On Interning in the Humanities, Whitney DeVos

December 02, 2014

Graduate student Whitney DeVos

Thanks to the supportive and forward-thinking people in the UCSC Graduate Division, I spent August and September 2014 holding an incredibly rewarding short-term research position at UCHRI, UC’s system-wide humanities research institute housed at UC Irvine. During these two, too-short, incredibly memorable and thought-provoking months, I explored the possibilities of what it meant to hold a “graduate internship” in the form of a publicly-funded non-teaching research position in the humanities—an opportunity that provided me with valuable experience working within an organization whose primary goal is to further cutting-edge multi- and interdisciplinary research in my primary field. 

With a sweeping view from UC Irvine’s incomparable Humanities Gateway Building, my first ever private office—complete with drool-worthy Mac products and Kava and other humane calming teas in the desk drawer—quickly became, to my own surprise, difficult to leave. From this incredibly gorgeous and well-stocked office, the conference rooms closeby, the screens of campus-to-campus conference calls, and of course, by the water cooler and espresso machine, I was given the chance to observe firsthand the inner workings—from its congenial politics to its lively, intellectually-stimulating office culture—of all the system-wide humanities research institute has to offer. I also had the opportunity to explore, if, regretfully, only temporarily, the unique and enviable experience of having a boss who is not only an exceptional administrator but also holds a PhD in the humanities: I worked under the grace, guidance, and aesthetic of the inimitable Kelly Brown, also a UCSC Literature PhD, currently UCHRI’s Research Projects Manager and the person responsible for its eye-catching design materials, high-quality academic and public events, and forward-thinking initiatives—including the “Humanities Studio,” a new and innovative, method of doing inter- and multidisciplinary research which debuted as extraordinarily successful during the RIDAGA project (see http://ridaga.uchri.org/what-is-a-humanities-studio/). 

Yet “boss” is a crass and insufficient word to describe a person who became, very quickly, an invaluable mentor, one who I learned much from, admire deeply and have missed thinking alongside each day since returning to Academic Year 2014-15. Perhaps the most valuable opportunity UCHRI presented was the ability to see Kelly as a “Humanist @ Work”; watching and learning from Kelly’s thoughtful approach to her position in the public sphere and its associated responsibilities, to see how her daily approaches were informed and indeed framed by the knowledge and expertise gained from obtaining a humanities PhD, was both invigorating and inspiring. 

Though we never talked about this curious word “boss,” Kelly and I consistently paid close and careful attention to what kind of language we were using when envisioning novel concepts or interrogating the limitations of existing ones, such as “alt-ac.” These conversations also included the official title my pilot position at UCHRI. As Kelly notes in her own reflective post (She blogged about her end of the experience here), the title wavered between Graduate Research Assistantship and Intern, both of which we found dissatisfying. When an employment position is labeled as an ‘internship,’ even if it’s paid, it’s usually difficult to get beyond the cultural stigmas associated with the term. A typical intern’s tasks often include things like making copies, running errands (especially for someone else’s coffee), entering data in spreadsheets; in short, doing the boring, menial tasks a supervisor has deemed beneath his or her position. Based on the intern program projects document that I received before I arrived, I was expecting many of these stereotypical duties to make up the majority of my summer position. However, I was happy to discover that my expectations surrounding this short, temporary position at UCHRI were, for the most part, unfulfilled. 

I did, in fact, do some (very infrequent) copying and worked a bit in Excel, but the majority of my time at UCHRI was spent doing the intellectual work of reimagining of received categories and concepts, as well as the translational/communicative/HR work of “packaging” these burgeoning idea in a way that is appealing and interesting to specific audiences. Though much of this work was independent, a majority of the projects assigned to me involved working with one or two other people, providing the opportunity to collaborate with others to achieve a particular outcome. In the several weeks I spent at UCHRI, I felt privileged to work and think alongside Kelly, Suedine, James, Arielle, David, Ahn, and Anna, who all made me feel like a member of permanent staff, even though my position was from its outset (quite) temporary. 

During my time at UCHRI, I completed several short-term projects for UCHRI’s many initiatives. A few highlights include: writing interview questions for the Religious in Diaspora and Global Affairs (RIDAGA) humanities studio participants; authoring a multi-campus, inter-disciplinary working group call for proposals designed for UC graduate students; compiling a list of recent UC graduate students who have completed PhDs in the humanities and are currently working in positions other than college level teaching; participating in planning meetings and helping to conceptualize panels for the forthcoming graduate event surrounding alt-/trans-academic careers; building the website related to a related initiative (see some fruits of this labor here, in a blog post authored by yours truly, based on extensive research and readings in “alt-ac,” white papers on the future of the humanities, and my own personal experience as a humanities doctoral student: http://humwork.uchri.org/12-step-program-advice-from-a-doctoral-student-part-i/); assisting in coordinating logistics surrounding the RIDAGA event; and, finally, interviewing Kelly for a segment of her “Stories from the Field” initiative. 

