I’m thankful to join other PhDs At Work guest bloggers of a year (and more) ago in giving an update on my career since I wrote. That’s because these check-ins will highlight a truth about all careers–they do change with the times! And hopefully the people in them grow and change too; I hope I have.
One thing I’ve been required to add to my skill set at the Council can be summed up, over-broadly of course, as “dealing with adversity.” Honing skills like breaking bad news, managing the team’s expectations, and switching gears from government-level advocacy to private fundraising is not particularly easy to balance with other leadership requirements like a positive attitude, the ability to tell the story of the work in an attractive way, and the need to keep up morale for the entire organization. All non-profits have gone through tough times since the recession; for our public humanities shop, the most recent cycle of adversity began after 2010 with attacks within Congress (which controls our largest piece of funding through the National Endowment for the Humanities) on the budgets of agencies that help history, the arts, the humanities, public broadcasting, and even museums & libraries. Champions on the pro- side of these battles focused heavily on STEM, effectively leaving the humanities in a lonely spot.
One of my responses to the vulnerability of the humanities during this season of attacks has been to work very intently on joining the different layers of humanities practice more closely together. Part creating opportunities, part seizing them; but all involved broaching the idea of partnership with much bigger players than our Council. Networking, if you will, with a national purpose–I felt I needed to help keep amplifying the message of why we need the humanities in our national life. “#humanitiesmatter,” as one of our staff members coined it over Twitter. Could those of us who care about this get a virtuous cycle moving this message upward, linking Congress, Federal agencies, private foundations, companies and corporations, humanities researchers and innovators, and (speaking of big players) universities? What steeled us in the state councils movement was the experience-based belief that the public humanities offer skills, experiences, and whole swaths of the public that are missing from traditional humanities practices at the university. And many of those other players felt that the predicament for the humanities was such that they felt they ought to give that claim some consideration.
Here’s a jointly sponsored event one of those new partnerships led to: The rare appearance of Retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter, speaking in defense of the humanities.
And here is another that will interest readers of PhDs At Work: Our Humanities Centers Initiative.
Multiply my story across all the advocates for the humanities, the public humanities, and the endowments for the arts and the humanities, and you may have a sense of how the outcome of this year’s federal allocation process ended with Congress giving those agencies a level of funding with the prior cut restored (!) and cited the work of the state humanities councils.
Have I doubted myself and my abilities through the changes I just described? Yes I have. Did I feel my PhD in a humanities field prepared me for such a thing? No, in some ways of course not–I never had to design a cash flow projection in grad school. But in other ways, absolutely, yes. I am used to being in a lonely spot. I am used to having my sanity questioned for plugging ahead. My insistence and passion for the cause can make for a rough ride for my direct reports and closest collaborators on the board, but I am grateful to have a team in a way that really quite surpasses the collaborations that were possible in my academic life.
Start from the beginning – Read Sara Ogger’s “Week in the Life”