I Know What I Learned This Summer, or, the Value of Curiosity and Kindness in Creating a Career in the Humanities

As the project manager for the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) consortium (“jack of all trades, Master of Buddhist studies”), I have a good deal of experience juggling a variety of objects and coordinating myriad personalities. In that capacity, I had a good sense of the logistics involved in putting together a workshop of this scope and duration. What I did not know was what to expect from our inaugural Humanities Without Walls Alt-Ac workshop, other than that I would be working closely with onescore and nine doctoral students for three weeks in Carl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders. I knew I would learn from my inevitable mistakes and oversights about how to improve the workshop for next year (because, as I noted to a colleague as I attempted to make espresso and instead enjoyed a demitasse of hot water, “learn” is spelled F-A-I-L), but I was frankly unprepared to learn so much about my own non-tenure-track career trajectory, to appreciate the meaningful coincidences and connections that brought me to this career, and to grow increasingly excited about future potentials and prospects. While I engaged in the usual administrative and problem-solving challenges that characterize my work as the project manager for a consortium spanning fifteen universities across the Midwest, I was also furiously scribbling notes during most of the presentations, adding to my already sprawling “to-do list” a variety of resources, connections, suggestions, insights, and other things to follow-up on. My head spun as I jotted down skill after skill I plan to cultivate to further my career in academic administration – 21st century etiquette, networking, grant-writing, fund-raising, and seeking links to foundation relations, to list a few.

What really surprised me, though, was the realization that the circuitous route to my present professional position – what I fondly call “taking the scenic route” – is not that out of the ordinary, and is in fact in keeping with many of the career trajectories of the speakers who shared their stories with our doctoral students. (I suspect it also aligns with the pasts, presents, and futures of many of our fellows.) Time and again I was reminded that we often create our own “luck” by practicing certain humanist habits of mind, by cultivating curiosity and a lifelong love of learning and of solving problems, and by embracing challenges with an open mind, and perhaps more importantly, with an open heart. Maintaining our non-research-oriented interests – whether gardening, cooking, parenting, playing poker, volunteering at a homeless shelter, attending the opera, or whatever – out of passion and curiosity may afford us the “peripheral vision” necessary to see interesting and fulfilling career opportunities that aren’t immediately obvious. (Following our bliss, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell, is the essence of the hero’s journey – and who doesn’t want to be a hero? Being a gainfully employed hero is even better, no?) And “networking,” it turns out, need not be a cynical endeavor about meeting others and staying in touch for one’s own benefit, but can instead be about connecting with different people of various backgrounds around the matters that matter to them, about listening to and caring about them, and working continuously to strengthen and cultivate those connections, those relationships, those friendships. In other words being a concerned, caring, and kind person can – in addition to being the right way to live – have career benefits.

I’m truly blessed to have been a part of this workshop from its beginnings and look forward to discovering where this road leads. Be seeing you on the scenic route!

Jason Mierek (“jack of all trades, master of Buddhist studies”) is the Director of Operations for the Humanities Without Walls consortium. He received his B.A. with a dual degree in religion and bio-social studies (a major he designed, combining biology, sociology, and anthropology) from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL, and earned his M.A. in Buddhist studies from The Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO. He subsequently completed coursework toward a PhD in Humanities, with an emphasis on Asian and comparative religion and philosophy, at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA under Dr. Steven D. Goodman. When he is not coordinating the myriad activities of the HWW consortium, he may be found reading omnivorously, puttering about in his gardens, fermenting various elixers and comestibles, composing surreal collages, singing with his band, and relaxing at home with his wife, teenage daughter, and dog Pugglesworth. He loves new challenges.