Though I spend a considerable amount of time, energy, and care on each, I worked through these and many projects relatively quickly. Because I think of myself as a slow worker, this came much to my own surprise, especially at first, but I quickly came to realize that completing projects, especially intellectually challenging and stimulating ones, is a fantastic, ecstatic feeling, one many of us pursuing long-term degrees must often forgo. Finishing each assignment or enterprise allowed me to look back on the endeavor as an accomplishment, and I appreciated the opportunity to revel in tangible outcomes: having them is quite different from the long-term, delayed-gratification work that is done during a humanities PhD program. Finishing things for once felt good, so I tried to finish as many things as I could as quickly as I could. This, as Kelly notes, made me quite a productive worker.

Yet another less-glamorous reason that accounts for my productivity was my constant anxiety around whether or not I was actually “doing my job” well, especially since I’d been out of the office environment for so long. Before entering my current degree program, I’d worked as an adjunct, a tutor, a free-lance editor, and a craft beer bar server, so, with the exception of a 3 month internship with a small poetry press, I hadn’t worked in an office setting since I was an undergraduate on work study with a position answering phones in the career center at my college (a position that also lacked tangible outcomes and permitted doing homework while on the clock).

It took some time to adjust to the nature of a “9-5” (i.e. simply sitting in one place for periods of time longer than a 3 hour graduate seminar--the horror!). For me much of this adjusting was also bound up with the fear that I might be treating work like school, which I’ve read (while, in fact, doing research on #alt-ac) is a common faux pas for humanities PhDs transitioning into non-academic or para-academic positions. I was worried that, even though my hours were largely set (though flexible), that I was actually “setting my own hours” within my set hours. I know this sounds ridiculous. What I mean is that I would allow myself (consciously or otherwise) to “take breaks” from my projects but without really keeping track of how long those breaks were, or even if they ought to qualify as a break or not. 

This is in part because sometimes it’s difficult for me to distinguish between research for UCHRI and my own personal interests, and the areas in which these two might overlap. During a project that required me to spend a lot of time looking at LinkedIn profiles, I’d wonder, in the midst of finding myself updating my LinkedIn profile: am I slacking off? Another time, I used Facebook to crowdsource information from UC students in order to generate a list of public intellectuals to target for a panel at the #alt/trans-ac event. While updating my status, my eyes briefly glanced upon an interesting-looking poem on my newsfeed. Is clicking on that link and reading that poem considered slacking off? If I clicked on and read two more poems beyond that initial poem, that certainly qualifies as slacking off, right? 

My position was not solely a research position, but research was a primary component of many of the projects I’ve been assigned. I had moments like the two above regularly, and worried that taking particular internet rabbit holes resulted in me “slacking off,” or not “doing my job.” At least one time I found myself reading book reviews for a scholarly monograph on Haitian voodoo, and this was before I was assigned the project of searching for UC scholars interested in mortality. I felt a pang of intense guilt. I felt that I was abusing my very privileged position by using time I was “on the clock” to pursue my own strange intellectual whims. Yet these moments were incredibly useful in helping me reflect upon what, exactly, I’m interested in studying in graduate school. During one of my “breaks,” I even designed an entire syllabus for a course on “docupoetics” that I have submitted to my department along with a request to teach my own course. A tangible outcome, indeed!

Seeing all the ways in which “work” informed “research” and vice versa allowed me to reflect on the benefits of applying my intensive humanities training outside of the traditional career sphere of the R-1 professorship. Humanities scholars know there is much to be done “out there in the world”—we spend our careers diagnosing the limitations and shortcomings of contemporary society, its institutions and its discourses. What would it look like if “we” applied our training in venues in the non-academic and/or para-academic workplace, offering our rigorous perspectives and expertise alongside legislative policy and decision-makers, lobbyists, non-profit and cultural administrators? What would it look like to have a president with a PhD in History—or Literature, for that matter? If the governor had a PhD in Education or Feminist Studies? A lawyer with a Phd in Philosophy or Sociology? I am skeptical of alt-ac, in part because I think it is sometimes a discourse fraught with neoliberalist solutions to grave structural problems; however, my time at UCHRI gave me the opportunity to see and experience what it might be like to take a graduate-level humanities education, and use it to inform one's daily work. My relationship with UCHRI was entirely symbiotic. 

I am deeply appreciative of the experience, and for the mentorship and guidance of Kelly in particular. With her support, I honed and developed new and emerging talents, while I felt my scholarly training and skills were valued and appreciated. Most importantly, I could see how they made a significant difference in the way many of the projects were approached at UCHRI; I imagined this would be the case for any humanities graduate student, and any organization, given a similar opportunity to train and utilize a humanities graduate student.

Whitney DeVos is a third year PhD student in Literature at UC Santa Cruz, where she studies 20th and 21st century poetry and poetics.