When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I think I always saw myself as a writer. Not necessarily a writer of novels - I was never a kid that wrote stories - but maybe a journalist or something. I always knew writing was something I was really good at and very interested in, and I loved reading. I read a lot of Agatha Christie, which probably explains why I have a macabre sensibility now. But at 11 or 12 years old, I read every single Agatha Christie at the library. I was very into Gone With The Wind as a child, which, I'm very proud because I managed to sandwich that into my dissertation. I just really liked the idea of being able to talk to people and tell people’s stories, which is indirectly what I do now.
Basically on a whim. I don't know if I thought very much about my future, which is weird because I feel like I'm kind of an anxious person. I grew up in Texas and I knew that I wanted to move out of state. I wanted to move to a big city; even though I lived close to Dallas, which is a big city, I wanted to live somewhere with a lot of culture and a lot of excitement. And also being a person of color, I wanted to live somewhere that was more diverse.
So I applied to USC, University of Chicago, NYU, and a couple others. My first choice, Columbia, was also in New York, but I got waitlisted. When I didn't get into Columbia, I needed to make a plan B, so my mom and I visited every other college that I got into. The week that we went to NYU, they were having this thing called Strawberry Fest. It’s in the first week of spring, and they put out a strawberry shortcake that's the longest cake in…I don't know, I think it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records, and there's a man that dresses up as a strawberry. It was a beautiful sunshiny day and I got to eat free cake, and I thought, "College is great, I'm going to come here."
How did you choose your major?
I knew I wanted to major in English. I was very lucky in that my parents didn't try to force me into a particular kind of career path, but really just encouraged me to do what I enjoyed and what I was good at. And for me, that happened to be English. I was in the AP classes in high school, and my teachers were really formative to me as a person. They served as my mentors, and they were really encouraging of my ability to write and do close readings.
I mean, I don't think that I actually really understood any of the books that I read in high school. We read Great Expectations in ninth grade and I thought, "This book is such a drag." And then I reread it in grad school and I wept for the last hundred pages. I think it's important to revisit those pieces of literature at a later point in life. But there was enough there when I was a teenager that I was interested. I was also really interested in learning about different cultures and time periods. I ended up taking a lot of history classes in undergrad and my dissertation had a history element to it as well.
So I majored in English and minored in creative writing, and NYU also has a core curriculum where you have to take French and science and other liberal arts classes. I was mad at the time because I didn’t want to take French, but now I think it's really important to get those different elements of your education. Because whether or not you appreciate it at the time, it helps round you into a person that knows a little bit about a lot of different areas, and you know how to communicate with a lot of people as a result.
Creative writing is a very popular major at NYU, as you can imagine. Angsty teenagers and 20-year-olds, writing about themselves in thinly veiled stories about their own breakups. But it was actually really cool. What's nice about NYU is that they recruit a lot of their creative writing faculty from the city. So I took creative writing classes with actual published authors. One was Jonathan Rabb, who writes these spy thrillers that are centered around World War II. And I took a creative writing seminar with Jonathan Safran Foer, who has written several very well known novels.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
So my senior year was 2008-2009, and one day during my fall semester, the economy collapsed. I had so many friends who had had jobs lined up with all the big banks, and they were suddenly saying, "Oh no, we don't know what we're going to do next year." And I thought, "If my friend who majored in finance doesn't know what he's going to do, I certainly don't know what I'm doing."
I'd interned at publishing companies in college, at Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Random House; and Penguin. NYU has very good alumni relations, and just by nature of being in the city it's pretty easy to get an internship. And NYU also put a lot of emphasis on kids actually getting something out of the city beyond just their education. Almost everyone I knew had at least two internships during the school year, somewhere.
I thought about going into publishing, but my junior year I'd interned at FSG, which is a midsized publishing house, and six months later half those people didn't have jobs. So I didn’t even know if I could get a job. Also, when you start out in an entry-level publishing gig, I think the starting salary at the time was $28,000 a year, which is barely livable in New York, and you have to deprive yourself of almost everything you would like about living in New York to make that happen.
So I didn’t know if I wanted to go into publishing, but I didn’t know what else to do. At the time, my advisor in the English program said, " You have really good grades, your thesis is very promising, you should think about grad school." I was never sure that I wanted to go into academia, and I was never sure that I saw myself as a professor, but I loved literature and talking about it and writing about it, so I kind of fell into grad school by accident.
I think that was both a good thing and a bad thing, in that I don't know whether I would have wanted to go back in if I had taken time off. But I also think taking time off and seeing what the workforce is like would have helped me make that decision in a much more pragmatic way.
I wanted to go to Boston largely because I was very interested in Faulkner and the best Faulkner scholar in the country was at BU, weirdly, instead of somewhere in the South. He ended up being my mentor and we had an incredible relationship. But I also liked that I could leave after a year with my master’s if I decided for sure that I didn’t want this. I also wanted to move to Boston because my boyfriend at the time, now husband, lived there and I had always wanted to live in Boston.
