On networking, collaboration, and empathy: a conversation with the AHA’s career diversity expert Dylan Ruediger

In the first cold months of 2020, Humanities for the Public Good will host two events that focus on networking and career diversity: our “Working Relationships” workshop on February 13th and “Historically Speaking,” an alumni event featuring History PhDs on February 24th. To help set the scene for these upcoming programming events, Mellon postdoctoral fellow Ashley Cheyemi McNeil interviewed Dylan Ruediger, coordinator of career diversity and institutional research at the American Historical Association. The following is the transcript of Ashley and Dylan’s conversation:

Okay, so can you give us a rundown of your work? To a person who has never explored Career Contacts or is familiar with the AHA, can you explain what you do there?

The Career Contacts program is part of the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative, which is oriented towards helping history departments offer a broader and deeper range of professionalization opportunities to their graduate students and to helping students prepare themselves for a range of career paths, whether that be inside or beyond the professoriate. Much of our work involves interfacing with faculty in history departments to help them think about their curriculum, their co-curricular offerings, and the experience that their students have while they’re in graduate school.

Career Contacts intersects with that broader work. One of the things that we’ve observed from our many conversations with graduate students and faculty is that graduate students sometimes need help doing the imaginative work of picturing themselves in a wide variety of professions. Graduate students often feel pressured to narrow their focus to a single career path. They benefit from opportunities to see the range of career options that are available to them and to recognize the scope, scale, and intensity of intellectual work and thought that goes on in all kinds of careers.

We also know that graduate students often come to graduate school with relatively limited professional networks. Even if they have an idea of something they’re interested in, they may not know how to connect with people doing that work and who can help them understand how to make the best use of their time in graduate school to end up working at a museum, a consulting firm, or what have you.

Career Contacts is an informational interviewing network. We have about 250 history PhDs, all of whom work as something other than tenure-track professors, who have made themselves available for conversations with graduate students in the history about what they do, how they found their job, and their experience in graduate school. Career Contacts is useful for people with a firm idea about jobs that interest them and for people who are just beginning to explore career paths. Since 2015, the program has arranged hundreds of informational interviews.

That’s interesting. So you kind of play matchmaker then, between your junior and senior contacts?

Yes, that’s right. Before they get matched with a senior contact, junior contacts speak either with me or my colleague, Chris Flanagan.

And so then based on the direction that you perceive during that conversation, you have this intuitive sense of who they might have a fruitful informational interview with?

Yeah, I listen very carefully as we talk about their work experiences in the past, the things they enjoy about graduate school, what being a historian means to them. I use the whole scope of the conversation to find someone for them to speak with who matches their interests as best I can. One of the things I pay particular attention to is what they enjoy. I find questions about joy and fulfillment to be consistently fruitful for thinking about the work environments people will find rewarding.

You’ve been in this work for quite some time, coordinating AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative and talking with so many grad students but also PhDs who are not in academia and carving their own paths outside. Now that you’ve been in this for a minute, what’s new? What have you learned and what has shifted even during your time of focusing in on career diversity for AHA?

That’s a really good question. I think that what I personally have learned is how integrated conversations about career outcomes are with the process of graduate education itself, how thinking about careers can provide a vantage point for thinking about the purpose of graduate school in general and about the place of the humanities in and outside of the academy. I’ve also been really impressed with how institutionally specific all of this is. We’re working closely right now with 20 programs very closely and since I started with the AHA have worked with about 40 schools. It’s remarkable to see how different the answers to questions about purpose and outcomes are at different institutions. Iowa’s answer is going to be different than Iowa State’s, let alone UC Davis, Georgia State, or Harvard. The different ways institutions and departments think about their own path through this is, I think, pretty exciting, but it also makes it pretty difficult to say “here’s a blueprint for how Career Diversity should work.”

Absolutely. I imagine that each program will have its own objective, its own mission, and its own opinion of what a PhD in history is supposed to mean in the world.

I agree. We encourage the people we work with to start with that question: what is the purpose of your PhD program. That can be an aspirational purpose, it can be a purpose that’s rooted in the actual outcomes of students. It hopefully will be an iterative questions that people return to as they do their work, but we think that’s an important question.

