A Classical Studies PhD follows her love of teaching

By Matthew Woodbury

Dr. Jacqui Stimson received her PhD in Classical Studies from the University of Michigan in 2017. She is a Postdoctoral Teaching Consultant at the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Education Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.

Dr. Stimson doesn’t have a typical day at the office. After just one year consulting at Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center, she already manages a diverse portfolio of tasks. Her responsibilities fall into several broad areas: individual consultations with faculty and graduate students, developing teaching seminars and workshops, shouldering a share of administrative tasks, and working on projects relating to the Eberly Center’s mission to “to distill the research on learning for faculty and graduate students and collaborate with them to design and implement meaningful educational experiences.”

At CMU the “teaching center focuses heavily on individual consultations, so [she meets] with new and returning clients who may be interested in designing a course and syllabus, collecting data on a course they are teaching (such as an in-class observation or focus group), or talking about other topics related to teaching and learning.”

Dr. Jacqui Stimson

In addition to collaborating with instructors, Dr. Stimson also designs and facilitates seminars for graduate students and faculty. Covering topics like inclusive teaching, effective grading and feedback, assessment design, and leading engaging discussions, the Eberly Center offers university-wide workshops as well as sessions tailored to the needs of specific university units. Each semester Dr. Stimson convenes 4-6 seminars. Her preparation for each ranges from a brief review of content and material to “revising and updating the seminar design.”

Other facets of her work situate her within a team environment. Indicative of the Center’s commitment to applying research-based approaches, she is “currently working with Eberly Center colleagues who specialize in data science and online course creation to design and implement a study on TA training. [She is] also helping to plan an annual university-wide teaching and learning summit.”

Handling the diverse responsibilities of her job means Dr. Stimson’s calendar on any given day might include “a couple of client meetings, meeting with one of my teams, and spending the rest of the day working on projects, seminar preparation, or [writing] reports for clients.” She appreciates the variety, however, “and that there is no true typical day. It’s never boring!”

A Love of Teaching

Following a trajectory that would be familiar to many PhDs, Dr. Stimson was “one of those kids who always loved school and sharing [her] passion and knowledge with people.” After pursuing Classical Studies as an undergraduate “it seemed natural to go to graduate school and become a professor.” She held onto that assumption “for a long time, in part because Classical Studies is a niche field without clear non-academic counterparts (i.e. there aren’t direct applications in government, or in the corporate world), and in part because [she] was unaware of the many alt-ac careers available[.]”

A tough job market for permanent academic posts, the unappealing prospect of a series of short-term and poorly-paid visiting positions, and a spouse (now working towards becoming a digital humanities developer) who also holds a Classical Studies PhD encouraged her to consider humanities careers beyond the R1 professoriate.

Dr. Stimson also felt “growing discontent” with the balance of teaching and research on the tenure track. She has “always wanted to have a positive impact on [her] students, and yet good teaching does not usually secure tenure-track jobs.” While she enjoyed her doctoral research about the rhetoric of violence and violent language in the political writings of Caesar and Cicero, “the idea of writing books that (in all likelihood) very few people would read” was less compelling. Instead, she “wanted to make a difference, and also have some semblance of a work/life balance.” Weighing up the pros and cons, “trying to stay in the field [as a professor] did not seem like the right answer.”

Pivotal Moments

Though her unease about pursuing a tenure-track post emerged halfway through her program, it was only during Dr. Stimson’s final year that she began to seriously consider careers outside of the professoriate as not simply “a ‘Plan B’ or ‘stopgap’ job idea.” One pivotal moment was attending her department’s teaching orientation where a CRLT instructional consultant led a session about facilitating discussions. During the workshop, Dr. Stimson remembers thinking – “I wish I were doing what she’s doing.” Shortly thereafter, she emailed the CRLT consultant and set up an informational interview.  That meeting “opened up a new, very appealing path, which I began exploring more as time permitted[.]”

Following this conversation, Dr. Stimson applied and participated in a Rackham-sponsored immersive experience that focused on CRLT. She “did informational interviews with as many CRLT folk as [she] could, and asked for their recommendations both for faculty development resources to explore and other people outside of UM to talk to.” Dr. Stimson also participated in CRLT seminars and earned CRLT’s Teaching Certificate – more because she loved teaching rather than making it a career option.

In the spring of 2017, after successfully defending her dissertation, Dr. Stimson applied to a range of teaching consultant positions within both fully established teaching centers and as joint teaching consultant/VAP positions at smaller institutions. In June of 2017, As she prepared to spend another year in Ann Arbor lecturing and working with CRLT as a GSI Consultant – a role she recommends as “excellent, direct experience” for a job in teaching consulting – she found a posting at the Eberly Center. Following a several successful Skype interviews, she had a campus visit at the end of July, got an official offer the next day, and started at CMU less than a month later “only days after I finished my final semester of teaching at UM.”

Despite participating in CRLT programming and attending a range of humanities careers workshops during the second half of her doctorate, Dr. Stimson would have liked to – and recommends that – students seriously explore alternative paths sooner rather than later. While she is “happy with how everything turned out” beginning earlier “could have saved a lot of inner turmoil and stress.”

How did your PhD training prepare you for what you do now?

Likening her current slate of tasks to the final year of her PhD when she simultaneously taught, finished her dissertation, applied for jobs, and worked on other projects like preparing articles for submission, Dr. Stimson identifies project management as the single most useful skill she applies to her current role. She enjoys a supportive and collegial environment at the Eberly Center, but “the fact that I can learn quickly and work with varying levels of guidance is certainly a plus.”

Though she does not work with undergraduates, Dr. Stimson uses her “teaching skills every day when working individually with clients and when facilitating seminars. This satisfies my teaching itch and helps me feel like I’m making an impact … I’m teaching the teachers.” In addition to their experience as instructors, some of Dr. Stimson’s colleagues with humanities training draw upon their experience when conducting interviews or working in archives as part of projects for the Eberly Center.

What was helpful during your doctoral studies, or, what would you liked to have known?

“Ultimately, I would recommend any grad student looking into other career paths to take whatever Rackham offers in the way of exploratory workshops and panels to get an idea of the kinds of jobs that are out there (the Humanities PhD Project is also a great resource for this!), and ask for as many informational interviews as you can. Everyone I talked to was happy to share their own journeys, tips for exploring further, and more people for me to talk to. A few even offered to read job materials and talk to me about the interview process, which I know helped me secure this job.”

What else should we know?

“Unlike traditional academia, this is a 9-5 job, so I work year-round with weekends and typical holidays off, as well as PTO (paid time off). I was initially apprehensive because I was so used to the flexible, academic schedule and working from home, but I absolutely love it. I don’t have a constant feeling of guilt when I come home because work stays at work. I also make a livable wage, which is a nice change from grad student stipends and the salaries I see being advertised for contingent faculty.”

Now beginning her second year at the center, Dr. Stimson wrote that she is “happier than I could have ever imagined.” Importantly for current students, she notes that teaching consulting “a growing field, so I highly encourage anyone who is passionate about student learning to look into it.”

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