Chicago’s Alternative Academic Career Summer Workshop

Humanities Without Walls logo“Your dissertation has become a trade press blockbuster. It’s on a display table in the bookstore. What else is on that table?”

It is day 1 of a three-week workshop in Chicago, and Andrew Benedict-Nelson, from Greenhouse Consulting, is leading twenty-nine advanced PhD students in the humanities through some exercises designed to move the mental furniture around. Starting from their own work—he had boned up on the students’ dissertation projects—Benedict-Nelson (a former PhD student in the history of medicine) is getting everyone to take unlikely moves from their starting point. What would it mean for my book to be popular? (A big jump forward.) Then, what would popular mean—what’s on the table?—if my book is popular? (Now a jump sideways.) The exercise is like a knight’s move in chess. Suddenly, the horizon has changed.

Greenhouse is one of nearly thirty firms, foundations, consultancies, presses, museums, ad agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and individual entrepreneurs these students met, learned from, and worked with over the course of the Alternative Academic Career Summer Workshop for Pre-doctoral Students in the Humanities. The workshop is being run by the Chicago Humanities Festival on behalf of Humanities Without Walls (HWW), a Mellon-funded Consortium for the Humanities at fifteen midwestern universities. Alison Cuddy, associate artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, designed the workshop and is facilitating it with help from HWW.

We know humanities PhDs are some of the smartest, most agile thinkers in the world, who want to make meaningful contributions to their community in and well beyond the academy…

says Cuddy. “The workshop is designed to give them a sense of how they might do that, by exploring how they could operate in fields as diverse as design, advertising, consulting, museum curation or even careers they’ve yet to dream up, not merely as alternatives to academia, but as places deeply in need of their skills and intellect.”

Lateral thinking. Analysis. Communication. We have heard often enough about the usefulness and transferability of the kind of skills developed in advanced research in the humanities. And the workshop confirms such truths. But the workshop is not just about such general skills. It also demystifies career strategies for any line of work: better CV design, networking, social media strategy, pitching ideas, and so on. With almost daily field trips (to the Art Institute of Chicago, 1871 [a tech incubator], the Leo Burnett Ad Agency, and so on), the students have seen a lot of Chicago, as well as a lot of each other.

“As a doctoral student, out of necessity, you have to be committed to the daily practice of narrowing down your possibilities and interests in order to obtain your degree,” says the workshop participant Amina Hasan, a PhD student in philosophy at Penn State working on Levinas and political philosophy. “The workshops have facilitated a dialogue that not only opens back up the world of career possibilities but also [poses] the question of [the] purpose of the public intellectual.”

There is a lot of ferment right now around the phrase “public humanities,” both within universities and at a national level. The NEH, for example, recently announced a new public humanities initiative, Common Good. And there have been other workshops and labs dedicated to exploring this wider sense of the humanities in the world. But the Chicago workshop is unique in being a collaboration between a consortium of universities and a not-for-profit organization living wholly in the public arena. The Chicago Humanities Festival is the oldest and largest urban festival of arts and ideas in the country.

The workshop will be repeated in the summer of 2016, and there are plans afoot to extend it well beyond that.

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