Historians in Public Humanities: a conversation with Jason Rozumalski (Ph.D., 2017)

January 18, 2020

Jason Rozumalski finished his Ph.D. in Early Modern European History at Berkeley in 2017, where he taught European History, Art History, and Economic Theory. He is currently the Global Programs Manager at the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI), which is housed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he is also a post-doctoral fellow.


Derek: Please tell us a bit about your work since Berkeley. How'd you land at the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes? and what are the most interesting projects you've worked on at there? What does a typical week look like for you?

Jason: After attaining my doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley in 2017, I was hired to teach European history as a lecturer in Berkeley’s history department. At the same time, I was also hired as the Executive Director of the Peder Sather Center, which is an interdisciplinary academic consortium made of nine Norwegian universities and UC-Berkeley.

In 2018, I learned about the Public Fellows program, which exists as a partnership between the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. That program serves multiple communities by effectively hiring recent PhD graduates in the humanities to work full-time positions in non-profit organizations and government agencies working in policy, arts and culture, civil rights, and media for two-year periods. That year, I was one of 24 graduate students to be admitted into the fellowship. Within ACLS/Mellon Public Fellows program, I applied for a position with, and was hired by, the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) as their Global Programs Manager. CHCI is a network of over 270 humanities institutes and centers located in more than 40 countries.

As the Global Program Manager, my job is to be aware of academic trends in humanities scholarship, methods, and practices within and beyond universities around the world as well as to initiate and facilitate international collaborations in the humanities. In my first year of work with CHCI, I have worked on-site in Addis Ababa, Dublin, Dubrovnik, Moscow, and New Delhi as well as with established scholars and early-career academics from nearly every part of the world.

One of my current projects is organizing the research and authorship of the World Humanities Report, which is the core project of a strategic partnership between CHCI, the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences (CIPSH), and UNESCO. This report is designed to take stock of the state of the humanities in the world: recognizing contributions, identifying possibilities, and making recommendations for the future. Through this project, I work in close communication with leading humanities scholars, directors, and practitioners from every continent not including Antarctica.

The majority of my work is accomplished through digital communication, and so a typical workweek for me is set in my office and among my co-workers in Madison, Wisconsin. However, I am grateful for, and very much enjoy, the frequent opportunities to travel for extended periods in order to work with grant recipients on their humanities projects around the world.


Derek: When you reflect on the course of your Ph.D., are there particular moments--for better or worse--that you would point to as having a major influence on your development as a scholar? Would you offer any particular guidance to current students who might encounter similar situations?

Jason: As I think of it, the most important element of my scholarly development during graduate school was my time away from Berkeley conducting archival research. I was lucky to have been awarded a year’s worth of funding by the Social Science Research Council through their International Dissertation Research Fellowship program. I stretched that year’s worth of funding into two years by buying a bicycle and a tent in order to cycle archive-to-archive in jumbled and overlapping trajectories from Marseille to the Orkney Islands camping along the way and wintering at the University of Cambridge where I had been offered college fellowships. Since my dissertation committee at the time was largely unresponsive to my emails (I ended up getting a new committee later on), those two years provided relatively unfettered intellectual freedom. That experience was important to me because I used it to read everything that I could in the local archives that I went to (around 35 of them, I think) regardless of whether or not I thought the material immediately relevant to my dissertation. For me, the result was gaining access to complex dimensionalities that enriched not only the academic project that I was there to do but also my appreciation for the variation and profundity of human experience.

I do not think that my experience provides any direct guidance for current graduate students since there are probably limitless paths to the sort of revelations that I experienced during research and people have different goals for graduate school. Perhaps the only advice that I can offer is pseudo life advice, which is: Although I eventually found professional and friendly partnerships with professors that have been supportive and that I now treasure, I would suggest not relying upon committee members (or any professor) too greatly for anything important to you academic or professional development since they, like anyone, can be fickle for reasons that have nothing to do with you.


Derek: Could you speak about your experience of the transition from the Ph.D. to the job market? Are there any suggestions you would offer current Ph.D. students about preparing for and then navigating this juncture? For instance, what career development resources or opportunities at Berkeley tend to go overlooked? What mistakes could we avoid?

Jason: I will start with the last question first in order to stress what needs to be said a hundred thousand times even though it can never be said well or convince those that need convincing, which is that you need to somehow stop underestimating your own talents and capacity to contribute. Graduate school has a large capacity to undermine people’s confidence by undervaluing relatively rare and refined skills that get concentrated in a university setting. This problem, I think, gets more concentrated in big-name universities that often, simultaneously, do less to support students on the logic that the university brand will be sufficient to buoy possible future careers.

The point is that, by and large, humanities graduate students tend to be humanities graduate students in the first place because they are intellectually and emotionally invested in human experience, expression, critique, imagination, and possibilities. It feels cliché to say this, but human societies are in critical need of creativity and care, which people who are dedicated to the humanities are in a strong position to be able to offer, if only they can find their opportunity.

Here is where, I think, there lies the major challenge in the transition from the PhD to the job market: a two-fold deficit in the ability to find those opportunities. On one hand, in a graduate-school setting, there is a major depletion of imagination in how humanities doctorates can contribute. So much focus is given to the pursuit of publication and the reification of the university in itself that all other contributions are so derided as to not even be thought about, engaged with, or practiced. That problem is exacerbated by professors themselves since, as professors, they are perhaps the least able to provide advice for attaining different careers or opportunities to express their students’ capabilities.

Then, on the other hand, there is the deficit of established paths into other careers, an illegibility about what humanities PhDs do and can do. Part of this problem is the myth (largely manufactured by academics themselves) of lone genius: the scholar’s mind as some virtually unique entity creating insights of individual brilliance. Humanities single-author publication culture intensifies the myth. Why would any organization beyond a university want to work with someone so consciously self-enclosed even if they were the brightest star in all the heavens? Of course, humanities work is collaborative, but university culture tends not to speak of it that way, and, as a result, there is no shared sense of how humanities practitioners themselves connect to others and can contribute to projects of creation, activism, advocacy, and even of research and analysis. Research, critique, communication, and imagination are not “transferable skills,” they are ways of understanding, navigating, and creating, essential to a broad range of vocations. And it is a shame that the study of law has somehow gained a monopoly on the legibility of legitimate study in order to contribute to great communal work in things like governance; the distribution of goods, resources, and services; the permeability of evolving technologies in daily lives; etc.

I realize that I’ve gotten off track here a bit, and that is because I think that the challenges related to even exploring careers beyond the university are (artificially yet nevertheless truly) complex and have become entrenched in both the idea of the university and scholarly practice in the humanities. So, if I were to give advice to current PhDs who will be exploring career options in the future, I would say that they should seek mentors outside of the university; find organizations that do work that is meaningful to them, and contact people in positions like those they would like to achieve. Ask questions and cultivate mentorships in how to put what you care about into practice.


Derek: What has it felt like so far to be a trained historian working outside of our traditional academic context? As a historian, what do you miss the most--and the least? What has been the most challenging aspect of the transition?

Jason: Just to be annoying, I would challenge the phrasing of this question a little by noting, as I’m sure you know, that, in the context of a longer European and North American traditions, academic training in history has been the essential foundation for myriad careers, particularly in government, since it became a formal university discipline in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Only in the generations since the Second World War has the study of history professionally turned inward and been reconciled to the universities alone. So, the question might be: what is it like to look for a career in a culture and labor market where that form of understanding is less appreciated. And the answer to that can only be: it sucks.

I think that my position—working in a largely administrative position still within the context of the university—makes the transition sting a bit more than it should. In my own experience, and in my conversations with other PhDs in positions such as assistant or associate directors of academic programs and centers, a common experience in working with faculty is to have one’s own experience, knowledge, and capabilities ignored, dismissed, or underutilized. That is, of course, not universally the case. Yet, it is frequent and potent enough that I have known several people who have quit working within universities in favor of non-profits, government, and other vocations where their training has a better chance of being valued. I go back and forth in thinking of that as ironic and entirely to be expected.

What I miss the most is interaction with more, and diverse, people. Collaborative, conversational, and social life in universities, archives, and libraries, in my experience, were rich and dynamic. Although I have had many jobs, my current one is the first time that I am working in an office, and even though there are wonderful people around me, the organization that I work for is very small (four people including myself), and the result for me is a sense of isolation. The loss of lecture halls, office hours, conferences, research conversations after hours, etc.: that has been hard.


Derek: Is there any particular experience you had or skill you developed at Cal that has been surprisingly helpful in your current job?

Jason: Yes, certainly, but I think that the most useful skills and experiences of graduate study for my work have been diffuse rather than particular (although not really a surprise). That is to say, graduate study at Berkeley offered me the time, resources, and community for diverse and deep intellectual and social engagement. At its best, my current work requires me to have fluency in a great variety of humanities research, methods, and practices in order to collaborate with and support people all over the world. Those are the aspects of this job that are thrilling and meaningful for me; and my ability and enjoyment of them grew through the interdisciplinary, international, and diverse work that I accomplished at Berkeley.


Derek: For Ph.D. students contemplating a transition to a profession promoting the humanities, what skills or experience would be most useful for them to pursue as they go through the doctorate?

Jason: I think that the first step is to have a consciousness concerning the skills that PhD students in the humanities are already developing: long-term project planning and execution, time management, responsiveness to multiple stakeholders, collaboration, problem solving, fundraising, effective communication, and leadership. All of that is, of course, in addition to skills in research and analysis. So, first of all, think of the experiences in graduate school as purposeful skills development for a variety of possible employment positions.

In addition, try to have some experiences outside of graduate school that make those skills increasingly legible to the type of organizations that you would like to work with. This, I think, is particularly difficult since a graduate student’s time is already overtaxed. However, volunteer work with non-profits, political campaigns, museums, etc., can help to give more visibility and experience to your work portfolio. If there are opportunities to develop further skills through this work—perhaps in budget management, volunteer or employee supervision, or publicity—so much the better.

My own experience was first as the Associate Director of an area studies center at Berkeley and then, immediately upon graduating, as the Executive Director of an international consortium.


Derek: So far, how has your work influenced your thinking about the role that we as historians can play in promoting the humanities?

Jason: I think that there are two main ways that academics trained in the humanities can help promote them, and neither have much to do with specific training as historians. That is: be less guarded about disciplinary boundaries and support lasting participation by multiple communities into the humanities at every level of engagement.

Despite low (and falling) academic employment for humanists in the changing cultures and structures of universities, the humanities are actually rather vibrant in the world through museums, archives, public radio, community projects, non-profit work, etc. And, of course, the humanities continue to be relevant and necessary for understanding all sorts of issues facing global populations: the rise of populism and authoritarianism, cultures of energy use that cause climate change, systems of economic inequality, the treatment of migrants and refugees, healthcare, opioid addiction, sexism and racism, access to political inclusion, and on and on. All of these issues have histories, complex causations, cultural framings, contexts, aesthetics, languages and translations of production and reproduction that need to be understood and talked about if any meaningful work will be done rather than superficial reactions. All of that necessarily involves the humanities, and contemporary debates over truth versus falsity are just one arena of public discourse that demonstrates eagerness for the humanities if only humanists could find their way to join.

As I see it, the diminution of the humanities, where it exists, is to some degree a symptom of perceiving the humanities in crisis. The argument that humanities academics under siege tend to make is that the humanities are essential and that they (academics, faculty) are the only ones who can adequately provide them. That argument is meant to secure jobs and funding but what it also creates is distance and cultural isolation.

I think a better way to promote the humanities is to be more welcoming, to find common cause with humanities practitioners everywhere, to share resources, and to avoid claiming monopolies in understanding. The humanities are part of daily existence, and we can support the humanities best by supporting our communities, however they exist to us, and working collaboratively to cultivate meaning and purpose.