Jane Greenway Carr spent two years as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and contributing editor at the Washington, DC think tank New America. After her fellowship, Carr joined CNN Digital as an opinion editor. In an interview about her experience as a fellow, Carr tells ACLS how she came to see her doctoral training as an asset to a career in the news business.
ACLS: How did you come to pursue a non-academic career?
JC: To a great extent, my work as a writer and editor always influenced my academic pursuits, so it didn’t seem unnatural to work the other way, to bring my academic training to a more non-academic career trajectory. I’ve always been interested in how reading matters in different cultural contexts, and how the study of media histories and print cultures can open up new literary publics for scrutiny. For example, my dissertation was a study of how editorial work shaped women’s participation in social and political reform movements in the late 19th and early 20th century United States (from suffrage cookbooks to activist anthologies). Additionally, while writing that dissertation, I founded a nonprofit - a digital magazine of literature and public ideas called The Brooklyn Quarterly (which I continue to edit) whose mission is to spotlight ways in which literature and cultures of reading are central to everyday life. When I was teaching undergraduates at NYU, I encouraged them to engage literature, cultural history, and criticism on their own terms and via a variety of platforms.
Because I had always approached academia as an enterprise with public stakes, I was passionate and well-prepared when the opportunity arose to apply my skills in journalism as well. Academia and media make a productive combination!
ACLS: There were a number of placement opportunities available the year you applied. What drew you to the New America Foundation?
JC: I was already familiar with New America on a number of fronts before I applied. First, I had attended extremely well-curated public discussions and events at New America NYC toward the end of my time in graduate school. Those events were always packed and featured a compelling mix of academic, artistic, political, and policy voices. Second, because of my overlapping interests in media and journalism as fields that influenced and were influenced by academia, I was incredibly passionate about one its founding precepts, “to nurture a new generation of public intellectuals.”
As I researched the institution during the application process, I grew even more excited about the position. It was admittedly challenging on my end to imagine how someone trained as a literary historian might fit in among policy wonks, but the more I read about New America, the more I realized they – like me – were interested in how storytelling and big ideas could drive policy conversations, not the other way around. Applying to New America was a risk for someone with my background; there were other positions that seemed a better fit for me on paper. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get involved with efforts to transform policy and engage cultural criticism at the same time. Ultimately, I came to believe that my more unorthodox approach could provide a fresh perspective among an already-polyphonic community; happily, that instinct paid off.
ACLS: Name three aspects of your doctoral studies – or skills that you learned there – that were most useful during your time as a fellow.
JC: I’ve talked to other Public Fellows in my own cohort and beyond, and I think one answer to this question we would all give is some version of intellectual self-confidence – whether that manifests in research tenacity, willingness to take on new projects knowing we can figure out what we don’t know as we go, or a capacity to synthesize and communicate complex ideas effectively and independently on deadline. I’m no different. At New America, a large part of my job was to conceptualize, commission, and edit accessible policy journalism from writers ranging from program assistants to senior analysts; most of that work emerged from self-initiated conversations with people who were more expert than I about any number of things. New America is a community of breathtaking intellectual diversity, and while I would never delude myself into thinking that I could know or understand the nuances of everyone’s projects, I do have a lot of experience seeking out and facilitating productive intellectual exchange in a community of experts from a range of fields beyond my own. I think anyone with a background in humanities and social sciences who has taken rich advantage of the intellectual communities available at the department, field, and online level would be able to claim similar skills. I’m less scared to volunteer for something that requires me to teach myself (or get someone else to teach me) on the fly than I ever would have been before getting my PhD. I’m also much more willing to advocate for my own ideas, and more effective at pitching them.
I’ve alluded to this already, but a comfort with and passion for interdisciplinary collaboration was also a key skill honed during graduate study that I relied on again and again at New America. Everyone always says they want to collaborate; very few people know how to do it effectively without allowing it to take up all the space in their day. In the think tank and nonprofit world, lots of things start with an idea that someone builds up – and finds money, support, and publicity for – from scratch. Graduate students – especially if their course of study crosses lines of department or discipline, or if they have archive savvy, or if they are particularly creative teachers (or all of the above!) – have to do this to be successful.
