that surround my nomadic existence. My friends and families often consider me a robotic hermit. I consider myself jumping another hoop that eventually ends with the ultimate slamdunk: a PhinisheD dissertation! #Freedom?
Why the torment? PhDs, why define ourselves solely by our interests? Why not focus on our skills, our passions, and our career values? Why not be soundboards for each others’ wildest dreams, visions, and ‘secret’ projects? Why not share these visions as we radically embrace a reimagination of our possibilities of living and learning? There is no reason why not.
I revel in the positive vibrations of my HWW community. I feel one step closer to bridging our differences, identifying our connections, and forming coalitions. Closer to living more meaningfully as individuals and collectives inextricably linked in the fabric of life. A step toward humanities without walls.