I’m very curious—you’ve mentioned how much you listen and focus in on asking students that you speak with about what they enjoy about their PhD work. I’ve been thinking a lot about where we do find pleasure in our academic work and what’s sustainable, emotionally and intellectually, in terms of these career opportunities that we might perceive for ourselves. I’m wondering, where do you find pleasure in your work? What do you come away with at the end of the day that fulfills you the most?

That’s another really good question. I think for me, the pleasure and the joy comes from two different things. One is that I am fascinated by how institutions work, and with understanding how change happens inside them. I have a deep emotional investment in higher education and in the humanities and in securing the place of the humanities in higher education. And I guess the more important answer, really, is that I like to help people. My job is about service.  It’s about enabling other people to do their work, helping graduate students be historians, find remunerative work, and feel a little bit more comfortable with what often feels like a very uncertain future. One of the great things that I’ve learned at the AHA is how Jim Grossman, our executive director, always greets people by asking “how can we help?” – There’s something very fulfilling about working for a place where that question drives what we do.

That was a beautiful answer. And it confirms for me it’s a conversation worth continuing to have with a whole host of folks. And it’s a nice segue, too. You have just defined your work, your most “nutritious” portions of your work, to be in service, and I think of that in terms of what we may understand the public good to be. You service many publics, right? But also, you are a champion for humanities in the world today. And I’m wondering, when you think about the public good today, how do you frame it in relation to the humanities?

In our society, empathy, understanding, and contextualization are in short supply. Humanists bring these things to the table, which is why the humanities are so important. To me, humanists serve the public good by spreading those ways of thinking and living as widely as possible. I think this intersects with career diversity. It’s a public good to have historians and literary scholars [and other humanists] in every conceivable nook and cranny in the economy because we need more empathetic, deep thinking people who are practiced in contextualizing what is going on and that kind of—I don’t know the way to describe it is—but the way the humanities reaches out to others . . . we just don’t have enough of that.

When you think about how most programs are set up right now, do you think that the curriculums and the pacing is fashioned in such a way to support empathetic endeavors?

Yes. Because I think that’s one of the main things that humanists learn how to do. But graduate programs haven’t always encouraged students to practice those skills outside their narrow academic context. There are numerous exceptions to this and there’s a lot of really good, public-facing humanist work that faculty do, that humanities centers are involved with, and that graduate students do. But we still need to do better.

So, then if you could insert a course into any graduate program, whether it’s like a Humanities for the Public Good program that we’re conceiving at UIowa right now, or it’s a well-established history PhD program, what would that course be in terms of what we just talked about in terms of cultivating empathy and being in service to multiple publics?

That’s a tough one. This is one of those questions that depends a lot on the idiosyncrasies of particular departments. But I think I would start with courses that promote collaboration, and in particular collaboration with people who aren’t other students or faculty inside the department. Communicating and collaborating with people who are positioned differently in the world is such an important professional skill and it can help it be easier to see how many different careers offer opportunities to think historically and engage in meaningful, intellectually consequential work. Collaboration also promotes the empathy and understanding I was talking about earlier.

I want to be respectful of your time, so we’ll make this our last question. So, I remember back at GSU when you put together one of our alumni panels, many years ago now, and you moderated it. One of the last questions that you posed to the panel was “What does it mean to be a humanist in the 21st Century?” And I’m wondering if I can reflect that back to you, all these years later, and if maybe you could reckon with that question a bit now?

It’s hard to say for sure because it’s changing really quickly right now, right? I think the main mindsets that humanists bring to what they do – the ability to be empathetic, to think in context, and to reach out to others – will endure, but we are increasingly recognizing that it happens in many places. If I were to ask that question again today, I’d probably phrase it a little bit differently. I think I would ask the panelists what it means to them, personally, to be a humanist. Because I don’t know that that kind of generic framing I used back then was really the right one. At the AHA we often ask people how can you be a historian in this job? What does it mean to you to be a historian? And I think that’s especially the more generative question. How are you a historian rather than what is a historian, generically.

Transcription by Torie Burns