Five Perspectives I Gained from Interviewing Rackham Alumni

Originally written by Bonnie Applebeet for the Public Humanities section of the Discover Rackham blog in November 2015

I had no idea what to expect when I got a call saying that Rackham’s office of Development and Alumni Relations wanted me to join their team for the summer. At that point, I had little notion of what “development” meant, nor how vital maintaining good relationships with alumni is to the way institutions like the University of Michigan are able to thrive. All I knew was that among other things, I would have the opportunity to find, interview, and write about distinguished alumni—and that was motivation enough for me.

This short, internship-like position was part of the new Mellon Public Humanities Program, which provides doctoral students with opportunities to bring their expertise to and gain experience in academically related fields. (I highly recommend it to any graduate students reading this, as there are a number of other fascinating positions available!)

Ultimately I wrote five pieces based on my conversations with alumni. Below are excerpts from the five most important influences and revelations these exchanges offered me, and each piece is linked to this larger piece (if you’re interested in learning more about these alums!). Not only did these conversations with our alumni help me to think of my time in graduate school as one unique chapter in a continuum, they helped me:

1. Define what compels me:

It can be difficult to craft that perfect “elevator speech” that communicates what it is that drives you. I’ve had a lot of interests and many rewarding experiences, and if I’m going to narrow all of that down into the time it takes to ride the elevator with someone, our elevator ride had better take place in a skyscraper. Todd Bryan, Ph.D., Resource Policy and Behavior ’08, is a Senior Program Manager at CDR Associates in Boulder, Colorado, and serves as a kind of negotiation facilitator among different stakeholders in environmental projects, and he provided an example for how to accessibly describe what makes you tick:

[In courses at the University of Michigan] I learned the importance of embracing the complexity around a situation. And, in all of my career choices, I’ve migrated towards the role of the bridge between things, like science, planning, and public policy for example. Or between people, like environmentalists and developers. Too often opportunities for collaborative solutions exist but are overlooked because the bridge is not obvious. I like to fill that role.

2. Appreciate the privilege of education:

While writing or researching, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of the daily grind, so it was incredibly refreshing to connect with Anne Curzan, Ph.D., English Language and Literature ’98, who is not only an alum, but also a professor, program director, and faculty athletics representative at the University of Michigan. Anne seems to have found balance among her responsibilities, and she has made a habit of appreciating the larger implications of her work:

I have been lucky enough to have a job that I love and that I find endlessly interesting. I really am not sure that I can emphasize strongly enough how lucky I feel to have a job where every day is interesting to me and every day involves learning. I learn from students. I learn from teaching. When I’m getting to do this public intellectual work, I’m learning from the questions.

3. Connect to the legacy of hard work that continues to help me to this day:

The first day of my doctoral program had me feeling like I was the first man; I was embarking on a brand new chapter in my life that was more challenging, but also more stable, than any previous. Marti Bombyk, M.S.W. ’76 and Ph.D., Social Work and Social Science ’83, showed me that I was not alone: that my status as a graduate student and the benefits of that position have been influenced and built up by thousands of others before me:

I was very involved in the Women’s Studies Program. When it was proposed that the program be discontinued, I worked with a group of other graduate student instructors, faculty, and undergraduates to form the Coalition to Save Women’s Studies, which was about twenty different feminist organizations on and off campus. We came together to defend the field of women’s studies. It is now alive and well at Michigan, having matured into quite a mighty oak from the acorn that we had at the time.

4. Inspire me to make my own work creative and connective:

To some extent, everyone in graduate school has to define for themselves what kind of an intellectual they are going to be; will they focus on research, teaching, public scholarship, or some unimagined permutation of thought? Not only did Nate Marshall, M.F.A. ’14, who is a rapper, an author, and a visiting professor at Wabash College, ruminate on what an ideal space graduate school creates for exploring those questions, but his own work provided an example of the kind of intellectualism I want to engage in: one that is open and creative:

For whatever reason, something that has the label of ‘poem,’ or ‘book,’ or ‘literary journal,’–there are audiences that cannot or will not access that. But they might access the same ideas, and they can be much more meaningful and accessible if they’re in a song. For me it’s all about the connection. It’s something that as a writer I’m always trying to negotiate: what am I trying to say, who am I trying to say it to, and how can I say it? Whether that form is a sonnet or a rap song… ultimately it’s just ways to communicate.

5. Realize that all of my interests matter (and even influence each other):

Writing and research take a lot of you: they take time, devotion… brain space, and it can feel like it is your obligation to focus solely on your academic work–not your hobbies or other arenas of your life. But in order to support the kind of intensity academics require, it is necessary to nurture the other pieces of you. And, it’s entirely possible that those other pieces of you can nurture your academic work as well (and vice versa), which is what William Craig Rice, M.F.A. ’88 and Ph.D., English Language and Literature ’91, Director of the Division of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, reflected upon during our conversation:

Helping out the things or genres or subjects that need help is something that connects my interest in poetry with my work in higher education. In higher education I wanted to find causes that needed support, including unpopular causes like the great books, just as poetry needs support. And so looking for the neglected good thing—that would be a link between the two.