The Next Generation of the Humanities, or A Good Problem to Have

By Malcolm Tariq, PhD Candidate, Department of English Language and Literature

Malcolm Tariq

On my first day at the National Endowment for the Humanities, I met the Director of Human Resources. When the director learned in which division I’d be working he responded, “Oh, he’s going have fun.” The staff member agreed: “Yeah, he’s going to have fun.” The receptionist nodded her head in agreement. “Yes, fun.”

I didn’t know what to think of this. Months before, I had a Skype interview with three staff members and some phone calls with the Director of the Office of Challenge Grants, my direct supervisor. Everything seemed to be up to my speed—it reminded me of a regional theater where I once interned. I pictured a lively office culture that would be a much needed break from my Angell Hall office at UM. This is what “fun” seemed like to me, but in that moment I wasn’t sure if the staff in Human Resources was hinting toward the same thing.

As it turns out, they were. I walked into the office and was immediately greeted by the staff I would be working with for the next ten weeks. I met various people in other divisions throughout the day, and my supervisor highlighted who I should talk to based on my personal interests. I valued working in a place like the NEH where so many people had PhDs. But I also valued being introduced to people based on where I was from, where I went to school, and interests beyond my dissertation. For once, when I met people their first response wasn’t: “What do you work on?”

The connections I made in Ann Arbor nonetheless proved beneficial to me. My first assignment at NEH was to help editing grant write-ups and nominating panelists to score grant applications. For the latter I was able to access a variety of networks, some recent and some much older. Even though some of these networks were not directly connected to the University of Michigan, they were made through people I know and worked with at the university. This reminded me that no matter what career path I choose, the connections I’ve made in the academy remain important.

Aside from the fun I had meeting people and talking about things we had in common, a good amount of time was spent in my cubicle alone. So what was so fun about being inside a cubicle for so many hours planning grant programs, talking to prospective applicants on the phone, reading and responding to proposals, organizing panels to evaluate those proposals, and sitting through various meetings? Answering this question reminds me of a short conversation with my supervisor in the hallway:

Me: How is your day going?

Her: You know, changing the world.

Even though I was at a federal agency that seemed slow to change in some respects, my time at NEH was exciting not only because I was there during bigger changes in the humanities at large, but because I began to see how my own career possibilities could expand. All of this comes out of one grant program I helped with in my time there. The Next Generation Humanities PhD is a grant program that supports humanities PhD programs as they plan and implement changes in curricula to respond to the decrease in tenure-track academic positions available to recent graduates. These programs work with graduate students, alumni, faculty, and working professionals to prepare students for possible work outside of the academy.

Though this began as a grant program, the NEH is beginning to think more broadly about what and who the next generation of the humanities is. I felt useful giving insights and advice as someone still in a doctoral program, and as someone who is open to career possibilities besides the academy. Although I sometimes had different opinions from some NEH program officers about what changes should be made within the existing grant programs and new initiatives for the next generation, I was impressed and thankful that they even wanted me to be a part of those conversations.

I learned two things about myself during my tenure at the NEH. First, one eye-opening experience involved someone who is not affiliated with the agency. I spent some of my time organizing and leading focus groups with students and working professionals about the future of the humanities. One of the participants, a recent Communications PhD working as an entrepreneur, suggested the NEH should consider how to support independent scholars, and how new scholars are performing what independent scholarship means. I had never really thought about curating independent scholarship for my specific interests. Though I had seen examples, I didn’t think it was an option for me.

The second thing I learned is that I enjoy interacting with people and planning things. Though I tend to think of myself as someone who prefers to work alone, I also realized that I get the most out of collaborative projects that involve talking to other people. Organizing the focus group really taught me this. I found facilitating fairly easy because we were unified by a common interest that greatly impacts our lives. Participants took time out of their schedule to talk to me, which already demonstrated the level of importance they placed on this project.

After leaving the National Endowment for the Humanities I headed to Atlanta, Georgia where I will be writing my dissertation. I could have not asked for a better transition from the academic bubble of Ann Arbor to the wide open spaces of a Southern metropolis. The experience at NEH has been instrumental in getting me back to reinventing my research and finding new ways to breathe life into it. It reminded me that I had to remember what brought me to the humanities in the first place: to change the world and have fun while doing so.

This summer I met someone who was not affiliated with the NEH. Although he was my age, he expressed a clear disinterest in the generation after us. “Generation Z is going to be a problem,” he stressed. I looked for the soonest exit from the conversation. Though he was specifically talking about the economy, I found his comments condescending and pessimistic. I mention this to highlight one of the things I liked best about working at the NEH—they expressed an interest the work of young scholars. Never did I feel like the kid at the adult dinner table. If we—the next generation of the humanities—are a problem, working at the NEH this summer and through the Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship proved that we are a good problem to have.

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