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 project manager 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. When he is not coordinating the myriad activities of the HWW consortium, he may be found reading omnivorously, puttering about in his vegetable garden, fermenting various elixers and comestibles, composing surreal collages, singing with the band Foreign Accent, and relaxing at home with his wife, teenage daughter, and dog Pugglesworth. He loves learning new things and skills.


Reflections from Around the Web

Below is a list of articles by the 2015 alt ac pre-doctoral summer workshop fellows and participants about the workshops that have been published elsewhere on the web.

Brian Sarnacki’s Website
Fellow Brian Sarnacki wrote multiple posts about the workshop on his own blog.

“Majeed Cares: On Giving a Damn” by Meghan Forbes for the Michigan Quarterly Review
Fellow Meghan Forbes writes a monthly piece about museums for the Michigan Quarterly Review. In August she wrote about Faheem Majeed’s solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which she visited with the rest of the Alt Ac workshop fellows.

“Chicago’s Alternative Academic Career Summer Workshop for Pre-Doctoral Students in the Humanities” by Jonathan Elmer for Connected Academics. 
Jonathan Elmer, Marilynn Thoma Artistic Director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, wrote a piece about the workshops for the MLA Commons blog.


Tracking your Network

If you are planning on making the transition away from the academy, now is a great time to begin to build or continue to strengthen your ever-growing network.

But, wait, you say. I don’t have much of a network outside the university… apart from a few peers who landed less-than-illustrious adjunct positions (with a great deal of effort) and a few others who went off to who knows where.

In actuality, you have more of a network than you think, and better now than later in terms of getting started. First thing, get out a spread sheet (or any other organizational device) and start tracking who you meet and where, who they are, what happened during your brief conversation. What’s more, you should keep a note of whether you sent a thank you note, what next steps you’re hoping to take, and – here’s the real kicker – put in a date when you plan to follow-up.

Thinking back on my academic career, there’s only been one follow-up that I have ever done. One. After the Dean at the Graduate College I attend had given me a scholarship to study for a semester, a standard Graduate Fellowship, I wrote to update him. It was painless, quick, and easy. So why haven’t I done that with all the other interesting and potentially helpful people that are in my network? I didn’t think that they would be interested in hearing what I was up to. After all, they are the president of a company, or a visiting lecturer, or the leader of a conference. The Dean made sense because he is the Dean of my Graduate College. Here’s the thing about networking -you have to stay in touch. You need to let people know what you’ve been up to. And without bragging (because that’s just annoying) you need to tell them what you’ve accomplished. Stay on their radar, so to speak.

Erica Damman received her B.F.A in Sculpture from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, and earned her M.F.A in Sculpture from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is currently pursuing an Interdisciplinary Ph.D in Environmental Humanities. As an artist and researcher her work explores creativity as a way of engaging environmental questions. Of particular interest is the way in which an interdisciplinary approach, blending sciences, history, narratives, and aesthetics, can be used to reach and affect a diverse public. Her favorite projects are artworks that remain attentive to nonhuman actors, as well as works that cartwheel with scientific knowledge in unusual and visually compelling ways.

Humanities Without Walls: Realizing You’re a Diver

The first day, we sat in a room in downtown Chicago, exchanging pleasantries about who we are, where we had come from, and what we studied. The conversation clips sounded like, “I study 19th Century British Lit as it pertains to late-avant-garde dance rituals”* or “I study in Nebraska but am currently doing my research in Peru on the history of immigrant education in post-war Europe” or “I am an artist by training, studying in the Interdisciplinary PhD program at Iowa, where I focus on the intersection between aesthetics and environmental awareness”**

Our conversations were cut short as the first speaker, Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Greenhouse, was introduced. This is how I remember a story that Mr. Nelson shared:

If you were to describe your particular set of experiences and skills that you gathered during your years in the academy, it might go something like this – you’d say, I’m an expert on coral and fish because I dove hundreds of times to research them. But an outsider may not see you as being an expert on a specific coral or fish, but rather you are an expert in diving.

Humanities, Mr. Nelson continued, give us access to how we think about things. Humanities are adept at giving us insight into the unknown, allowing us to make decisions in the face of the unknown. Having an advanced degree in the Humanities also means that you have dived deeper – in short, the deeper you go, the better you are at navigating the unknown. Finally, the Humanities are a valuable method for attacking problems of unknown concern.

Here’s a shameless confession: I come out the arts, I am an environmental activist, and I entered the PhD program because I love learning, wanted to go much further in my research, and because I thought that the PhD would help me land a job in academia. Then, the longer I have been in academia, the more I am seeing that it isn’t a great fit, for a variety of reasons. I applied to this workshop because I was against a wall, I kept asking myself: WHY would I do all of this work (which I am very privileged to be able to pursue), if it doesn’t lead anywhere? Why not just get out now, be done being a student, and get on with my life?

You’re an expert in diving. Such a simple story, and yet I sat there and realized that the HWW workshop would be the beginning of radical redefinition of myself, how I self-identify, and how I project my expertise outside the academy. Seeing myself as an expert in diving suddenly allowed me to own my graduate experience and research as something valuable outside the particular research topic. For me, identifying as a good diver has helped me to begin thinking about expanded career options because diving, and being really good at diving deep, may indeed be a valuable (read: marketable) skill after all. And the why, why continue, why do all this work, can be rethought too. So, welcome to the Humanities Without Walls workshop and cheers to diving!

