Working in the Humanities

In January 2022, Teresa Mangum and Luke Borland spoke with Ashley Cheyemi McNeil and Laura Perry about bringing humanities mindsets and methods to new careers. Both former Postdoctoral Fellows with Humanities for the Public Good, McNeil and Perry have since landed in positions that build on the skills and knowledge they developed during their graduate studies. They discuss their different paths to these unexpected careers and how their postdoctoral and doctoral studies in the humanities prepared them.

Here’s a small taste of their conversation below. Watch the entire conversation here.

Teresa Mangum:

In thinking about humanities graduate education and multiple careers, we’re building this plane as we fly it. We are imagining careers. And, as both of you have discovered, new kinds of jobs are emerging constantly. There seems to be a real transformation of valuing of culture in all sorts of work settings. I hope you could tell us: what is your job, how are you shaping what the work is, and what surprised you stepping into this new world of work? 

Ashley Cheyemi McNeil:

I was awarded an ACLS Leading Edge fellowship to work with a small nonprofit film company out of Chicago called Full Spectrum Features. I will be staying on with them as their Director of Education and Research as they build out that component of their organization.

When I came to Full Spectrum Features, it was working on a very particular set of projects that they had established and then were building out. And that was to create these narrative short films that tell the stories of histories that often get erased or surfaced within standard curriculum in the us. I’ve realized that this is an entire foundational piece of the organization. We are a film company, but part of our mission is to make the entire film industry more inclusive. And this is where I think my humanities training really comes to bear.

Just as in higher ed, there has been a reckoning around what inclusion and an actual practice of equity looks like that has been reverberated in every other industry. As humanists we have thought deeply about what diversity equity and inclusion means, in our studies, research, and our methods but also what that means in, in practice. It’s been wonderful to be part of a team in the film industry that is also very committed to that.

When we think about inclusion, storytelling, which histories get air time and which don’t, then that’s when education comes to bear and that’s when research also comes to bear. I get to lean on my training in asking questions about what shapes our mindsets, and how we engage, emotionally and culturally, in thinking about who we are as humans and where we came from.


Ashley, can you think of a moment where you used either content or strategies you learned from graduate school in this work environment?


One thing that I’ve been thinking through with my team lately is: what are the ethics of telling stories on behalf of people in which we don’t usually have that great of a record, oral or written or otherwise? How do we assume that that storyteller role? There is this idea about critical fabulation that Saidiya Hartman developed, and I’ve been excavating it from my dissertation work. What’s our responsibility, and what are our ethics, when we go in and say, we have to recreate some histories because they have been purposefully covered over and erased and eradicated from the ledgers?  And yet they still need to be told. I can reread that article, take it to my team, and we can make sense of it together and have that theory help us navigate the storytelling practices that we engage today and that we hope to continue doing with other communities in the future.

Teresa: That’s a wonderful example. Thank you. And Laura, I know that you are just getting started. So, a different way to ask that question at the stage you find yourself would be: what is your new job, and what from your work in graduate school is helping you find your way into a new career and start to think about how to shape that career?

Laura Perry:

As of two weeks ago, I am the Assistant Director for Research and Public Engagement in the Center for Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. A skill that I took from grad school that was useful in HPG, and has already proved useful in these two weeks, is a real understanding of what it means to collaborate and communicate well. That’s something that I was lucky enough to have opportunities to develop in grad school, but you can develop that in a lot of venues, whether that’s teaching a course and communicating your learning objectives well with students, or whether that’s planning an academic conference, when you have to juggle everything and you have to communicate with a small team of all volunteers, or in my case, working at a weekly magazine, which was a real crash course in communicating with a whole wide range of people.

And that’s something that wasn’t in the promises that my department shared about what I would learn in graduate school, but it’s such a crucial skill that I did learn in grad school that has continued to serve me well. And I admire the way that HPG is making that explicit by imagining short courses on collaboration or project management, because those are skills that every graduate student should have the chance to learn in grad school. They’re the skills that will help you when you’re in these positions where you’re part of a team, and every project that you’re working on has multiple authors and multiple hands in the recipe as you’re trying to put something together.


Yes. Because what a joy it is to have some theoretical tools to help us name the thing we’re seeking to do. But we then need to translate it, when we are writing our next grant and we have 2000 words to give a narrative of this whole project and why it matters. Collaboration and that deep making sense together, being in a room and grinding through these ideas and then putting it in the best possible sentence — it’s a lot of work. And it’s also uniquely humanistic work, both in the process of it but also in the sense making. 

Watch their full conversation here: