‘Leaning In’ Without Selling Out: When #HumWork Goes Hi-Tech
It’s been over two years since Sheryl Sandberg’s self-proclaimed “sort of feminist manifesto,” Lean In, provoked a slew of internet debates on the hot button issues surrounding women and the workplace. Admittedly, I was a bit late to the party when it came to critically entertaining the Facebook COO’s corporate brand of gender equality. As a literary specialist, I have a predictably poor track record in seeking out bestseller bibliotherapy and relied instead on the careful and nuanced readings of Lean In presented by public scholars like bell hooks and Roxane Gay to steer my analytical engagement; but, as a more than sort of feminist, my interest in Sandberg’s call for women to be “ambitious in any pursuit” came at a time when I became privy to the alt-ac movement as a largely female-gendered concern.
While women now hold the majority status in humanities academic positions, their labor remains systematically devalued within the professional ranks of postsecondary education. What often goes unspoken in conversations about career development planning at the graduate level is that not only are women overrepresented in the contingent (or non-tenure track) academic workforce but they disproportionately lag behind their male colleagues when it comes to securing and advancing through the tenure process. Feminist scholars and alt-ac professionals have also argued that many postsecondary institutions deride the nontraditional labor market as “women’s work,” meaning that non-professorial occupations acquire less status and register as a specific form of selling out to “the man.” This “Plan B” attitude, they argue, makes alt-ac’s gender gap all the more clear by metaphorically invoking “an abortive start to one’s career.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with two humanists at work, Emily Sloan Pace (PhD, UCSC) and Adrienne Posner (C.Phil, UCLA), to talk about broader issues surrounding academia’s opportunity gaps, and about how they’ve found meaningful ways to translate their doctoral training into their current roles at major tech campuses across the Silicon Valley. As the University of California continues to redefine its relationship with the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem through the growth of programs like primeUC and the UC Ventures Program, it will become increasingly important for Humanists@Work to disrupt the corporate culture of higher education, both critically and resourcefully. In other words, how might it be possible to keep in check market-driven educational policies that prioritize institutional prestige and vocationalism over liberal arts values while not losing sight of the pressing need for—and presence of—the humanities PhD beyond the academy? The following conversation should be read as an attempt to unpack some of the challenges and possibilities—both intellectual and practical—for women who are thinking dynamically about their degrees.
DL: What made each of you want to obtain a PhD in literary studies, and what motivated your individual decisions to pursue a career outside of academia?
ESP: I got a PhD because I wanted to teach Shakespeare to college students. That’s what I wanted to do with my life. I decided at around age 23 that I wanted to be a college professor, and at that time there were still a fair amount of people getting tenured jobs in academia. Before I began my doctoral program at UCSC, I always assumed I would go to law school. But the plan changed while I was getting a masters in the humanities at Stanford in what would have been my fourth year of undergrad. I just loved sitting in these graduate seminars talking about Shakespeare’s history plays and decided that was what I was meant to do professionally.
I went through my journey with academia and, halfway through, the job that I thought I would end up doing ultimately ceased to exist. This problem came to head when I maxed out my TAship while on the academic job market. I was looking for work and wanted to stay local but was applying to jobs all over the world. During the three years I was actively in the process, I received a handful of interviews, including for a position to be the director of a Shakespeare center in my home state of Utah. In fall 2013, during my last year at UCSC, I couldn’t really focus on the job search because I was working as the assistant to the provost at Cowell College and teaching courses in the freshman core program and literature department. I also felt worn out after so many years of applying—it’s expensive, time consuming, and rejection is hard. So I thought, “change of plan; I’m going to try to cobble together an adjunct life at Santa Cruz.” It was during that academic year that my boss at Cowell reached out to me for a second time about an alumni-run software company that was interested in hiring a humanities PhD. I never thought I’d work in tech, but after a few rough years on the market—and what seemed to be bleak prospects for improvement—I was open to the idea of giving it a shot.
AP: Prior to the comparative literature degree, I studied art history at UCSC as an undergraduate and at UCLA as a graduate student, and had also completed a fellowship at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City. My experience in the art history department at UCLA wasn’t entirely positive, so I applied to the Comp. Lit. department because I felt committed to this career path in academia and really wanted to stick with it. Despite initial challenges with having to change my course of study, I was lucky not to have encountered much subsequent adversity in my progress towards the doctoral degree; I loved researching and writing my dissertation, I had great working relationships with my advisors, and I felt pretty well respected in my new departmental home.
My decision to leave academia in 2015 was largely a pragmatic one. I had moved away from Los Angeles on a dissertation fellowship, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to complete my work. I was isolated from my advisor and my colleagues, which made productivity a real challenge, and I kept thinking about how I was putting all this intellectual and emotional effort into writing a dissertation when in the end there was absolutely no guarantee that it would lead to a job or any kind of certain future. I also had student loans to worry about repaying, and that felt terrifying. One day, more or less out of the blue, I decided to apply for a job at Google, which I sat down and did immediately. Once I get an idea in my head about something I want to do, I really can’t let it go.
DL: So labor market precarity and the impact of outstanding debt played significant roles in determining the next steps of your professional lives.
ESP: Absolutely. For the most part, the private sector doesn’t value the humanities degree, and the university, which does value the degree, puts a limit on your worth, unless you are successful at securing tenure. I mean, I had a career at Santa Cruz as an administrative assistant in higher education, but it was part-time and maxed out at $20,000 a year. On top of that, for 2014-2015, I had no guaranteed teaching appointments for the Spring. It all felt very unstable, and it definitely didn’t feel empowering at that stage in my academic career.
AP: The truth is that if I had felt that I could finish my program with a decent chance of securing a job, I would’ve done it, would have happily finished. The looming question for me was never “can I make it to the end, can I finish or not?”, but rather, “what kinds of jobs am I going to be applying to?” And, for me, a lot of the concern wasn’t about whether or not I was good enough to get a job—that’s really a moot point with the current state of the market—but the fact that I’d be competing for jobs in 19th century American English, a quickly shrinking job pool that traditionally demands more canonical training.
DL: I think it’s important to stress that your stories reflect different approaches to non-academic career transitions. But, for both of you, it seems that having supportive mentors and supervisors within the academy became integral to your professional growth in unexpected ways. This is particularly significant when we ask our grads to imagine what institutional support looks like for alternative or dual career planning.
ESP: I think when you come from a position of no institutional power as the graduate student, it can be extremely difficult to ask for help—especially, when those kinds of conversations run the risk of making you look weak or like you “can’t cut it.” Looking back, I wish I had done a better job at advocating for my professional development. Yet, I also firmly believe that if faculty weren’t so overtaxed, there’d be more bandwidth for the kind of mentoring work necessitated by the current shifts in professionalization. I was very lucky to have some great mentors and advisors along the way, without whom I definitely would not have managed to secure my current position.
AP: Before I transferred programs, I was one very small step away from giving up on grad school altogether. I had had a very fraught relationship with my advisors in the Art History department, and as a result I had just lost of a lot of confidence in my intellectual abilities and, by extension, had lost some of my desire to continue in graduate school. So one of my goals when I entered the Comparative Literature department was that I wanted to take more control over the future of my career. Thankfully, my co-chairs really smoothed the path for me along the way. I’ve always felt respected by them, and they made room for me to express my needs professionally. I guess, in a way, this made it even harder to leave academia; I felt that they had invested so much of their time and energy into my success as an academic that I felt somewhat guilty initially for wanting to leave. At the same time, they had my best interest at heart, so I knew that if I told them that I was thinking about applying to this job at Google, they would not try to stop me. And in fact I was right: they actively encouraged me to go for it.
DL: How would you each describe your career chronologies beyond the regular teaching appointments you held during the PhD?
ESP: Coupled with my work for the provost, I did a lot of volunteer work at San Quentin State Prison through the Marin Shakespeare Company, where I was a dramaturg for two years. Working with people in prison was both an incredibly rewarding and emotionally challenging experience. During the summers, I would also work for Santa Cruz Shakespeare or teach UCSC summer session when those opportunities were available. As I previously mentioned, I also got the chance to work as the assistant to the provost at Cowell College, a position that gave me a lot of insight into the administrative workings of the university and the sometimes Kafkaesque nature of bureaucracy in higher ed.
AP: When I initially applied to grad school, I made the mistake of choosing an institution based primarily on the department’s status as a rigorous, competitive program. I was very naïve and gave little thought to whether or not it would be a good fit for me intellectually or with regard to personality. I went with the big name and took a spot with no funding, which was really a huge mistake for many reasons. Even though I paid for it in more ways that one, one real benefit that came out of making such an uninformed decision was that it forced me to work. Before I transferred departments, I ended up taking a wide variety of on and off campus jobs at the Center for Digital Humanities, at the Center for the Study of Women, and at LACMA, to name a few. I also took four years off between undergrad and grad school, and gained an array of work experiences, from non-profits to tech startups. Though I wasn’t necessarily passionate about any of these, I can now see how all these experiences helped me craft a more robust resume for Google.
DL: For most, a Humanities PhD doesn’t readily translate as suitable to the tech industry beyond the recent impact of digital culture on higher ed. research and teaching. Do your current roles at Google and Zoho challenge those kinds of misperceptions?
ESP: As Zoho’s professor-in-residence, I was brought on board to improve the company’s customer-facing content and communication by creating a series of professional education programs. I am also helping to revise our strategic brand positioning. Nearly all of our company is made up of engineers located in India, so I am working with a lot of people not traditionally trained in writing to refine their prose, develop their voice, and elevate our messaging.
When I started the job, I thought “OK, I need to use the language that the engineers use, and be immersed in the culture of technology.” But I soon realized that I wasn’t hired so that I could talk and think like an engineer; I was hired to be a humanist. I see my intellectual background in literary studies and my training as teacher as strengths that allow my coworkers to approach me differently, which is a good thing. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this work is the opportunity to integrate my training as a teacher. Currently, I’m running a series of writing and rhetoric workshops that are not only geared towards modeling different types of discourse, but also thematically relevant to the work our writers have to produce. Some of the literary works we’ve read include Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or The Bullet,” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and, of course, Shakespeare. It’s been a lot of fun.
AP: At Google Fiber, which is an Internet and TV service provider, I am responsible for the maintenance of some of our internal documentation. In plain terms, I create and maintain the documentation used by customer service agents to support customers who may have questions about our products. It’s a very unique mode in which to write because you’re writing for an audience that doesn’t really have the time to fully read your writing. Concision is key; they’re on the phone or in a chat and they need to be able to scan the material to find what they are looking for very quickly.
My core responsibility is to make sure our documentation is up-to-date, that it accounts for all the various questions customers might have, that it is accurate, usable, easily readable. We are growing rapidly and things change quickly, so much of my day-to-day activities include writing and editing, sitting in on meetings to make sure that documentation needs are being represented, among other things.
DL: I love that both of your jobs suggest the continuance of the humanities in practice. When you reflect on your career progression to date, do you still think of yourselves as academics workwise?
ESP: You know, it is incredibly hard to give up on the vision you had for your life and replace it with something else, but I’ve found a meaningful way to continue to teach and to employ the style of intellectual investigation that drew me to academia in the first place. I feel like I’m still getting used to the idea that I no longer inhabit the university in a conventional sense, but being able to come into the office every day and actively engage learning and teaching as my principle function has made the move to corporate life far more enjoyable than I could have ever imagined.
AP: I’d like to think so, at least in a way. I often miss academia, and I especially miss teaching. It is hard to have to give up something that you love doing. At the same time, the idea that you’re meant to do what you love, that you can or should “follow your passion,” is absolutely a privileged perspective. Most people don’t end up with jobs that they love… but, perhaps, more importantly why not love this? It’s Google, after all. I feel very lucky because not only did I get to do exactly what I loved for a number of years, but I also was able to transition into a supportive and fun career.
DL: You mention privilege, which raises an interesting point concerning tech and academia’s shared problems with equality and diversity in the workplace.
ESP: Zoho is a much more diverse place to be, especially compared to Santa Cruz. This is really the first time where I’ve entered a professional setting and the majority of my colleagues come from very different academic and cultural backgrounds than I. I mean, in some ways, one of the most interesting things that I do on a regular basis is come into this space where I’m one of a handful of women in the room, sometimes the only white person, and for sure the only person with a humanities background. I’ve never experienced being an other in quite that way before. Because of this, I’m very attentive to my self-presentation and how I engage with people as a teacher and as someone who is pushing changes in the company culture. When I visit our headquarters in Chennai, I try not to lose sight of the tension that might come from asking people to take suggestions from someone who is not of the same geographical or intellectual space as them.
AP: The university’s fundamental problem is that it claims that it doesn’t discriminate, that it treats everyone the same. Of course, this is deeply untrue. The myth of meritocracy is so strong there, and it sets up an unhealthy dynamic. Academia is, at its core, a workplace where employees are daily faced with the task of proving their fundamental self-worth. I think it is very common for academics to feel that, in order to be legit in their roles, they have to constantly prove that they have value, that they belong there. This is of course more true for people of color, for women, for other minorities: everything feels like a kind of test, and its terms are always pass or fail. It is unforgiving, and that can be emotionally and intellectually exhausting. The institution has become so weirdly and problematically conservative precisely because it’s so bent on being appearing egalitarian. The university—and I am talking about the University of California now—is a vast corporation, and it would do well to give up on the presentation of itself as ideologically neutral. It isn’t, it can’t be.
Of course, I don’t labor under the illusion that Google is somehow perfect, that it is outside of the system somehow. It is not, not by a long shot, and there are so many aspects of the tech industry that are deeply problematic. But I think Google as a corporation does make some effort to understand and address this, whereas, at least in my view, the university is lagging behind.
DL: Wellness, and specifically mental health, is often a marginalized topic among those of us pursuing the doctorate. Did the need for self-care or a better work-life balance factor into your career transition planning?
ESP: PhDs are lonely things. Really lonely things when it comes down to it. There have definitely been times in my life where my biggest regret has been getting the PhD because when all my friends were getting married and having kids, I was writing my dissertation. And sometimes I worry that maybe I missed my chance to do that. I had always thought, “OK, I’ll go into academia and there’ll be flexibility for family planning.” But, in the end, that didn’t seem like a viable possibility if I was to be successful in my professional growth. It’s great to be in a place where there is enough flexibility and security to start thinking about things like homeownership, kids, and retirement. None of those seemed like real options as an adjunct, a situation that is ripe for producing anxiety and depression.
AP: Academia is extremely hard for anyone who can’t, for whatever reason, devote themselves wholly in mind and in body to academic labor. Doing other kinds of labor—having children, or having a second or third job, for example—that’s going to take a toll on academic work. The profession is just absolutely unforgiving in that way. In terms of mental health, I think many of us go into academia because we have a particular temperament and personality, it really does enable the masochist in a lot of us. I think it’s generally true for many grad students throughout their education, as it was true for me at the beginning of my grad career, that the relationship between institution and grad student has many of the hallmarks of an emotionally abusive relationship. I was lucky to come out the other side of that, but many students struggle with these issues. In the end, though, it’s a short life, and making choices to be happy—even choices that include quitting and pursuing something else altogether—should be more openly discussed.
DL: One last question, what does it mean to be a humanist at work?
ESP: For me, being a humanist at work means trying to think radically differently than how everyone around me thinks, in a decidedly non-engineering mentality. It is about being able to critically reflect on my place in the company and my relationship with others from multiple vantage points. I would also say it’s about being a teacher, figuring out the needs of the audience I’m engaging with and satisfying those needs. Perhaps most importantly, it is also about bringing other humanists into the field, something I’ve managed to do through hiring former students to help me with my work at Zoho.
AP: Having pursued a PhD in Comparative Literature makes me a slightly different species of Googler, especially since my area of expertise is the history of photography and the early 19th century American novel, which may seem somewhat random to some of my colleagues. In my job, I get to exercise a level of creative and analytical exploration within a team of incredibly competent and hard-working people. Through the work of the humanities, I’m able to bring new insights to the production of an entirely different genre of specialized content.
 On the gendering of alt ac, refer to Brian Coxiall and Sarah Werner’s 2014 MLA panel abstract.