*All of these are somewhat fictitious, but if you know anything about the extreme specialization of dissertations, you’ll recognize the format.
**This last one is a version of my own introduction that first day.

Erica Damman received her B.F.A in Sculpture from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, and earned her M.F.A in Sculpture from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is currently pursuing an Interdisciplinary Ph.D in Environmental Humanities. As an artist and researcher her work explores creativity as a way of engaging environmental questions. Of particular interest is the way in which an interdisciplinary approach, blending sciences, history, narratives, and aesthetics, can be used to reach and affect a diverse public. Her favorite projects are artworks that remain attentive to nonhuman actors, as well as works that cartwheel with scientific knowledge in unusual and visually compelling ways.

A New Research Project

Last Friday, after a full week of Humanities Without Walls Alt-Ac Workshop, I felt my head was spinning with so much information and insight from a vast, incredible wealth of resources.  I was sure my head was going to spin off that evening.  When it didn’t, I figured it would on Saturday, but I didn’t really mind (!) as long as I was sleeping.

It’s difficult to explain this exhaustion without sounding like I’m complaining. Part of the exhaustion was from the sheer volume of information shared with us.  In one week, so many industries were introduced to me that I hadn’t ever considered as possible career destinations (e.g., design consulting, healthcare technology), and I also reconsidered industries I already knew about in a new light (e.g. press, higher ed admin, tech).  Another source of the exhaustion was realizing that I wasn’t “just” a graduate student, but rather a competent thinker, writer, and teacher with a variety of experience.  It also seemed to me that not having time to reflect was causing me some stress.  After each presentation or field trip, I was a little frustrated because I felt unable answer any questions I thought I should be able to answer: I didn’t know whether I could see myself in any particular industry or job; I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I didn’t know what my core values and skills were, and what industry or job would appreciate both of those.

One way to explain this workshop is to highlight what it is not meant to do — it is not meant to give us a menu of options* from which to pick our future form of employment (although that doesn’t seem like an implausible outcome).  After some group discussions, I’ve found that the best way to think about the workshop for me is to think of it as acquiring the most powerful toolbox of resources currently available to any humanities grad student interested in nonacademic work**, so that we can go answer a series of The Ultimate Research Questions: What is the value of my advanced humanities degree?  What contributions can I make to which industry?  What impact do I want to make?  What do I want to do for a living?  The HWW workshop, as I see it, is intended to help us approach these questions in the spirit of humanistic inquiry.  These questions are complex, multifaceted, and nuanced in different ways for each of us, and the workshop programming encourages us to use our skills, developed and sharpened in our humanities doctoral programs, to approach them as such.

So of course it made sense that I was exhausted — I was starting to think about all of this the wrong way, that there are existing answers to these difficult questions.  But consider the questions we ask in our dissertations.  Of course the specific argument that we are going to defend doesn’t already exist before we start the project.  If it did, proposals would be perfect outlines for the final dissertation!  Yet we are told, “It’s all gonna change, anyway.”  The dissertation wouldn’t take years to shape, remold as necessary, and continue reshaping.  Likewise, in this workshop we are doing the research, acquiring tools and resources along the way, to begin crafting an answer to these important questions about ourselves and our lives.

Though the following may sound like a cautious suggestion, it is meant more as an observation.  Having never been on the academic job market, I don’t know a whole lot about it.  But there seems to be a general formula with a dash of magic involved: send your application — writing sample, teaching portfolio, and letters — to a zillion places, and then pray for divine winds to blow your way.  Perhaps ask yourself, Why did I pick academia?  But out of despair, and not as a refreshing reminder of your intellectual curiosity and love of learning.  The HWW workshop, I’m finding, is a place where I am constantly asking and re-asking myself why I chose to study philosophy in the first place; what my close family and friends think of my research and teaching (if anything!)***; why I’m in this workshop to begin with; what the value of my dissertation work is.  I should keep asking these questions each day, noting when the answers change or differ.  They treat this ultimate research project of what I want to do and what my value is in this world seriously, as a string of related, complex, and dynamic questions.  I must say that the academic job search process doesn’t impress me as valuing this kind of humanistic inquiry, so crucial to any humanities study at an advanced level.  But I’m certain I’ve I found a fine place that does and a group of brilliant scholars who are helping me get my new research project started.

*This phrasing and thought comes from one of our wise programmers and workshop guides, but also a kindred spirit, Ian Blechschmidt.
**I arrogantly decided this is the case because if there were a workshop as great or greater than ours, I’m sure I would have heard about it already.
**Many thanks to independent scholar and writer, Garnette Cadogan, for trying to ease our anxieties and for reminding us to value the input of our friends and family, who are overlooked but natural resources for career advice.

Kei Hotoda is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Her research focuses on self-understanding, particularly by examining its absence and redevelopment in the context of oppressive and traumatic circumstances.  To develop her view of self-understanding, she draws on moral, social and political philosophy, philosophy of the self, fiction, and the psychological effects of sexual assault.  During her graduate career, Kei has also developed a strong interest and enjoyment in teaching philosophy to undergraduate students and is often thinking about how to better engage students in class.  In her spare time, she enjoys baseball, reads Japanese modern history and fiction set in Japan, watches detective shows as well as Japanese television shows to help keep up with her Japanese language skills, and loves hanging out with her dog, Mitsu.