Grad school, in general, was a really positive experience. I think we were really lucky in that the cohorts for both the master's and the PhD were very convivial, everyone felt like actual friends. I had friends who went to different graduate programs, both in English and otherwise, who felt very differently, like it was much more competitive and unfriendly. I felt like everyone in our program was a normal, lovely person that loved to talk about books, but could also be a regular human being. Sometimes I just want to talk about The Bachelor and not be judged.
I also think that the faculty at BU is great, and I really love everybody that I worked with. Both of my advisors were really supportive and engaging even after I told them that I didn’t want to be a professor; they still wanted to make sure that I wrote the best dissertation possible, and that I was prepared for my next step, whatever that might be.
But that in itself turned into a problem, in that the way humanities graduate programs have been historically run is no longer a tenable format. There are way too many PhDs right now and not enough jobs. And the way that higher ed is moving, it's no longer even kind to admit that many people into PhD programs when there are only going to be three Shakespeare jobs available in the whole country, and administrations aren't interested in funding tenure-track positions.
So when someone like me says, "I don't know if I want to be a professor; what else can I do?" there weren't really resources to help me. Particularly if you're being led by people who did go into academia and have probably never had to not be a part of academia. I think that BU and other grad schools are just beginning to understand that and are trying to think of alternatives to academia.
My dissertation was about the way in which books after the era of slavery depicted slavery. So it was focused on the Jim Crow era, immediately after Reconstruction until about World War II. And it was about how Southern white and black authors wrote about slavery to fulfill different ideological, cultural, and political means. Like how a white author in the 1930s would talk about how happy slaves were to be enslaved, and how they missed having the master take care of them. It's really just about unreliable narration and how people's own psychological desires and fears really inform the way in which they perceive the world and share that with other people.
I was writing this in the age of Obama, where we felt like we were in a post-slavery moment, and unfortunately that seems extremely relevant and prescient right now. Now a lot of authors and cultural critics, whose works I cited in my dissertation, are popping up in New York Magazine and The New Yorker. It's interesting because when I was in grad school, I'd often have a hard time trying to get my project to fit into the parameters of what the conference was about. But I feel like right now there probably are a lot more conversations about things like the historical narratives of white supremacy and how they're informing the way our culture is shaped.
After I finished my dissertation, I worked as a freelance copywriter. Looking back now, it was really good for me in that I learned how to write for a lot of different audiences. I worked for a robotics lab editing some of their pieces, I worked for some corporate advertising clients writing pieces for them. It made me learn how to use my writing skills in a different way, how to think argue in a different way, and help other people do that.
I did that for about a year before I moved into my current role role as a technology analyst and consultant. My company is like a business intelligence firm, which means that we help a lot of other businesses figure out how to run smarter and attract more clientele. We work in the telecommunications, media, and technology spaces, and I work for the higher ed industry. Most of our clients are big tech firms, like Oracle or IBM or Salesforce that have created products that work across a variety of different industries and professions, and they want help trying to translate that for a different market. So higher ed is very different than working for a large retail giant. We help them figure out where the pain points are, where the white spaces in the market are, and how to market that and sell it.
I end up doing a lot of writing, writing white papers and thought leadership for our clients, both about their products or vendor agnostic. It's nice in that I really get to pick a lot of my own work, like, "Oh, this bit of news just broke out about what Betsy DeVos is doing. I'm going to write a piece about it." And then I also get to write about trends that we're observing across the industry, like the use of video not just for teaching and learning, but for increasing admissions or alumni engagement.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
We were talking earlier about how students coming into university now are very career-focused, and as such, they don't want to take a core curriculum or they don't want to take a humanities course, because they don't think it's relevant to their career as an accountant. But I think that's one of the formative things about the university, is that it gives you the space to discover yourself, both as a person and as a scholar. I'm really glad that I was given the space to study what I loved for 11 years.
And I'm still glad I got a PhD, even though there was a period of time where I thought it wasn’t relevant, because I wouldn’t enter the job force until I was 29, and then I would be deeply overeducated yet underqualified. But I'm glad I did it, and I think the skills you get as a humanities major or in grad school, learning how to communicate in a very clear way and to create a decisive argument, learning how to negotiate the politics of different people within the department and the different motivations of faculty members, learning how to question things and articulate those questions and try to figure out the answers. Those are all things that have served me well in the job that I'm doing now.
I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing that students entering college today are very career oriented. And I think that there's very much a level of privilege that I had, where I knew something would pop up. Especially with adult learners who are entering college now or kids who are worried about money constraints that are require them to move efficiently to a degree, I get why there's that workforce-oriented mindset. But I also think kids should try to give themselves the space to just take classes in what they love or what they think they might love. And maybe there's a way you can be very pragmatic but also learn how to write a poem.