Journey in Reverse: From Public Humanities to Academic Administration
Amanda Jeanne Swain, October 2016
Shortly after accepting the position of associate director of the University of California, Irvine's humanities center in 2014, I was in the history department office at the University of Washington (UW) describing the position to one of my professors. Another professor, overhearing our conversation, said to me, "Most academics spend their whole careers avoiding administrative positions and you're going straight into one." At that moment, I realized that in the imagination of many of my colleagues—both faculty and graduate students—my new job was the equivalent of a Siberian exile. I would spend my days far from a scholarly community, engaged in meaningless drudgery, and deprived of intellectual stimulation. For me, on the other hand, the decision to take any position in academia after earning my PhD was a surprise.
When I completed a master's degree in Russian and East European studies at UW in 1995, I envisioned working with the State Department or an international NGO. As I was shortlisted but not interviewed for my dream jobs, I realized I was at a disadvantage in Seattle, a continent away from the centers of government and international work in Washington, DC, and New York City. At the time, I was also caring for a family member with mental illness and could not simply pack my bags to move across the country. Fortuitously, I was asked to apply for the position of program director at Humanities Washington, an NEH-affiliated state humanities council.
As someone who had spent the previous four years focused on communist Europe, I was not sure what I had to offer to public humanities in the United States. But I knew I was good at organizing, and I needed a job. For the next 11 years—three as program director, five as associate director, and three as executive director—I worked with museums, libraries, community organizations, and schools across the state to present programs that brought knowledge and insights from the humanities to local residents. I found the work energizing and intellectually challenging. I enjoyed seeing programs go from idea to reality, and there was always something new for me to learn about American history and culture.
My favorite program was the Smithsonian Institution's Museum on Main Street, which lends small-format exhibitions to rural museums in partnership with state humanities councils. In Waterville, a town hit hard by an economic downturn, I walked down a real Main Street to see ancillary exhibitions the museum had placed in the windows of empty storefronts. I read through the comments in the guest registry of the museum in Metaline Falls, where over 500 people visited an exhibit during its four-week stay. (The town's population was only 350.) Speakers series, reading groups, and newspaper articles all fostered important community conversations on the topics of the exhibits—whether it was the home front experience during World War II, the changing shape of agriculture in the country, or pop culture visions of the future. Yet I was often frustrated by a tendency on the part of rural museum volunteers to develop local exhibits and programs that focused on nostalgic interpretations of the past.
I purposely applied for positions that fit my personality. I thrive on thinking on my feet in conversation with scholars on topics about which I know little (and sometimes nothing).
During this time, I stayed connected with the UW Russian and East European Studies program, as well as with the Baltic Studies program that had been established as I was completing my degree. I attended lectures on campus and maintained my membership in scholarly associations. In 2005, the confluence of a desire for scholarly training in history to enrich my public work and a belief that the Baltic experience in the Soviet Union—my research interest—needed more scholarly attention led to my decision to return to UW to complete a PhD. Once again, I envisioned that a degree in Russian and East European history, combined with my program management experience, would lead to a position in government or with an international organization. The PhD program provided the opportunities for scholarly training I hoped to receive. Yet as I completed my dissertation and interviewed for faculty positions, I decided that this was not the next step I wanted to take in my professional journey. Given the few faculty positions open in my field, I was also looking into program management jobs. I realized that I was more excited about the opportunities these positons offered. I also wanted more control over where I lived. At the same time, I saw that I could use my combination of scholarly training and program management experience to advocate for the value of the humanities from within academia.
So what is a day in the life of a university humanities center director like? I devote a lot of time talking to faculty about their research—collaborating with them as they write grant and book proposals, design research residencies, and develop academic programs. Recently, I had to communicate intelligently and productively with an applied linguist about research on task-based learning for Spanish-heritage language learners and second-language learners; with a literary scholar about the history of psychoanalysis in Latin America; and with a historian about East Asian environmental issues. At least I shared a common disciplinary vocabulary with the historian! I am likewise engaged in PhD training as I work with graduate students to develop grant proposals, mentor public fellows interning with community cultural organizations, and coordinate a Mellon-funded project to reduce time to degree. I write constantly.
It is easy to think that everyone getting a PhD in history enjoys the same aspects of the work, since we are all doing the same thing. It is also easy to assume that work in academia is inherently different than work in other fields. Unlike many new PhDs, I had over a decade of work experience—and professional success—that gave me a better perspective on both the career paths available to me and the type of work that I want to do. I purposely applied for administrative positions that fit my personality. I've always found intellectual stimulation in discussing what I discovered in the archives as much as in the solitary work of researching and writing. I thrive on constantly thinking on my feet in conversation with scholars on topics about which I know little (and sometimes nothing). Talking about an idea for a school-wide initiative at a meeting and then figuring out how to make it happen successfully gives me a great sense of accomplishment.
I am fortunate that my dean and associate dean believe continued engagement as a scholar is key to my capacity to do my job well. In the two years that I've been in this position, I have presented papers at three academic conferences, published an article, and developed a plan for my book manuscript. I've also built professional networks with my fellow humanities associate directors in the University of California system and with faculty interested in Russia here at UC Irvine. Perhaps most importantly, I define myself as a scholar not just through my particular research interests—the intersections of youth culture, national identity, and Soviet identity in Lithuania—but also by my capacity to grasp concepts, analyze material, marshal evidence to support an argument, and communicate complex ideas effectively in writing and speaking.
I often hear the objection that preparing humanities PhDs for multiple career paths will mean watering down the scholarly rigor of the degree. I can assure you that neither my adviser nor any of the members of my dissertation committee cut me any slack on intellectual rigor. Nor did I want them to. The faculty with whom I worked challenged me to take my own abilities and scholarly work further than I believed I had the capacity to do. I am a better scholar—and a better administrator—as a result. In his article in the March 2016 issue of Perspectives ("Argument by Other Means: Toward an Intellectual History of Academic Administration"), Peter Miller asserted that "an administrator without an academic's knowledge or an academic without an administrator's ability to translate ideas into planning" would not have led to S. D. Goitein's magnum opus. This describes how I view the value of my role in humanities scholarship at UC Irvine. And I have found that academic administration provides everything I hoped for in a post-PhD career—colleagues who share my commitment to higher education in the humanities and my scholarly interests writ broadly; the opportunity to see the immediate impact of my contributions on the scholarly work of faculty and graduate students; and daily challenges that fulfill my intellectual curiosity and stretch my capacity to think and write as a scholar.
Amanda Jeanne Swain has a PhD in Russian and East European history from the University of Washington. She is currently the executive director of the Humanities Commons in the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. She is also the editor and host of the East European Studies and the Russia and Eurasian podcasts series in the New Books Network. Her recent publications include articles in Ab Imperio and Cahiers du Monde Russe.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.