One skill I developed in graduate school – but only a little bit – was really crucial during the second year of my ACLS fellowship, and that’s grant-writing. During the second year, I took on an additional role as a fellow in one of New America’s policy programs, and wrote some or all of a number of grant proposals, reports, and applications. I can’t stress enough how widely important it is to be able to do that. Applying for academic jobs and fellowships is an important preparation; it readies you for the planning, lead-time, revising, and research required for all kinds of grants. But knowing now what I wish I’d known then, I’d advocate that every single PhD program require some kind of training in grant-writing across the academic and nonprofit sectors for its doctoral students’ professional development. It’s so important.
My answers here also take a lot of skills for granted – communication, digital literacy (or at least curiosity and willingness to learn – it’s not like I’m an expert coder by any means!), and competence with a lot of office-based and organizational tools. I’d say that graduate school, while it didn’t exactly impart those skills in my case, definitely enhanced them.
ACLS: What was your biggest accomplishment at New America?
JC: I’m proud of all the work I did at New America editing its weekly digital magazine (then called the Weekly Wonk, now titled the New America Weekly), working closely with our production and design team, and editing and placing op-eds and feature articles in publications ranging from the Atlantic to National Review, but I would point to two accomplishments. In fielding pitches, assigning pieces, and pitching writers on newsworthy topics for the Weekly, I harnessed and expanded my network of engaging writers from the worlds of publishing, academia, politics, public policy, cultural criticism and grassroots activism. When I came to New America, Medium was looking to expand its offerings to nonprofits and think tanks, and it was a platform well-suited to my interest in creating a writing space for New America’s staff (and other writers) to explore the intersection between policy and culture. I devised the editorial strategy, executed the launch, and oversaw the operations of Context, New America’s publication on Medium. I created the tag line, “where new voices come together to advance big ideas,” and worked to make the publication relevant internally (by cultivating pieces individually with authors) and externally (by getting pieces syndicated to national outlets).
I’m also proud of the articles I wrote and got published during my time at New America. Not just because of the bylines or the placements, but also because I really got to flex my intellectual capacities as a scholar and as a young journalist. I covered events, but I also got to pitch stories as diverse as “how science fiction could change the world” or “what a newly-discovered story by W.E.B. Du Bois tells us about Afrofuturism” or “what it means that Nike’s making women’s jerseys in men’s sizes” that allowed me to bring my academic background into the journalistic arena in fun and new ways. I call it being a “humanities practitioner.” Now I know that academic backgrounds can matter in cool ways in a quick turnaround world where research and reporting are coveted skills. My first peer-reviewed article took three years in the pipeline before it was published; my article on Du Bois and Afrofuturism took days and generated far more notice (for me and for the young scholars who discovered his short story in the archives – I’m proud of that part too).
ACLS: What was the most challenging part of your job?
JC: There are a lot of answers to this question. Most of the challenges were productive even as I grappled (sometimes awkwardly) to address them. Learning a new set of vocabulary to understand and describe the work I was doing, struggling to connect with writers and younger colleagues outside a classroom context, finding new ways to learn from colleagues and mentors. The first year of the fellowship, I spent a lot of time trying to carve out space for myself in an institution that was used to having its own fellows, not necessarily hosting another kind of fellow who is also a staff member. But that legwork paid off; having to reflect so critically on my role in the organization empowered me to ask for a new role in the second year. That new role – as a fellow in the Better Life Lab (formerly the Breadwinning & Caregiving Program) – was by far the biggest challenge for me at New America. It was my first hands-on experience in social policy, with a program that has a strong journalistic focus on using storytelling to transform policy and culture when it comes to gender equality and work and family.
ACLS: How did your fellowship experience at New America prepare you for your new position as an opinion editor at CNN Digital?
JC: All of the time I’d spent talking with reporters, policy analysts, and academics affiliated with New America really helped. Not only did I have a robust sense of how my academic background fit in with the general projects of policy journalism and social and cultural commentary, I also had detailed examples and role models for how other thinkers (from within and outside the university) had approached working in media.
Skills-wise, reaching into my network of potential writers (drawn from academia and The Brooklyn Quarterly as well as my time at New America) on deadline to commission and edit creatively-angled pieces was something I’d already done at New America. At CNN, I do it on a much faster pace and larger public scale that’s tied more closely to the news cycle. Editorial curation – something I studied quite closely as a scholar – is a huge part of what I do now. What should readers hear informed argument about, and who has the best and sharpest voice to offer on that topic? It’s a hands-on, can-do environment – almost like designing and implementing a new syllabus every single day.
I think my experience highlights something that’s especially noteworthy for academics looking to branch out. We often have the skills to be superlative colleagues, but that isn’t always clear on paper to someone reading our CV or resume. Because I had worked closely with editors at CNN (and Slate and The Atlantic and elsewhere) and they knew I could do the work, things that might feel like liabilities on my CV – or at least like irrelevant details – became assets to potential employers. No one asked, “could someone with a PhD and not a journalism degree really do this job?” because they’d already seen firsthand that I could do it. Instead of being a liability, my role as an academic then became a platform for doing the work that other applicants might not have. The Public Fellows program was critical to making that possible.
ACLS: What advice would you give to a humanities PhD who is interested in pursuing a non-academic career?
JC: Just because you’ve trained to be a specialist doesn’t mean you don’t have skills to offer in a generalist world. Make a list of everything you’ve ever done during graduate school – research, class projects, syllabi, events or colloquia you’ve planned, independent projects you’ve conceived (even the rejects!), conferences, blog posts, tweets, encounters with senior colleagues. Hold on to it for later – it contains a litany of marketable skills if you know how to analyze it. Do the same with all the people – fellow grad students, junior and senior faculty at other institutions, conference contacts, archivists, program directors, and media contacts – you’ve worked with. Those relationships will matter; cultivate them and stay in touch. Social media (when used judiciously) can be an excellent way for you to keep up and “check in” with folks. Even though I’m not at a university, staying in touch is crucial for my job. I want to know what the thinkers I admire are writing and talking about and I often use Facebook and Twitter for this purpose – and to let them know that folks in media are thinking about those things and are interested in their perspective.
Also, think about how (and where and to whom) you want your work to matter. Increasingly these days, a non-academic career and an academic one don’t have to be totally either-or. There’s a growing recognition that the university and the public realms have mutual interests and overlapping possibilities. With that said, you still need a job, and the question is – where do you most want to concentrate your efforts? Because I believe that academics writing for a broader audience serve a public good and provide intellectual value in their own fields, I embrace my new place in a more accessible arena (even when I have to edit stories that don’t fulfill such lofty ideals).
Finally, while you’re still a student, take opportunities that will enrich you as a scholar and a job candidate even if you’re not 100% positive where they’ll lead you (or whether or not you want a job in academia). I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to focus on finishing your dissertation or to be strategic and organized about how to spend your time. But if an opportunity comes up to work with someone great or be part of an outside project that lights you up, take it – or create your own. These “side-hustles” do more than make you employable outside the academic market – they can also distinguish you if you stay on it. Be ready to get new experiences and skills in unexpected ways and remain open to success looking different than you thought it might when you entered your program.
ACLS: What advice would you give to an applicant to the Public Fellows program?
JC: It’s a hard process in some ways because you can only apply to one position! Whichever one you choose, start thinking of yourself now as a potential member of a community – your own cohort and other cohorts of Fellows. We are a resource for each other (and I hope will continue to be so). Don’t be afraid to reach out to us if you have questions. We haven’t all had the same experience and can’t speak to your specific position of course, but I know I got great advice from previous fellows and am more than willing to answer questions too.
As you would do (or already have done) for the academic job market, start developing a vocabulary that feels natural to you about how you want to talk about your academic work and your career goals. It’s not that dissimilar to pitching your dissertation at a conference cocktail party, but you want to have your elevator speech ready. Not because anyone will ask you to give it (they probably won’t) but because doing the work of developing it on the front end will make your application process and your integration process at your host institution much easier.
The fellowship can be more like your academic life than you think in one particular way: it’s largely self-directed. Most employees don’t get the opportunity to discuss, analyze, and reflect on their professional development with a supervisor and a mentor. You may have a lot more room to maneuver than your colleagues at your host institution. When you’re looking at the list of positions, don’t just apply for the position that sounds most suited to your skill set (though obviously, do pay attention to that too). In the non-academic world, supervisors and mentors can change – people take new jobs or change priorities on a less yearly or semesterly timetable than in academia. So you should also think about your potential stake in the organization overall. What kind of work does it do and where do you want to fit in? Given your chance (and you may well get one – I did!) to take on additional responsibility beyond the job description, what would you want to do there?
Find out more about the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program here.